Welcome to the second installment in my A Day in the Life series of short creative nonfiction pieces drawn from days gone by. I hope you enjoy them.
One Easter Sunday stands out in my mind above all others. I was around age four. Dressing up was a highlight for me as it was for most little girls, especially around Easter.
Easter meant a visit from the Easter Bunny with baskets filled with eggs and jelly beans. It almost always meant new clothes and this particular Easter it meant a new pair of black patent leather Mary Janes. I was so proud and excited to wear them. I thought Sunday would never come.
Finally, Sunday came. Up early to check out what was left by the Easter Bunny, eat breakfast, brush our teeth, and then dress for church.
That’s when it all fell apart. I heard Mama and Daddy talking.
“She cannot wear those shoes. Can’t you see it snowed last night?”
Oh, no! Mama was telling Daddy I couldn’t wear my new shoes. If I hurried, I could get dressed and have my new shoes on before they finished arguing.
“Honey, the snow isn’t that deep.” Hurray for Daddy! But Mama was having none of it.
Finally Daddy saved the day. He told Mama if she felt it was too messy to wear the new shoes, he would carry me from the house to the car, from the car to the church, and reverse his plan when it was time to come home.
I’ll never forget wearing those shoes, but most importantly, I’ll never forget how important I felt when Daddy reached down with his long arms, picked me up, and carried me in his arms.
Do you have a special Easter memory from childhood or perhaps another stage of life? Perhaps you can use this as a prompt to write a short piece sometime over the next few days. If you’d like to share it here as a guest post, please contact me.
For some time the idea of writing creative nonfiction shorts as a way of looking back at my life has been niggling at me. A recyclable phrase for a title, one my readers would remember and hopefully flock to, took a while to conjure up. But I finally heard it the other day, and I introduce you to a randomized series of creative nonfiction shorts called A Day in the Life.
An unexpected package arrived in the mail. A rather small, nondescript box addressed to me from my cousin in Tampa, Florida. As usual, I grabbed the mail, pulled further up the drive, and ran into the house to begin dinner.
The package kept calling to me. Once our evening meal was started, I unwrapped the box to see what surprises it held.
Under the exterior wrapping, I found a note. My cousin explained the box held some items she had recently found when going through her mother’s personal effects.
Nothing could prepare me for what I saw when I removed a layer of white tissue paper.
For the first time in my life, photographs of my father lay nestled among other items. I had never seen a photo of my father, other than ones taken after I was born. Continue reading →
Archaeologists reach fame, and sometimes fortune, in excavating historical sites. Sometimes their finds are unexpected. Other times they rumors point to the place where an Egyptian pharaoh’s tomb might be located. Often they decide to dig near a historic site “just because.”
Memoirists are akin to archaeologists in the way they mine their memories for the right facts and stories to include in their memoirs. Many people have amazing minds catalogued similarly to a library catalog, even into separate rooms for certain memories. Unfortunately, my memory and/or mind is not so neatly organized. How about yours?
Even with the painful history I’m working from in writing my memoir, sometimes I need help in excavating memories which will make for fact-based, truthful, and interesting reading.
Following are some tips for making your memory work easier:
Look at old photographs. Images evoke memories of special occasions, celebrations, growth, changes. Remember the picture in your high school yearbook taken by the professional photographer? Did it really look like you? What are your memories of that day? The possibilities for good flash memoir, a chapter in your book, or a blog post can be found in a stack of old black-and-whites.
Items passed down through the family. We are in the process of downsizing and getting rid of many years of accumulation. And yet we also continue to receive family items, most recently a rocking chair in which husband Bob’s grandfather always sat. That rocking chair sits silently in our family room, but generates great conversation as Bob shares his memories of life on the farm and his grandpa in that chair. What item of furniture or family history do you have that brings back memories?
What about smells? For me, certain aromas or smells evoke memories of my mother’s kitchen. Mama was a Southern cook to the core with meals consisting of more than could be eaten. But oh, the wonderful aromas as opened the front door after school! Husband Bob uses the aftershave my dad did, and its smell brings back early morning memories of Dad preparing for work. Or the smell of newsprint brings Dad right into the room with me. Is there an aroma that reminds you of someone or something?
Language, dialect, and regional idioms. Growing up in the South, we called every carbonated beverage in the store or gas station “Coke.” Fast forward to 1983, we move to Oregon where the regional nomenclature for carbonated beverages is “pop.” There isn’t a distinct dialect in the Pacific NW so for a time I would stand out in groups because of my Southern drawl. It could make for some embarrassing incidents, and I quickly moved to tame my tongue. [tweetthis]The uniqueness of language, dialect, and regional idioms are excellent memory triggers. [/tweetthis]
Music of a certain period. Music is a powerful tool in evoking memories. Think of a particular song you’ve listened to for decades. Perhaps from your teens, your early years of marriage, or maybe a lullaby sung to you as a child. I remember well the song, “Glow Worm.” A recital piece in my early musical career. I worked hard to use correct fingering, keep the rhythm exact, and incorporate all the dynamics. I’ll never forget that song, or the dress my mother made for that recital, or the smile my dad give me as I took my bow, or the pride I felt in my accomplishment. What song or piece of music brings back memories for you?
As you work on your book or a short piece of memoir, perhaps one or more of these tips will be useful to you in digging up the memories you want to share.
Share another method you may use in your writing to evoke memories. We can have a great discussion in the comment area below.
Today I am pleased to have as my guest, Lorraine Ash, author of Self and Soul: Creating a Meaningful Life. Lorraine is sharing her thoughts on the ancestral patterns we inherit and how they impact our lives. Lorraine, thank you for being here today. And thank you to WOW! Women on Writing for hosting Lorraine’s blog tour.
Our lives start with all kinds of inheritances. From ancestors, we receive genetic qualities, proclivities, aptitudes, beliefs. Maturing means interacting with all our inheritances, whether that involves embracing, rejecting, or modifying them. Odds are, we decide to keep some and not others.
That thought affirms the value of looking back in time to trace how we got to be who we are. In The Year of Magical Thinking, Joan Didion evokes her ancestry even as she brings her readers deep into her.
As the grandchild of a geologist I learned early to anticipate the absolute mutability of hills and waterfalls and even islands. When a hill slumps into the ocean I see the order in it. …A hill is a transitional accommodation to stress, and ego may be a similar accommodation.
Following the trajectory of our experiences in regard to even one of our inheritances can provide a focus for a rich memoir in essay or book form. Such close scrutiny also can yield new insights about ourselves, which is no small gift.
A father/daughter story
Here’s an example of how I separated the strands of a thread of paternal family inheritance and wove them into my own life. I am like my late father in fundamental ways: I have a probing mind, an ability to sustain focus, the desire and discipline to explore a subject deeply, and an abiding concern for the well-being of the average person.
For my father, a career in the law was a calling—one he first heard when he was a poor kid on the streets of Jersey City, New Jersey, growing up without the benefit of parents. He had to fight for every piece of dignity, dingy boardinghouse room, and meal he got. When he served in the U.S. Navy during World War II, he even chose to be a boxer, like his father before him.
My father’s fiery temperament and fighting spirit served him well as he defended clients and argued cases in court. He pushed me toward the law, too, but it was not natural for me to use “our” traits in the same way. I have a more calm temperament and prefer analyzing and integrating information. As a journalist and author, I’m a natural.
I loved my father and intensely value and appreciate the traits I inherited from him. But I knew that love could morph into resentment and self-alienation if I allowed him to hijack my destiny.
Throwing a typewriter
So one day, as a teenager, as I was working in his law office, and he was pressuring me yet again to go to law school, I picked up the typewriter on which I’d been working, and threw it through the glass door of a bookcase.
“You will NOT tell me what I will do with my life!” I said.
That was the only act of physical violence I’ve ever committed. My anger detonated, uncharacteristically, to protect my very core.
“OK,” he said, quietly. “You don’t have to.”
Today, I think of that scene as a key turning point in my life, but it is much better understood in deep family context. My father wanted for me what worked for him. But his ancestors, largely by dint of not living up to their responsibilities, gave him two options: give up and drop out of high school, or fight like hell to rise above his circumstances. His anger toward his family also helped light his inner fire for social justice: he was all about helping others rise up.
By working in his law office as a young adult, I learned from him how to live archetypally—a gift of power. But his archetype was justice. Mine is truth.
When there is no family
Even when there is no family, or its members have scattered, the family still holds power. Indeed when there is no present dynamic, the actions of the ancestors may be all the self-inquiring writer has to work with. In Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail, Cheryl Strayed writes about the specter that her absentee father had become in her life. Deep in the memoir, she breaks his spell over her:
… on that night as I gazed out over the darkening land fifty-some nights out on the PCT, it occurred to me that I didn’t have to be amazed by him anymore.
The family tree, with its intergenerational traumas, gifts, and secrets, holds many fruits for memoirists. Our ancestors, a line of people that inevitably includes heroes and ne’er-do-wells, took the family story as far as they could.
It’s a mistake to focus so intently at their successes and wrongs that we neglect to see how we are continuing the story now. Writing memoir helps us see the past with new eyes and frees us to live into a new day.
Questions: A memoir is driven by some master question that concerns the writer. In Three Weeks with My Brother, Nicholas Sparks asks, essentially, Why am I like this? As the story unfolds, he links his own anxiety and exhaustion to his family story. Ask yourself, Why am I like this?
Today I am sharing with you a recent experience which started my husband and me thinking. Thinking about family, memories, storytelling, and how to share that history with the next generation. On the Meyer side of our family, the work is somewhat up-to-date. But who will carry the torch after our generation is gone? Our generation is slipping away slowly one by one. What about your family history?
“She isn’t the sister I knew,” my husband says when he returns from driving his sister, Mary Ellen, home after lunch.
I don’t know what to say. I understand what his words mean. I still don’t know what to say.
This is the second sibling I have heard him make this comment about, the other a brother who died almost two years ago.
“As long as you can remember the good times, the days in Outlook, Mary Ellen seems to have good recall.” Words I use to encourage him.
In fact, it happened over lunch.
When Bob arrived to pick Mary Ellen up and bring her to our home, she asked her now routine question, “Have you been here before?”
And the answer is always yes as one of us visits weekly, if not more. Since her assisted living community is only eight blocks away, we often make it our daily walk to visit.
But her short-term memory has lost its bearings.
We visit for a time, and then lunch calls us. It is our first time to sit with only the three of us around the table. Mary Ellen’s husband died a couple of months ago, and her move near us and a nephew is relatively recent.
We join hands for grace. Her skin has the feel of thin paper, and her hands are cold. It’s in the upper 80s outside.
We chat amiably while eating. Mary Ellen jokes about her unreliable memory, and we commiserate that our collective memories aren’t much better some days.
Bob recalls receiving an invitation recently from their grade school in Outlook, WA, a tiny space in the road in the Yakima Valley. He mentions the name of the woman who sent it and with whom he has talked. He asks Mary Ellen if she remembers Dorothy Cullen from their grade school days.
She looks up and furrows her brow. Finally, she says she doesn’t, her now nearly gone eyesight trying to focus on him.
And then she says, “Oh, there was a Dorothy Ross in Outlook.”
Yes, this was the woman Bob was talking about but he had used her married name since he couldn’t think of her maiden name.
That recalled memory is from decades ago, but our visits with Mary Ellen recently have only been in the last two months. She doesn’t remember us visiting or others calling or coming by. She doesn’t remember her husband is dead.
We sit later that day talking about family and memories. Bob and I know with certainty that we too are growing older daily, and our memories aren’t always as sharp as they used to be.
Mary Ellen is the oldest of the six Meyer siblings and the genealogist in the family. She has researched, traveled, and visited with family members all over New England and the Midwest. Her travels include trips to cemeteries, old schools and churches, and the family history we have is amazing.
Not only that, Mary Ellen, a retired school teacher, is among the best storytellers in the family. Up until now, her mind was never faulty on a single detail about farm life, grade school teachers, preachers in the country church, music lessons, and life in tiny Outlook, WA.
But this record keeper and researcher is nearly blind, her mind is failing, and she turns 90 in a few weeks. Who will take up the torch and tread the course in keeping the family history and the stories moving generation to generation?
We haven’t been the best stewards of the Meyer history. At least the record of the Meyer clan is in many hands now, thanks to the Internet. But will it continue to spread as our family continues to grow?
We encourage our children to slow down, make treasured memories, memories that will last, and to write them down for future generations to read and share on and on. And we ask them to make sure they label photos on their Smartphones and computers with names, dates, places so someone will know a bit of the story held in the images decades from now.
Otherwise, a family’s legacy can be lost in time and age.
A few tips readily came to mind in keeping the family history alive as Bob and I talked:
Take advantage of every family gathering by encouraging time for storytelling and sharing experiences and have someone take notes.
Make sure you keep up a family record of births, deaths, and weddings. This information will be helpful to whoever is in charge of maintaining the family genealogy.
Mark photos with names, dates, places, occasions, and any other information benefit recall. Stories can be written from photos as the images are great triggers for recall and memory.
Take advantage of state and county records in researching family records.
When a family member passes on, and if you are able to do so, hang on to every slip of paper you might find among the individual’s effects. Recently, a search of the unemployment records in Nashville, TN for the years 1944-45 helped me confirm some information about my parents. I had found discharge slips issued to my parents from the same employer on the same date among my mother’s effects. But something just didn’t seem right. I checked and found I could get access to certain information about their unemployment. And I was right — my father’s service terminated a month after my mother’s.
And lastly, I know that Mary Ellen was not shy about writing letters to people who had a similar last name and lived in an area where other family members had once lived, or who might have arrived at Ellis Island with ancestors, and these contacts provided the information she might not have uncovered otherwise.
It is never too late to begin tracking your family’s history. Whether you think you are a writer or not, you can write stories in a journal, on your computer, in a notebook, or by any method you choose.
Then pass what you have on to the next generation by sharing it with them from time to time so questions can be asked and answered. Leave it somewhere so when you are no longer around, it will be easily found and handed off to a family member.
This post isn’t intended to be about doom and gloom, but last Thursday’s lunch brought out the importance of what would happen to the Meyer family history now that Mary Ellen is no longer able to be the keeper of the work she so lovingly provided for us.
The tips here are some used in my research and gathered in talking with Mary Ellen over the years. I wanted to share this personal time in our life to provide, I hope, a clear picture of the importance of storytelling in the present.
In posts here, here, and here, I have written on the topic of writing and its healing benefits. Today I want to share a cautionary tale with you. Something happened in our family two weeks ago today casting a different light, at least for me, on the subject of memories, writing, and healing.
I am a proponent of the healing benefits of writing because I thoughtI had come close to healing from scars and memories of my past related to my mother’s parenting skills and my ex-husband’s similar abuses. I now know this is only partially true.
The incident bringing this understanding to light occurred in our home and involved our eldest child, a son aged 43. Coincidentally, he is the son of my first marriage and later adopted at age 18, at his request, by my second husband. The details of what happened are not important to my post. However, I will say that Bob and I were stunned at their occurrence.
What is important for you to know is that I was alone here with our son when this happened and mid-point through the incident, I felt as though I had time travelled decades backward. My emotions kicked into high gear, and I immediately found myself wanting to put space between the two of us.
As soon as I did, the incident took on the heat of a glass blower’s furnace, and I felt my emotions accelerate into what felt like a nightmare. I could not be living through this again! And yet I felt as if I were staring at my mother and ex-husband rolled into one.
The reaction I was having to our son’s behavior was familiar to me — a tightness in my chest, shallow breathing, a need for air, a need to close myself off from what was happening. As a child, I would run and close my door and lock it when Mama treated me abusively. With my ex-husband, it was a different story; he was bigger and stronger than I and so I rolled into a fetal position and cried.
Finally, I walked to our entry which prompted our son to leave. And then all of my past emotions and feelings came surging forward and out. I cried the next three hours until my husband returned home.
♦ ♦ ♦
What I have learned from this experience is as follows:
Although this incident brought back unhappy and painful memories, my recovery from them has been quicker. For the past two weeks, my husband and I have talked about what happened but less and less each day. Bob has yet to speak to our son about his actions but will in due course.
I realize that my emotions were the result of seeing in action what caused my pain before, and I began taking steps to remove myself — standing up from the kitchen table where we sat, walking step-by-step into our kitchen, and then into our entry. I placed myself at a distance from the person hurting me with his words and emotions.
Initially, I haven’t been able to write here or on my memoir. I realized yesterday I was ready to write again because writing is what brought me far enough to take the steps listed above. This morning the subject of this post came to me, and here I am. Later today I plan to begin work again on rewriting my first draft of my memoir.
Based on all of this, I have learned that yes, writing is a healing agent from whatever pain, abuse, unhappiness or loss we have experienced. However, not all of those memories disappear. They are a part of who we are forever. They make up our being, the person we have become, for we have learned from them. And yes, like in PTSD and other similar emotional situations, there are triggers which precipitate memories surging back quickly.
♦ ♦ ♦
Be cautious as you write to remember we cannot wipe away our memories by writing, but the writing itself with its cathartic nature will teach us how to handle the resurgence of those memories should something or someone trigger them.
“It has been said, ‘time heals all wounds.’ I do not agree. The wounds remain. In time, the mind, protecting its sanity, covers them with scar tissue and the pain lessens. But it is never gone.” ∼ Rose Kennedy
To find out more, including how to control cookies, see here: