Between Sisters

In this short story, two sisters confront memories and their strained relationship.
Wildcat - Watercolor
View of the White Mountains, New Hampshire, watercolor by Mason Hayek, from Growing to 80

Sarah Bright opened the door to her sister and gave her a welcoming hug.  Hugging Rebecca was like hugging a straight-backed chair.  Rebecca had never been affectionate, even as a girl, but Sarah tried to act as if the sisterly bond she so much desired actually existed.  “Your house smells like cats,” said Rebecca before she removed her coat.

“How’s life at Westside Manor these days?” said Sarah, trying to rescue her sister’s visit from early disaster.

Rebecca rejected Sarah’s offer to hang her coat in the closet.  She painstakingly draped the pale-blue coat over the back of the chair nearest the front door, as if to be ready to leave any time.

“I’ve joined a new duplicate-bridge group.  They were eager to have me, but I didn’t know whether I’d enjoy a group Marge Amstel organized.  She always has to be the center of attention.  I decided to go ahead since Helen Clark was joining too.”  Rebecca finished smoothing the pleats in her gray skirt and sat down with her handbag beside her on the chair.

“Relax, Rebecca,” Sarah wanted to say.  “You look as if you’ve come for a job interview.”  Rebecca did not take kidding well, so Sarah said instead, “I don’t believe I met Helen when I visited you last summer.”

“Yes you did.  She was at our table for at least two meals.  She’s the tall, well-dressed woman—a little younger than you are—who always wears beige.”

Sarah recalled a woman who had not spoken to her except to request something from across the table.  “How come your friends seem so unfriendly?” she asked, knowing she was venturing into a risky area.

“I prefer friends who know how to keep their distance.  Rebecca looked around at Sarah’s tidy but battered living room.  Sarah was still using some of the same furniture their parents had brought to the cottage when it had been the family summer home.  “I suppose we’ve each selected friends appropriate to our personalities.  That woman I met at your house last year—what was her name—Louisa something?”

“Louisa Sewell.”

“That was it.  She looked as faded and sagging as some of your furniture.”

“Louisa’s my closest friend.  You’d like her if you got to know her.”

“I can’t imagine wanting to get to know her.”

“We’re picking at each other already.  Come sit over here by me on the window seat.  I want you to see how pretty the mountain looks with snow on it.”

“I saw snow on the mountain last year,” said Rebecca, but she moved over next to Sarah.  Rebecca brought her purse with her to the window seat and placed it between her sister and herself.  She straightened her skirt again.  “I’ve got to look decent for dinner.  I’m sure I won’t get back in time to change.”

“You only come to see me once or twice a year, even though we live just fifteen miles apart, and then you can’t even stay through dinner time.”  Sarah gave up pretending to be pleased with her sister.  “Every time we finally make arrangements to see each other, I hope this time the visit will be different, but you never change.”

“I don’t know what you’re talking about.  You don’t come to see me any more often than I come to see you.”

“That’s because you can never find time for me to visit.  In the past year I can think of at least five occasions when you called at the last moment and told me not to come.”

“Things come up,” said Rebecca.  She examined the nail on the ring finger of her left hand, took a file out of her handbag, and repaired a corner of the nail that had not been to her liking.  “You know how busy I am.  I have responsibilities.  Why don’t you give up this place and move out to Westside Manor yourself?  You complain about not seeing me.  Seems to me you couldn’t see much of anyone way out here.  One reason I don’t come more often is that terrible road.  I’m sure it’s damaged the suspension on my car already.”

“I have lots of friends, and Louisa lives less than half a mile away.  We walk over to each other’s house nearly every day.”

“You’re not a young woman anymore, Sarah.  If you’re not careful you’re going to turn into one of those eccentric old ladies who live in some forsaken hovel with a dozen cats—the kind who keep money in the mattress and never wash the dishes.”

“Perhaps I am an eccentric old lady, but I keep one cat, not twelve, and you know I’ve always been as neat and clean as anyone.  You’re the one who never straightened her room when we were growing up.  As for my home being a hovel, have you forgotten that our own father built this house?”

Evergreen branch
Branch from a New England evergreen, sketch by Mason Hayek, from Growing to 80

“For a summer place.  It was never intended for year-round living.  What if you were sick or fell?  Who would find you out here?”  Rebecca picked up the cat that had jumped on the window seat to greet her and threw him to the floor.  “After I visit you, it takes me a week to get the cat hairs out of my clothes.”

“Why do you dislike my home so much?  Every time you come to visit you try to talk me into coming to live in your retirement community.  I can’t believe it’s because you’d like to see more of me.  When we were little, you never could stand it when I made up my own mind about what I wanted.  I don’t think you’ve changed a bit.  I was your big sister, so I was supposed to be ready for all your commands.  If I wanted to ride my bicycle and you wanted to play princess, I had to play princess with you because you needed me to be the ugly stepsister, or the prince, or some other undesirable part.  If I didn’t do what you wanted, you ran to Mother, and together you shamed me into compliance.”

“I won’t have you criticizing our poor mother,” said Rebecca.  She had turned in her seat to face out the window at the snowy meadow, with the woods and mountain beyond.  She stared at the scene as if it drew her into it.  Sarah had seen that vacant, distracted look many times before, however.  Rebecca was not absorbing the natural beauty; she was doing her best to shut out a discussion she did not want to continue.

“I’m not criticizing Mother,” said Sarah.  “I’m talking about you and me.  You even told me where I had to go to college.  I was accepted up at Bates, but you fixed it so I had to stay home and commute.  That way I could continue to be at your service.”

“I didn’t make you do anything.”

“You got Mother and Father to talk to me about responsibility and how you needed me.  Sure you needed me—to do your homework for you, to do your chores, to drive you on your dates.  I think you still can’t stand not to have me standing by just in case I might be useful.”  By now Sarah, too, had turned toward the snow and the mountain.  She looked at the scene for the courage to keep trying to tell her sister what she had been attempting to tell her for more than fifty years.  At eighteen Sarah had finally begun to understand that Rebecca was controlling her life and that—as much as her parents believed it and forced her to believe it, too—Rebecca was not helpless.

For more than fifty years her relationship with her sister had shifted back and forth from anticipation of her visits, to tolerance of her insults, to determination never to see her again.  She did not know what had made her feel so resolved to try once more to explain, unless it had been going through the old picture albums yesterday with Louisa: all those pictures of people who were gone; all those people she had loved, tried to understand, and too often resented for the ways they had sometimes made her childhood difficult.  Her mother had been a woman who never seemed to want anything but what was best for her family.  She had not seen that by making Rebecca the eternally helpless darling, she had doomed her daughters to spending their adult lives as distant acquaintances.  Their brother, Jeremy, had left home as soon as he was eighteen because he thought he was a failure in his parents’ eyes.  Her father had loved his older daughter best and then, because he was ashamed to have a favorite, had expected more of her than she could give.  Her father had never forgiven his son for leaving them and had never stopped blaming himself.

She and Rebecca were the only ones left, but when she looked at the photographs, Sarah could barely connect Rebecca to the tiny girl in the white ruffled dress and pink hair ribbons.  They had all loved her so dearly.  And finally Sarah had seen photos of herself, almost as tall and big boned at fourteen as she was now at seventy.  After Louisa had left yesterday, Sarah had gone through the pictures again.  It was something much more than a little lingering resentment that made her ache.

“Do you think Mother was happy?”

Rebecca seemed startled by the question.  “I imagine so.  She loved our father.  She loved us.  I suppose Jeremy’s leaving so young and moving across the country hurt her.  She never talked about him much after he left.  I guess she was about as happy as most women of her day.”

“Yes, but what did she want out of life?  What did she want to achieve?  You wanted the prestige of a wealthy husband and socially prominent friends.  That wasn’t for me, but I always assumed you found pretty much the life you were looking for.  I wanted a career, and the chance to be as independent as I pleased.  I’m still living that kind of life.  I even feel I’ve been a little bit useful to some of my students and not such a bad friend to my neighbors.  But what was Mother looking to find?  We always just expected her to be our mother, even after we were grown.  The year before she died I was still calling her up for advice about handling my students.”

“What’s gotten into you, Sarah?  I think you’re making a whole lot out of nothing.  Women’s lives were different then.”

“Their lives were different, but were the women themselves so different?  Inside, what did they think and feel?  We never asked ourselves that about our own mother.”

“I’m getting uncomfortable sitting here,” said Rebecca, who had turned back away from the wide window.  She picked up her purse and moved to an overstuffed chair by the stairs.  She sat forward in her chair, as if she were waiting for a convenient moment to stand and say goodbye.

The big Burmese cat settled into Rebecca’s vacant spot on the window seat.  Sarah scratched him between his ears.  She forced herself to keep talking.  She had lost the chance to say all she wanted—all she wished she had said—to her parents and brother, but Rebecca was alive.  “For years I’ve been saving some things to show you.  Come with me.  Don’t worry about your purse or your coat.  Willy doesn’t claw things.”  Sarah walked over to Rebecca and extended her hand.

Rebecca stood but ignored Sarah’s hand.  “I really can’t stay long.  I promised to pick up a pair of gloves for Helen at the new shop that just opened next to the bookstore.”

Sarah led Rebecca up the stairs to the large bedroom over the living room.  “I bet you haven’t been upstairs more than a dozen times since the summers we spent here as girls.  This was our parents’ room.  Do you remember?”

“Of course I remember.  I’m not senile, although I’m beginning to wonder about you.  You’re starting to live in the past.  The past is dead and gone.  Why bring up what can’t be changed or brought back?”

“Mother and Father kept this wedding picture here.  I’ve tried to keep everything on the bureau the same as it was.  I guess it’s because Mother’s fancy little bottles, and Father’s mirror and brush, and the wedding picture are part of the people Mother and Father were, part of the complete human beings, with likes and dislikes and disappointments and plans for the future that I never thought much about because they were just Mother and Father.  They fed me and kept me safe and made me be nice to you when I wanted you to disappear.  In my world they were just parents.

“Now when I touch this little violet perfume bottle, I see Mother picking it out and setting it here so the room will be pretty and homey.  I imagine Father brushing that wavy dark hair of his each morning so he’ll look handsome for Mother.”

“What else do you have to show me?  I don’t have much more time.”

“Remember that wicker chair by the window?  You probably hated it because Father made you paint it once.  That was the only real work I ever remember him asking of you, but I had the flu and for some reason he wanted it painted right away.  Do you recall how you and I used to pretend that chair was a throne?  We’d put our dolls in it so they could hold audiences with their subjects.  Of course your doll always got to be the young queen.  But we didn’t fight every time.  We made up some lovely stories using that chair.  Beyond the mountain was the Kingdom of Flavoria, and we had to protect our people from the evil Flavorian count.”  Rebecca looked at the chair, but Sarah could not guess what she was thinking.

Wicker chairs
Although “Between Sisters” is not autobiographical, I thought of a wicker chair because of these much-loved chairs, which were originally in my mother’s girlhood home.

“Come across the hall a moment,” said Sarah.

Rebecca stood at the door, and at first Sarah thought she would refuse to enter the tiny room that Sarah now used as a study because it had the morning sun.  “I told you I don’t like to think about the past,” said Rebecca.  “Why have you kept my room this way when you hate me?  I think you’ve planned this little tour so you could have lots of opportunities to remind me how awful I’ve been to you.  Do you think I need reminding?”  Sarah was not sure, but she thought Rebecca’s voice was a little unsteady.

Sarah sat down on the single bed in the far corner.  “I know you won’t believe it, but I kept your bed just as you had it because I like to think of you in this room the way you were when we first started coming here.  You were the daintiest, prettiest little girl I’d ever seen.  I was so proud of you.  I wanted all my friends to see my beautiful little sister.”

“I was five when father finished this cottage,” said Rebecca.  “Mother and Father let me pick out the bedspread and bring up my favorite doll to set on the pillow.  Why don’t you get rid of that spread?  It looks as if it will disintegrate with one more washing.  I don’t know why I liked that silly doll so much; she’s really quite hideous.”  Rebecca picked up the cloth doll and turned her over to examine the back.  “There’s the place where I ripped her dress trying to yank her away from you.  I wouldn’t stop crying until Mother made you mend the hole.  I could be a brat sometimes, couldn’t I?”  For the first time all afternoon, Rebecca smiled.

Rebecca continued to speak as she sat down on the bed next to Sarah.  “The first summer here doesn’t seem like over sixty years ago, does it?  I don’t remember when I stopped playing with this doll.  One day she wasn’t a toy anymore, just a decoration for my room, and then before long my room wasn’t my room any longer.  I married Jim, we made a life together, and then that life was over.  You think I’ve just bulldozed my way along, getting what I want and not caring about anyone but myself.  If I’m so selfish, why is it I feel so terrible right now, thinking about everything that’s gone by?”  Rebecca stood and walked over to the side window, where she looked down at the brown remains of the garden poking through the snow.  Sarah came up beside her, and Rebecca let Sarah put her arm around her waist.  Unlike earlier, Sarah felt she was holding a living woman and not a piece of furniture.

“Even by the time we started coming here, the losses had begun.  Jeremy had left the year before.  That’s one of the reasons why Father wanted to build this cottage, so Mother could get away from our house where he had grown up.  We only saw him once after that, so I always felt I’d lost my brother before I could ever know him.  At least you were old enough to remember him.”

Without conversation Sarah led Rebecca into the third bedroom and sat down on the battered hope chest at the foot of the twin bed that matched the one in Rebecca’s old room.  Rebecca sat beside her.

“Sometimes when I was sure you wouldn’t catch me, I used to come in here and just sit,” said Rebecca.  “I used to imagine that I was you, that I was tall and sophisticated and beautiful like you, and that I was smart in school and had lots of friends.  I was sure you’d marry someone handsome and rich and then you’d leave me.  I thought I’d be stuck at home and be the baby sister forever, always waiting for you to come back and pay attention to me so I’d be happy again.  I envied you because you always knew what you wanted to do without asking anyone.  Mother even helped me choose my clothes until I was married, and you told me which boys were nice and which ones to watch out for.  Except for painting that one chair, Father never made me do any real work.  I just helped with little chores like making beds and setting the table.  I remember when you and Father built those bookcases you still have in your living room. I thought I’d never be old enough or smart enough to do something like that.”

Sarah and Rebecca sat quietly.  Sarah could hear the old clock downstairs tick and then strike the quarter hour.  When they had been girls that clock had stood on the mantel in their home outside Manchester.  Sarah remembered early mornings when she would get up before the rest of the family in order to sit on the red velvet sofa and read while the clock made its comfortable, family sounds.  Sarah had liked being up alone but knowing her parents and sister were just up the stairs.

“I could never live here,” said Rebecca eventually.  “There are too many ghosts.”

“It’s because of the ghosts that I want to be here.  I can look at the mountain and think of climbing it with Father, and whenever I bake bread I imagine Mother’s perfect loaves in place of my lopsided ones.  Even Jeremy’s here a little.  That desk in your old room used to be his.  And just as much as I think of Mother and Father and Jeremy, I think of you.”

“I’m no ghost.”

“Until today, you were to me.  I sometimes walk through the house thinking of all the things I might be able to tell you to bring you back so you’d be my sister again—not just some woman who disapproves of me and whose life I can’t understand.  Mother and Father and Jeremy are gone, but we still have time together.”

Once again Rebecca was quiet.  She let Sarah take her hand.

The clock struck the half hour.  “I have to be going,” said Rebecca.  “I promised Helen I’d be back through town before that shop closes.”

Sarah followed her down the stairs.  Rebecca checked her coat for cat hairs, let Sarah help her into it, and picked up her purse.  She was almost to the door when she turned back to Sarah and gave her a tentative hug.  “I may have a free afternoon next week,” she said.  “Do you still have those picture albums Mother put together?  I might like to see them.”

 

Writing Your Memoir: Getting Started

ice-cream-truck-about-1954.jpg
My friend and I (on the left) make our purchases from the ice-cream man, about 1954.

Your story matters, and not just to you.  If you have even a small urge to write about what you have seen and known, I encourage you to do so.  Writing a book-length memoir is not as impossible a feat as it might seem.  It grows one scene, chapter, or essay—one story within your story—at a time.  And memoir writing offers enormous freedom in how you share your history and what you choose to tell.

Nevertheless, for most people, getting started on any writing project is a challenge—I know from personal experience, in spite of the almost eighteen years I spent as a speechwriter and all the years I taught English.  And so I want to offer a few suggestions and strategies that may help you move from the desire to tell your story to a completed book that you can then self-publish or market to a traditional publisher.

Here’s a way to begin:

First come to grips with your reason or reasons for wanting to write a memoir.

  • Are you writing primarily for your children and grandchildren, so they will know more about their own family history?
    My Parents, Age 1
    In these photos, my parents, Doris Burgess Hayek and Mason Hayek, are both about one year old (1918 and 1921).
  • Are you writing to share your era and experiences with a wide audience, to preserve the stories of a time and place that might be lost without your memoir?
  • Are you writing above all for yourself, to revisit some of the most important experiences, people, and places of your life and gain a clearer perspective on how you have become the person you are today?
  • Do you have an unusually dramatic and powerful story to tell, one that you think will interest a broad readership?

If you understand your audience and your reason or reasons for wanting to write, you will have an easier time getting underway, choosing what to include, and deciding how to present your story.

Draft a short description of the project that you would like to undertake and complete.  Include the time frame you want to cover (Your entire life so far?  Your childhood?  The years you were married to ___?  The last ten years?  The years you lived in ___?).  Also include the audience for whom you will be writing.

Choose a working title for your project and type or write it into place at the top of a new page. Now you are underway!

Collect photographs and documents that you would like to incorporate into your memoir or use as resource material. These will also serve as inspiration.

Consider the style or organizing principle for the memoir you plan to write. Here are a few possibilities.  (I’ll be discussing some of the different approaches in more depth in future articles.)  You can always change your mind and recast your memoir later, but picking an approach will help get you going:

  • Your memoir can read like a novel, with a strong narrative flow that builds to a climax and leads to some sort of significant insight, achievement, or change. Bestselling memoirs usually take this approach.  My Life in France (Julia Child), A Long Way Home (Saroo Brierley), and The Glass Castle (Jeannette Walls) are among the countless examples.
  • A flexible approach for many memoirists is to organize their book by topic areas, such as family members, neighbors and friends, community life, and schooldays. My mother’s memoir, Paint Lick, is organized this way.  Countless variations on this approach are possible.  Organizing topics for you to consider include, for example, the different places you have lived, your changing states of mind, the jobs you have held, odors that carry powerful memories (your grandmother’s perfume, your mother’s homemade bread, the lilacs that grew in your side yard, the chlorine in the pool where you loved to swim, and so on), the years with your various family pets, the phases of your creative life. . . .
    Mother and her bread
    My mother, Doris Burgess Hayek, made the best bread!
  • Instead of writing nonfiction, you might write a novel or a collection of short stories based on your life. Tender is the Night (F. Scott Fitzgerald), David Copperfield (Charles Dickens), and A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (James Joyce) are three classic examples of autobiographical novels.
  • You could construct a memoir by writing a series of letters to important people in your life, or if you have saved many letters over the years, you might include excerpts from them and then expand on the stories they represent.
  • Consider telling your story in free verse, as Jacqueline Woodson does in Brown Girl Dreaming.
  • Photographs can be the driving force for your memoir, with each photograph followed by the story it evokes.
    Daddy as a boy with friends
    My father, Mason Hayek (in the middle), wrote about his schooldays in his memoir, Growing to 80.
  • If you are an artist or craftsperson, your creations not only can illustrate your memoir but also can assist in planning and organizing it. My father’s memoir, Growing to 80, is filled with his drawings, which help to tell his story.
  • If you are uncomfortable writing about yourself, you might try telling your story in the third person, as if you were writing about someone else. In La musica del silenzio (The Music of Silence), Andrea Bocelli calls himself “Amos”; instead of writing, “I did this,” he writes, “Amos did this,” or “He did this.”
  • A memoir can even be written in the second person. In other words, instead of saying, “I loved first grade,” the author would write, “You loved first grade.”  Writing about oneself in the second person is unusual but offers the writer some distance and perspective as he or she relives and examines the past.
  • If you have been writing short pieces throughout the years, you can create a memoir by assembling a collection of your writings and then organizing them into a rough chronology or into topic areas that represent significant aspects of your life.  My memoir, A Woman in Time, is of this type; it includes both prose and poetry.

Next, brainstorm a list of the possible topics you would like to cover in your memoir. If you need ideas, consult a list of writing prompts.  The StoryCorps website includes an extensive list of questions to consider.  Another good list of possible topics is the New York Times’ “650 Prompts for Narrative and Personal Writing,” also available to download as a PDF.  The New York Times list is designed for students but has questions to inspire writers of any age.

Now jump in and start writing. You don’t need to begin at the beginning, just jump in anywhere with one of the topics on your list or with something else that comes to mind.  You might pick a family photograph and write about it.  Or tell about the classmate on whom you had a crush in the fourth grade.  Or write a letter (that you won’t send!) to the hateful boss in your first job after graduation.  Write everything you can think of on the topic you’ve chosen—writing off the top of your head, without worrying about the quality of your work.  Just get everything down that you can.  You can organize your memoir after you have plenty of material to organize.

The Three of Us behind the Flowers
 

This photograph of my parents and me has always sparked happy feelings and memories for me.  The double exposure adds to the photo’s appeal.

 

Pick another topic and keep going.

If you get stuck, go back to the StoryCorps or New York Times questions (or to another collection of writing prompts). If you want, you can even draft your entire memoir using a question-and-answer technique: Write down a question, and then answer it.  When you’re ready to edit and mold your book, you may decide to keep the question-and-answer format, or more likely, you’ll remove the questions, organize the answers, and add the transitions and explanations needed to make your memoir flow.

If your momentum stalls, take a break by tackling a different area of the project. For instance, try thinking about the design for your book: What dimensions will it have?  What photo or photos do you want on the cover?  Which photos and other materials do you have available to illustrate what you’ve already written?  If you’ve handwritten your book draft so far, enter what you have into the computer.  Don’t worry if your computer skills are a little shaky for a project of this size.  I’ll be covering some relevant skills in later articles.  Just do what you can.

And when you start hearing voices telling you your story isn’t worth sharing and your writing doesn’t measure up, stop listening and keep writing, no matter what!

Next: Sharing the truth

A Time for Speaking Out

Statue of Liberty

“Where you see wrong or inequality or injustice, speak out, because this is your country. This is your democracy. Make it. Protect it. Pass it on.”  Thurgood Marshall

“Speak up, judge righteously, and defend the rights of the afflicted and oppressed.”  Proverbs 31:9, International Standard Version

I am shaken by sadness and distress over what is happening in our country.  A horrifying example is the Trump administration’s actions in separating children from their parents at the southern border of the United States.  The facts and implications of this situation show we have not learned the lessons of history.  Those lessons might have taught us to turn away from fascism and authoritarianism, racism, and government-sanctioned cruelty and injustice.  I do not understand, or do not want to accept, how we have allowed the current situation to fester and thrive.

Yes, I understand that Donald Trump has the desire to have authoritarian control.  I understand that he and members of his administration are (based on the evidence of their words and actions) racist and lacking in feeling and empathy for their fellow human beings.  I am gratified that a majority of Americans oppose the policy of separating children from their parents who are attempting to enter the United States.  But I do not understand why, nevertheless, the majority of Republicans are not also outraged at the administration’s actions.  How would they feel if their children were among those being held?  What if these Republicans were facing gang violence and threats to their children in their home country?  Wouldn’t they try to get their children to a better situation?  And if they did try, would they then accept having their children taken from them?

Particularly shocking to me is the support that Trump’s policy is receiving from some who pride themselves on their religious faith.  I believe that whatever our spirituality, we need to do our best to follow Jesus’s teaching to be kind to one another, to welcome the stranger, and to recognize love as the law that matters above all others.  Many of Trump’s religious followers claim to be pro-life, but how is it pro-life—being loving and supportive toward everyone, especially children—to rip families apart?

The situation here is not one of saving children from untenable parental behavior, such as physical abuse and starvation.  Most if not all of the children held at the border are from families trying to rescue their children from violence and poverty—trying to make a better life for them, just as was true for the ancestors of all of us Americans who were not Native American.

Supporters of the Trump border policy air a variety of claims to justify their behavior.  Most of these claims are false or are incomplete truths.  But none of the excuses matter.  No “facts,” no “history,” and no “scripture” can justify what is happening: the cruelty to children and to their parents, the real and enduring harm that is being done to children through the separations, the shocking parallels to the worst of our and the world’s history, and the life-threatening wounds being inflicted on the Constitution and our country’s finest values.

Please: let us care about one another—all of us, about everyone.  Please, members of Congress, serve the entire country, and not merely your future as politicians.  All of us: please care about people and help people—all people, not only those who look like us and lead the kind of life we lead.  If you are pro-life, please be pro-life by working for the needs of all people from the cradle to the grave, not just for their needs before they are born.  Please, please, can’t we treasure, respect, and provide for our children—everybody’s children—and one another, around the globe?

What Is It Like Being You?

An Introduction to Memoir Writing

Paint Lick Cover
My mother’s memoir

Nobody else on the planet or in the history of time has lived the life you’re living.  No one else has the same view out over the universe, feels exactly as you do, or understands the human experience with your unique perspective and insight.  And so, the stories you have to share matter.  They matter for readers whose stories resemble yours, for those who grew up in a different era or different social or cultural environment, and for the future.  Your writing will help others to understand some of what it has meant to be you, living in your time and settings, in your body and soul.

Starting out to write a memoir can seem daunting.  Instead of helping, books about memoir writing can be more discouraging than enlightening.  Most memoir “gurus” stress making your story read like a novel, with an exciting plot that builds and builds and finally moves to a powerful conclusion.  Yes, autobiographies and memoirs from people with dramatic life stories do most easily find traditional publishers and fame.  But that fact doesn’t mean that our quieter life stories don’t have equal merit and importance and aren’t worth sharing.  On the contrary, everyone’s story matters; every writer has the potential to share something of value.  And the very process of writing memoirs can be powerfully meaningful to the writers themselves.

Ruth and Doris Burgess
My mother and her older sister

I’ll take this opportunity to explain the general distinction between an autobiography and a memoir.  An autobiography chronicles a life, often from the writer’s earliest years to the time of the writing.  In a memoir, the focus is less comprehensive and more thematic.  Memoirs reflect on selected aspects of how it has been or is to be the author.  For example, in my mother’s memoir, Paint Lick, the chapters are in generally chronological order, but instead of providing a complete history of her life, the book gives readers insight into how she experienced pivotal aspects of her childhood and young-adult years.  These include her family, the village in which she grew up, her schooldays, the role of music and religion in her home, and so on.  Autobiographies tend to be written by famous people.  Memoirs are fertile writing ground for everyone.

This post begins a series of short articles about how to share your life on the page—whether you are writing for your family and friends, for your own satisfaction, or for readers around the globe.  I’ll be debunking the myths that confuse and discourage too many would-be memoirists: the falsehoods that the ability to produce meaningful writing is a gift given only to the few, that there’s a set-in-stone format for each type of writing, that people with less than flashy lives can’t write interesting memoirs, that it’s overly egotistical to want to write about oneself, that memoirs must tell all (sparing no one and revealing every distressing detail), and so on.  Getting rid of these misperceptions frees writers to write: to understand and reveal the meanings and moments that have mattered most to them.

Next: Getting Started

Emily’s Summer Evening

Here is another of my short stories about an older woman who is determined to stay fully involved with life, in spite of the challenges.  I envision Montreal as the setting for the story.

Montreal 3
View from a Montreal restaurant, with McGill University in the distance

Emily felt a little stiff as she climbed the steps to the restaurant, but she made a point of keeping up with the young couple ahead of her.  Saturday evenings were lovely at the restaurant.  Musicians came to entertain the patrons.  It was only a cafeteria, but a nice one with wholesome food.  Emily liked cafeterias because she could eat just what she wanted and not feel self-conscious about staying long after she’d finished her meal.

Two young men played flute and guitar duets.  Some of the melodies were familiar, though she didn’t know the titles of most of them.  The traffic on the street below was muted; the melodies drifted above the soft clattering of dishes and whispered conversations.  The flute player looked like the sort of young man she’d have liked for a grandson.  The smile he gave the audience between pieces was not conceited, and his flute had a sweet tone.  If she had been young, she would have hoped he’d notice her.

Over the musicians was a garish painting of a woman with two heads.  The pictures in the restaurant changed every few months.  Emily studied them to see if any would speak to her, but most were hard to understand.  Sometimes she could admire the colors or a whimsical figure.  Both faces of the two-headed woman grimaced, although one was young and beautiful.  The artist must have been very angry, thought Emily.

Emily placed her book and umbrella conspicuously on the table so no one would take her seat while she went for a second cup of tea.  She always had three cups of tea with her dinner.  Her little rituals, like the sliver of pie with the third cup, were part of the joy.  “Don’t you feel guilty taking up a whole table?” her neighbor Laura had asked recently.  Emily had told Laura she’d feel more guilty not getting out to enjoy life—and what was she supposed to do, stand all through her meals?

At a nearby table, a young family with two children finished their dinner.  The girl and boy had started a game of rock-paper-scissors while their parents listened to the music.  Emily had played the game when she was a girl, all those years before.  The woman was sturdy, not beautiful but healthy and self-possessed.  Her husband watched her as she watched the musicians.  The little boy, the younger of the children, whispered to his mother, and the family cleared their table and left.  Emily saw them pass on the sidewalk below, each child on a parent’s shoulders.

Roshambo-Myanmar.jpg
Rock-paper-scissors is an old and universal game.  Here children in Myanmar are playing rock-paper-scissors.  Photograph by Mosmas – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, from Wikimedia Commons.

Three girls sitting in a corner of the room stared worshipfully at the young musicians.  One of the girls was heavy, with long dark hair; she wore a startlingly skimpy pink top over her jeans.  Her companions were slim and attractive, a gift of their youth.  Emily wished the heavy girl would realize that she was lovely, too; it pained Emily to see young people trying too hard to be accepted.

Among the many couples were a man and woman of nearly her own age.  The man had plenty of white hair; Emily liked a good head of hair on a man.  The woman was smartly dressed in a blue linen suit that didn’t even look wrinkled.  She had artistically draped a gauzy scarf around her neck and anchored it with a gold sunburst pin.  To Emily’s mind, the most fashionable women were the ones who used scarves and jewelry dramatically.  Emily felt her own attempts at fashion flare were notably unsuccessful.  She always looked so prim: the perfect slim little old lady whose only extravagance was her refusal to wear sensible shoes.  Oh well, she didn’t much mind.  She was hardly unique.

During the day Emily saw many other older women alone.  Independent old men were somewhat rarer.  This morning, walking along one of the city’s most fashionable streets, she had passed a woman with jaundiced skin and dirty, torn clothes.  How long could the woman survive—certainly not through another long northern winter.  How long had the woman survived in the streets, with nobody?

Strictly speaking, Emily had nobody, either.  Most of her friends had moved in with children or found a retirement home to suit them.  Emily kept up with her friends, but she rarely got to see them.  An only child who had never married, Emily didn’t find it strange to be alone.

On Saturday mornings in mild weather, she visited the open-air market near her apartment.  She never tired of seeing the rows of flowers and lush fruits and vegetables, or of watching women from the city’s ethnic neighborhoods buy the ingredients they’d combine in a thousand different ways.  She had so many places she liked to visit, especially the bookshops near the university.  Tonight they’d be open late.

Université_de_Montréal_(Roger-Gaudry)
Université de Montréal, by Colocho – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, from Wikimedia Commons.

Fifty and more years ago she’d walked near the university with her young men.  She’d had her opportunities, but in the end she chose none of them.  Without a husband and children, she’d had more freedoms than most women of her generation.  Summers she had traveled, teaching herself to read a map and to make her needs known in other languages.

Young women who live alone have an easier time as old women, Emily believed.  She knew women who wouldn’t leave their apartments after dark, who were afraid to ride the Metro.  Until they were old they’d never been alone.  They didn’t know how to learn self-confidence now.

Métro_Acadie
Station in the Montreal Metro, by Chicoutimi – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, from Wikimedia Commons.

The evening world was a world of couples and companionable groups.  If she wasn’t on her guard, the useless melancholy would find her.  She was lucky not to be hiding in her apartment like so many of the others.

The young men were playing another familiar melody.  Her parents would have liked it here this evening.  Her father had loved music, and her mother had loved people.  It would be easy to be sad; they’d been gone so long.  The hardest times were early in the morning and late at night, just before sleep.  The trick was knowing which memories to let in.

When she was twenty, she’d had long hair, and at least a couple of boys had thought her pretty.  One had wanted to marry her.  They’d picnicked by the river and played duets on her parents’ old upright.  Silly girl—it had seemed so important to her to be pretty and to have a fiancé.  But he’d had a temper that she knew one day he’d turn on her, so she had broken the engagement.

Her parents had paid for her to go back to college when she was twenty-five.  Already she had a teaching degree, when many girls of her time never had a chance to go past high school.  The master’s degree made her more determined to be an independent and strong woman, but then she turned thirty and the longing for a child grew more instead of less.  Still the men were not right for her, and she turned forty and moved forward into spinsterhood.  She had a career and parents who loved her and never pushed her to be like other daughters.  Nearly every fair Saturday night up through the summer of her forty-fifth year, the three of them had gone together to hear the orchestra play in the park.  The smell of warm August nights still carried on its fragrance the memory of her family and those Saturday evenings.

It was better not to walk down the street where she’d grown up, at least not to pass the house after the lights were on and Emily could glimpse the life going on inside.  It was too easy then to believe her life had ended in another era.

She wouldn’t let herself feel like an intruder in the young people’s world, in the world of couples.  From where she was sitting, Emily could see the old couple holding hands under their table.  She turned and looked at the girls.  They had so much life to get through.

While Emily was finishing her third cup of tea and slice of walnut pie, the musicians put away their instruments.  Maybe in one of the shops she could find a good copy of Emily Dickinson’s poetry.  She’d never read enough from the reclusive poet who shared her name.  In her master’s degree, she’d concentrated on Wordsworth and Coleridge, Keats and Shelley, never realizing then that no man, no matter how perceptive, can prepare a woman for the life she will live.

Near the bookshops she would watch young people milling around outside their music clubs and hear their rhythms spill out on the sidewalk.  The floating flute and guitar melodies mustn’t make her forget that life still drives forward.

Morning Meditation

Rockingham Drive 1
Our family home – Drawing by Mason Hayek, from Growing to 80

I meditated this morning,
Listening to Andrea as I did twenty years ago
—“Una furtive lagrima,” “Che gelida manina,” “Addio, fiorito asil”—
When his place in my life was new
And the world, too, was fresh
In spite of my incapacities
To be as I wished,
To be as I might have been.

Beautiful Mother in Her Hawaii Dress

Those mornings I heard sweet Mother
Dressing in the adjoining room,
Beyond the wall against which I leaned;
By that hour dear Daddy was in the kitchen,
Preparing breakfast for us three—
We shared our home:
Together then,
Are we together now?

Daddy in the kitchen, 1986

I tell myself,
“Not only are we three still one,
United in every place and time,
But my beloveds reside in joy,
In peace and absolute fulfillment.”
Am I correct,
Or am I the remnant, alone
Until my days run down,
Maybe in another twenty years?
And what then?

I see now why I’d avoided meditation
And why I ration music:
Both bring me into this moment, yes,
But also within the moments, the years,
When I was whole,
Or might have been
If not for the hollow places
I allowed to grow within.

If truly my mother, father, and I remain as one
And they are themselves, in bliss,
Then I will meditate and live inside
The loveliness and possibilities
Of life as it goes on:
My shining, treasured friends,
My home,
The things I love to do and learn,
Andrea’s voice,
Spring rebirth, summer evenings, autumn frosts, and winter quietness,
The chance to find my ways to serve,
The challenges through which the soul
Can strengthen and gain wisdom.

Others seek conviction of God;
I seek assurance of my parents’ eternal being;
They are my sunshine, my moonlight and starlight,
The beauty and pulse of the universe.

 

Mrs. Marigold

In this story, in spite of being alone in her later years, Mrs. Marigold turns her back on loneliness.  I created this character to encourage readers and myself.

Woods at Rockingham Drive, 7-3 to 6-90
Drawing by Mason Hayek, from Growing to 80

Old Mrs. Marigold passed in front of Emma’s house just after three o’clock.  Watching for Mrs. Marigold was one of the important events of Emma’s afternoon.  Her other regular activities were looking for ducks by the stream she crossed on the way home from school, checking under the beds and in the closets for scary people, and exploring along the path through the woods to find interesting plants and wildlife.  Emma added pressed leaves and flowers, curiously colored or shaped pebbles and twigs, and the remnants of birds’ nests to the natural-history exhibit she was assembling in her bedroom.

Emma was allowed to play outside after school, but she didn’t want her mother to know about her walks in the woods.  Some things were just too special to talk about.  Emma let her mother think she found all her nature treasures between school and home.  Emma was careful to leave for her walk every afternoon right after eating the snack her mother had laid out for her and to be home in time to set the table before her mother’s bus stopped at the corner.

Mrs. Marigold was alone today.  There were never any people with her, but some afternoons a big yellow cat with a thick tail that switched back and forth followed along or ran a few steps ahead.  To Emma, one of the notable things about Mrs. Marigold was that she seemed to like walking as much as Emma did.  Other grown-ups walked when they had to in order to get someplace—the way her mother walked to work when the bus didn’t come, but Mrs. Marigold never seemed to be going or coming from anywhere in particular.  She was just walking.

Emma didn’t know Mrs. Marigold’s real name.  She liked to associate the people she met with plants or animals, and to her mind the old lady with the big cat was a flower, just the way Emma’s teacher at school was.  Emma decided the first day of class that Mrs. Montgomery was a sunflower—big and bossy with an overpowering cheeriness.  But it took Emma a whole afternoon of looking through garden and wildflower books from the library to name Mrs. Marigold.  She was a plain little woman, with clean but faded clothes and white hair worn in a bun.  Her face was composed of concentric wrinkles that made her always seem to be smiling.  Like a marigold, she was unpretentious and small but held her head up proudly.

SONY DSC
Marigolds, by Ezhuttukari – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, from Wikimedia Commons

Emma particularly wanted to see Mrs. Marigold this afternoon because school had been even worse than usual.  Mrs. Marigold was always alone, but she never looked sad.  Emma thought maybe she could learn her secret if she observed her carefully enough.  Today Mrs. Montgomery had read to the whole class Emma’s composition about what she wanted to be when she grew up.  Recess had been terrible.  Her classmates called her Paul Bunyan and asked when she was going to chop down a tree for them.  She didn’t want to chop down forests when she grew up; she wanted to save them.  Her classmates were only trying to get even with her because of her good grades in English.  Just because she liked to write about some things—it wasn’t a big deal, but Mrs. Montgomery acted like it was a big deal, and then all the other kids gave her a hard time.  At lunch Susie Croft and Megan Silvo, the two girls she could usually count on to sit with her, sat with some girls who liked to make trouble for Emma by doing things like ripping her homework papers and making up stories about her.  Emma ate her sandwich as fast as she could and then ran out to the willow grove at the edge of the schoolyard to make bracelets out of the willow branches.  It would be nice to have some friends you could count on.  Emma wished her mother would let her get a cat like Mrs. Marigold’s.

Mrs. Marigold stopped nearly in front of Emma’s house and turned toward the meadow across the road.  The grasses and wildflowers were already thick from the warm spring days, and Emma could see bees in the purple clover beside the road.  Mrs. Marigold stood with her arms a little way out from her body.  The breeze blew the grasses and then moved into the road to billow her skirts and the wisps of hair that had fallen from her bun.  To Emma she looked like the scarecrow her father had put up in the meadow when he had turned part of it into a garden and raised pole beans and tomatoes.  Emma thought of her father and of helping her mother string and break the beans.

What was Mrs. Marigold thinking about?  Was she remembering her parents?  Had there ever been a Mr. Marigold, or children, or friends who came in for coffee?  Why didn’t Mrs. Marigold ever look lonely?  Emma watched her bend down and pick a purple clover.  She pulled the petals from the stem and sucked on them, a few at a time.  Emma decided to taste some clover herself when she went on her walk that afternoon.

Once when she had been at the county fair with her mother, she had seen Mrs. Marigold looking at the exhibits in the 4-H tent.  Emma saw Mrs. Marigold smile and mumble something to herself as she stood looking at a large buttercup squash.  Emma didn’t ask her mother about the old lady.  Her mother never mentioned her, even after they had stood practically next to her in front of the pumpkin pies.  Asking about Mrs. Marigold would mean sharing her, and Emma wanted to keep her special for her private after-school world.

On Saturdays Emma often rode her bicycle past Mrs. Marigold’s house.  Emma knew where she lived because sometimes when Emma pedaled by, Mrs. Marigold was in her yard picking off faded blossoms or weeding.  She didn’t wear a sun hat or gardening gloves, and, although she stood up slowly, she didn’t groan or say, “Oh, my poor knees,” the way Aunt Rose did when she gardened.

The house was the smallest Emma had ever seen.  Two pillars held up the roof over the front porch as if the builder had secretly wished he were constructing a southern mansion.  The white paint was peeling up near the eaves, but the shutters hung neatly, and no weeds mixed in with the flowers under the front windows.

Mrs. Marigold resumed her walk and disappeared from Emma’s view.  Emma hurried into the kitchen for her snack.  She gulped the milk and took the brownie with her as she grabbed her door key and ran outside into the humid late-May afternoon.

Emma’s path started about a hundred yards up the road beyond her house.  First it meandered through a small, uncultivated field that belonged to the neighbors.  The stubby grasses along the edge of the path tickled Emma’s bare ankles.  She kept a lookout for birds and other creatures hiding in the tall weeds.  A few days ago a pheasant had startled her by flying into the air from practically at her feet.

Woods at Rockingham Drive
Drawing by Mason Hayek, from Growing to 80

The woods always looked dark until Emma was inside.  There the sun filtered through the leafy tops of the tall, straight trees and created little speckles of light that lit the lichen and mayapples on the forest floor.  Emma wondered who had made her path and who tended it.  She liked to think that Native Americans had worn the path by following it to the lake to fill their water jugs.  Emma had only once followed the path all the way to the lake.  There were so many ferns and mosses and insects that attracted her attention along the way.  She had to be careful to start home in time.

Mayapples, fern, and rock 4-28-96
Mayapples, fern, and rock; by Mason Hayek, from Growing to 80

It had been hot in the open, but the air felt cool and peaceful under the trees.  Emma shuffled along trying to suck nectar out of the clover she had collected in the field.  The thin petals felt smooth and pleasing in her mouth, but she couldn’t taste much of anything.  Maybe Mrs. Marigold had a special clover-tasting technique Emma didn’t know about.

Emma dropped the clover in the path and picked up a dry twig, which was pleasant to snap into little pieces as she walked along.  A butterfly hovered over a plant full of tiny flowers that were almost as brilliantly blue as the butterfly.  Emma put a small branch from the plant in her shirt pocket to identify at home.  Two chickadees chased each other across the path, scolding and flying back and forth.  “Stop arguing,” Emma said to the birds, who noticed her then and flew off.

Walking wasn’t working for Emma today the way it seemed to work for Mrs. Marigold.  Mrs. Marigold had no friends that Emma knew about, but she always looked happy on her walks.  Emma herself usually liked walking alone, but today the kids at school had made her feel different from everybody else.  It was hard to forget school and just enjoy her woods.

Bunny

Emma scuffed the decayed leaves and twigs under her feet and thought about what she might do.  She was so preoccupied with her problem she didn’t even notice the baby rabbit until she was close enough to startle it into hopping away.  Emma considered whether all the kids would like her if she curled her hair like Lisa Abner’s and wore nicer jeans.  “Maybe I could talk to Mrs. Montgomery and ask her to pretend I’m not any good in my schoolwork anymore.”  Emma thought about Mrs. Montgomery reading her composition to the class, and the thought made her so mad she kicked a small birch tree.  “Teachers are stupid,” she said aloud.  Mrs. Montgomery wasn’t going to be any help.  Emma would just have to learn to be like Mrs. Marigold and not need other people at all.

Because she had been thinking about her, Emma felt a little thud inside her chest when she realized Mrs. Marigold herself was just down the path by the old fallen oak that Emma used as a resting spot on her walks.  Mrs. Marigold was picking something growing beside the path.  Emma had seen Mrs. Marigold in the woods twice before.  Emma hadn’t felt scared then.  But today she had already made up her mind to speak to her the next time she saw her.

Mrs. Marigold seemed to pay no attention as Emma cautiously walked up to her and stood beside her, watching her pick a small bouquet of violets.  Emma’s heart thumped again when Mrs. Marigold said in an unexpectedly strong voice, “I only pick a few flowers so there’ll be plenty left for the bees and for other people to look at.”

Not knowing what to say, Emma said, “My name’s Emma.”

Mrs. Marigold straightened up and smiled.  “I always knew you’d have a pretty name, but I’d guessed you’d be called Robin.  You’re sturdy and determined like a robin.”

The idea that Mrs. Marigold knew who she was and even had a secret name for her convinced Emma that Mrs. Marigold was as wise and magical as she had imagined.  She felt less timid.

Mrs. Marigold continued to speak as cheerfully and naturally as if she had been expecting Emma to join her.  “My name is Abigail, but you may call me anything that makes you feel comfortable.  My husband used to call me Abby.  Some people who don’t know me very well call me Mrs. Waters.”

“Mrs. Marigold,” mumbled Emma.

“Mrs. Marigold it will be.  I love marigolds.  They’re bright and cheerful, and they aren’t ashamed to be unexciting.  Would you like to sit up here with me.  I like to rest a little and watch the forest life before continuing to the lake.”  Abigail Waters settled herself slowly but gracefully on the broad, decaying tree trunk, and Emma climbed up beside her.  Emma was pleased to see that Mrs. Marigold didn’t seem to think at all about whether she would get her skirt dirty.

“You must be in the sixth grade by now,” said Mrs. Waters.  “I didn’t enjoy the sixth grade very much.  I wonder if children are any kinder to each other these days.”

“The kids think I’m weird because I want to be a conservationist and save the forests when I grow up.”

“I bet they tease you for being smart and liking to study.”

“How did you know?”  Emma wondered again at Mrs. Marigold’s powers.

“I just guessed.  Tell me why you weren’t more afraid of me.  Most children are.”  Mrs. Waters smiled her crinkly smile.

“I don’t know,” said Emma, who was trying to find the right words for the question she really wanted to ask.

Northern_Cardinal_Broadside
Male northern cardinal, by Dakota L. – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, from Wikimedia Commons

A sharp, two-note whistle came from a tree to the left of their perch on the fallen trunk.  “There’s the father cardinal,” said Mrs. Waters quietly.  “I saw him here yesterday.  He must have a family around here.”

“Do you come every day?  I’ve only seen you on the path twice before.”

“I think mornings are best for visiting the woods, but sometimes like today I have chores to do in the morning.  In the afternoon I like to walk down your road and watch the children coming home from school.”

“Why do you walk so much?”

“Probably for the same reasons you do.  Tell me more about your school.”

Emma didn’t want to talk anymore yet about her school.  She fidgeted with the dry bark and powdery wood from the old tree.  She still hadn’t asked the important question, the question that had made her brave enough to make Mrs. Water’s acquaintance.  Emma forced herself to stop thinking and worrying and pushed out the question before she could stop herself.  “Don’t you ever get lonely?”

Mrs. Marigold’s face crinkled again in a kindly way, and she looked at Emma as she answered.  “I used to be lonely sometimes when I was your age.  Being eleven is hard.  I’m afraid it will go right on being hard for a few years.  But you mustn’t think it’s just because you’re a little different from the other kids.”

Emma’s need to understand everything now that she had asked her question made her bolder.  “Don’t you hate being different?”

“How many old ladies do you know who get to go exploring in the woods every day, or who can spend their afternoons walking up and down a pretty country road where the breezes smell sweet and wholesome?  I have all I need, too.  I have my own little home, and Alberta–she’s my cat–keeps me good company.  I’d rather live my life than the life of any rich old woman in a typical retirement home–forced to answer to young people who think I’m as capable of taking care of myself as a five year old and stuck pretending I want to play bingo and learn to hook rugs.”

“But don’t you miss having other people around?”  In her frustration with not finding the essential information she needed, Emma turned to straddle the tree and face Mrs. Waters.

Woods
Sketch by Mason Hayek, from Growing to 80

Instead of responding right away, she said, “Come sit here closer to me if you like.”  Emma swung her right leg back over and moved up next to Mrs. Waters.  For a few moments they sat together watching a squirrel flap his tail and cluck in response to some unknown displeasure.

“I never had a little girl or boy of my own,” Mrs. Waters said finally.  “Sometimes I’ve been sad about that.  When I’m baking cookies on Saturday morning I imagine how nice it would be to be listening for my grandchildren coming up the walk.

“Other times I miss my husband.  He was a teacher at the college, and when he was alive we had lots of friends among the other teachers.  When Oliver died, I lost touch with those friends.  I’ve never thought of myself as lonely, though.”

“Can’t you make new friends?”

“I hope I’ve just made a very special new friend.”

Emma smiled up at Mrs. Marigold.  She liked sitting next to her.  She smelled faintly like the meadow—not the kind of fragrance that comes from perfume or powder but the light sweetness of clover and wild grasses.  “I’m not much of a friend for you.  I’m just a kid.”

“You and I like some of the same things.  I don’t think I could find many other friends who would sit here on a dirty log with me and watch beetles in the rotting wood.”  Mrs. Marigold had pulled back a strip of bark to reveal a dozen black insects that she and Emma were examining as they talked.  “I can’t expect most people to put up with me.  They might not even want their friends and families to see them with someone as odd as I am.”

“Can’t you change so other people would like you?”

“Would you really, deep inside, want to change to be like the children at school who tease you, even if changing could bring you a dozen close friends?”

“Don’t you like other people?”

“O yes, especially my family.  I loved my husband and my parents and sister.  I liked our friends from the college.”

“But aren’t they all gone?”

“Not in my mind.  I’ll always remember them.  And I like seeing people when I’m on my walks.  I saw you and your mother one day at the county fair.  Watching you enjoying yourself made me happy, too.”

They sat silently then, listening to the forest sounds of nesting birds, insects, and squirrels digging in last year’s leaves.

“I have to go.  My mother gets home at five.”

“Maybe some Saturday when you’re riding your bike up by my house you’ll stop in for some cookies.”

“I’m very fond of chocolate-chip cookies,” said Emma.

2ChocolateChipCookies
By Jonathunder – Own work, GFDL 1.2, from Wikimedia Commons

“Mrs. Marigold’s extra-special Toll House cookies—I’m surprised you haven’t heard of them.  I’m going on down by the lake now to look for tadpoles.  I’ll let you know if I find any.”

 

Emma ran every few yards to make up for the extra time she had spent in the woods.  She let herself in by the kitchen door, hurried into the living room to turn on the television, and left it on while she went back to wash the plate and glass from her snack.  She had shut the television off again and was setting the table for dinner when she heard her mother at the front door.  Emma straightened the place settings and went to greet her mother.

“You look happy today,” said Emma’s mother.  “Was there a good program on the after-school special?”  She felt the television as she walked toward the couch to set down her briefcase.  “You watch too much television.  I wish you’d try to be more sociable.  Why don’t you visit one of your little friends from school in the afternoons.  I wouldn’t mind as long as you told me where you were going.

“I have a new friend,” said Emma.  “She invited me to come see her.”

“How nice, dear.  What’s her name?”  Emma’s mother sat down next to the briefcase and slipped off her office pumps.

“Abby.”

“Abby what?”

“Abby Marigold,” said Emma softly.

“Marigold—what an odd name.  Well, let me know if you plan to play at her house after school instead of coming home.  Find out her mother’s name and her telephone number.  Dear, run to the kitchen and get me a glass of ice water.  You’ve been sitting all afternoon and a little scurrying around won’t hurt you.”

Keep On Dancing

I am reading the novel Trick, by Domenico Starnone (New York: Europa Editions, 2018, trans. Jhumpa Lahiri).  The original title, in Italian, is Scherzetto (Rome: Giulio Einaudi, 2016).  The novel is told from the point of view of an aging artist who fears he has lost his edge.  My own version of that feeling has been having a starring role in my life.

May 30—Memorial Day each year before it was moved in 1971 to the last Monday in May and became a national holiday—was Lower School Field Day at Wilmington Friends School.  I liked Field Day, on which classes were canceled and the whole elementary school took part in races and other competitions.  I have a vague sense of having participated in burlap-bag and three-legged races, but the clearest recollection I have is of taking part in the long jump.  We had a sand-filled long-jumping pit that I can still see in my mind.  I was good, that is for a small grade-school girl.

My friend Lee was better, but she was taller and a year older—and anyway, I was a close second.  Other children must have taken part in the long jump, but my memory houses only Lee and me, jumping away and feeling good about the results.  I liked being good at things.  Long jumping, dancing, playing Becky Thatcher in our fourth-grade production of Tom Sawyer, and beating the boys in math were an antidote to ostracism by the class bully and her court.

Ballet

All these decades later, I continue my mix of feeling socially inadequate but hoping to win notice for some physical and intellectual skills.

May 30, 2018,  brought the first of this year’s three performances of The Follies, our community’s annual talent show.  For the sixth time, I am tap dancing as part of a small group.  This year three of us are dancing to “I Got Rhythm.”  I always get nervous when I dance or act in front of an audience, and now I have let my nerves unbalance my confidence even more than usual.  The root of the problem is my reputation for dancing competence—I’m afraid of not being able to live up to this reputation.  (The syncopation in “I Got Rhythm” adds to my fears because it makes timing the steps somewhat more difficult.)

Each year, of course, I am a little older and a little more tired.  I think to myself, “I may not be able to do as well as I did last year.  And [here’s the key] people may talk about me and say, ‘Winnie’s slipping; her dancing isn’t as good this time.’”  Do I think my right to a place in the world demands that I never lose a step, literally or figuratively?

That is exactly what I’ve been thinking.  Not surprisingly, I let my nerves sabotage me during the two full-cast rehearsals for the 2018 Follies, experiences that then added to the pressure I felt for the opening show.  The mistakes I made during the full-cast rehearsals did remind me that audiences pay more attention to the overall pizzazz in a performance than to the exactness of the details.  Nevertheless, I was worried.  I knew I could do the dance when no one was watching, but my close friends would be in the audience for the opening show, and the production was being filmed for our community television.

On May 30, 2018, I awoke feeling good, in spite of the ongoing sleep problems I’ve been having—largely from agonizing over the focus and purpose for my writing.  For a show day, I was even reasonably calm.  Showtime came, and the dance went well.  The timing was a little suspect at a point or two, but the three of us were together and the steps were solid.

Did I love the compliments that followed, including a kind woman’s saying, “You could be on Broadway”?  You bet I did!  My confidence roared back into life.

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But how am I going to use the fact that I got through the May 30 show?  Am I going to ratchet up the pressure for the remaining Follies performances?  I hope not: I have evidence now to tell me, “I can do this,” and the performance with my close friends in the audience went quite well.  More dangerous is the effect on me for next year’s Follies tap dance—and for all other future public displays of whether I still have it or not.

Really, am I going to live the rest of my life the way I’ve lived it since second grade: believing that I can hold my head high only through prowess in the skills by which I define my acceptability?

It’s long, long past time for me to live—and not just give lip service to—this principle: The reasons for doing something such as acting in a play, learning a language, writing poetry or prose, dancing, participating in sports, studying literature, or playing music include personal satisfaction and growth, the desire to create, and the wish to share aspects of ourselves and the things we love with others.  The reasons do not include proving our worthiness to take up space in the world.

I do think that enjoying congratulations for something done well or in a manner that is pleasant for others is okay: We naturally value another person’s appreciation of us and prize our own skills.  But if we are performing in order to impress or prove ourselves to others or to keep ourselves from sinking into the despair of not counting, we are probably addicted to praise.  Praise addiction brings with it the suffering of withdrawal when praise doesn’t come.  Praise addiction also brings a suffocating fear of aging and all other reasons for “losing a step.”

Okay, I get it: It’s in my power to stop letting the false gods of approval, expectation, and judgment trample my joy in self-expression, and any good my self-expression may do for others.  It’s a lot more important for folks to see an aging person who is still dancing, creating, and learning—and having fun doing so—than for them to see me getting every one of the steps right.

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Update: During tonight’s Follies (the second of the three shows), I didn’t entirely live up to my newest resolution.  I intend to keep working on it.