The Philadelphia Orchestra, Broadcasting on television, Is playing Beethoven’s Symphonies No. 5 and No. 6 In an otherwise empty Kimmel Center’s Verizon Hall— Empty, without an audience, Because of the virus that has changed the world In weeks, days. Right behind the orchestra are the empty seats Mother, Daddy, and I held as our season tickets.
Beethoven, Daddy’s favorite. As I listen, my emotions rise, fortissimo, Chords of pain, Waves of feeling riding waves of magnificent sound Carrying a magnificent, hard-to-believe-it-ever-was past.
When I was a little girl, Daddy played a recording of Beethoven’s 6th for me, Narrating the story told As the symphony’s movements unfold.
I feel and see moving toward me in silent procession, Now crowding together in their joyous, Suffocatingly sad throng, My life’s vast gifts of miraculous memories.
The shades-of-blue oriental rug Now in a church classroom, The classroom where our choir practices, Is, I feel, I sense with my spirit’s eye As well as my eyes for physical sight, The rug that for all the decades After the braided rug of my childhood Covered our den floor at home, The room in our little white house Where my mother and father and I Shared dinners on our card table, Night after night, When I visited from other states, When I lived back home again, Home where I still remain In my heart.
Just before the house was sold,
The rug was sold
And seems to have found its way
To the room where the choir I love
Sings melodies and harmonies
For the church that is now
My spiritual home.
Living on our rug at Christmas,
We three hung stockings on our fireplace,
No matter our ages,
With blue-and-white tiles in the red-brick hearth,
With Daddy’s mother’s painting above the mantel—
The painting hangs in my bedroom now.
We rested our feet
On the pretty rug
As Mother sat facing the fireplace,
With Daddy across from her,
And I in between,
And after our Quaker-silence grace,
We shared our days,
Analyzed our dreams,
And one Friday night
Ate our last meal together.
On the rug’s patterned loveliness,
Wrote letters and journals,
Sang songs at the piano:
“Let the Sunshine In”
And “The Church in the Wildwood.”
On the blue-hued rug,
I was not always happy,
Often not the way I wish to have been,
Kind and serene,
But inviolate love
Lived always in that room.
At choir practice
I stare at the rug,
Searching for evidence
Of the years
It decorated and cushioned our lives,
Giving us its beauty;
Though tangible signs elude me,
Because I feel our love
Still held in the fibers of the carpet.
Perhaps I am mistaken:
Maybe our family rug
And the rug in our church classroom
Are not the same;
Even if such is truth,
I visit weekly in choir practice,
The rug offering ringing memories,
Speaks to me saying
My journey on into the years
Continues warmed and made beautiful
Through love unchanged by loss and time.
I am twelve, Loving summer camp With its quests Unexpected and new, Its routines and scenes, Moose Pond in the morning mist— A wide lake in spite of its name— The cloud wisps decorating Pleasant Mountain, Honeymoon and Japanese Islands Present unseen, Loving summer camp especially this summer Because I have a best friend, Louise; We explore, discuss, absorb The Maine woods and our unfolding lives.
Excursions and camping trips Are my pinnacle delight; For some, we paddle across or down our lake; For others, we ride, singing, In the open wooden-gated back of a truck, Sometimes to a distant lake or river That will carry our canoes to our sleeping cove, Other times to a single day’s new source of happiness.
As on the day we campers climb Over the face of a garnet hillside Collecting beauty from the center of the Earth.
I love rocks—geology has risen high Among the fascinations That will rise and fall and rise in new forms Across the eras of my life.
I am jubilant Tapping on the cliff In the warm Maine sun, Loosening treasures, Small rocks sparkling with deep-red gems To carry home with me at the end of summer In a footlocker weighing three times Its going-to-Maine weight.
Back home I am snared in the unhappiness of junior high; My Maine rocks join the granite boulders in our backyard.
As my years continue, Rocks give way to new passions— Folk music, the great apes, ice skating, literature— I live a floating life, Grasping the possibilities in view, Leaving left-behind possibilities on the shores of memory.
I meet rapids And create whirlpools where none are intended; I flail against benevolent waters Because they are not the waters I seek Or believe I need to find.
After journeying to distant shores Seeking elusive settling, I return eventually to Delaware, To our little white house.
Daddy shows me he has kept my loveliest garnet rock, Stored safely against our sheltering home.
Now the garnet-filled rock carries in its crystals Twelve-year-old me Held among the eons its gems have shone Within and on the surface Of our miraculous Earth.
My rock carries within itself Its ancient molten infancy And refracts the Light To bathe my ephemeral now With insight outside of passing time.
The girl I was is not lost But held inside of me; The future I wanted but did not find Forms strata in my knowing, In the strength I have to share.
God’s garnets in my hand Shine their peace-giving glow On who I was, Who I am, And who I still can be.
When the urge to write is not accompanied by a promising subject or theme, one possibility for answering the writing call is to begin with an image, a scene—any image, any scene. Then free associate, letting one image, one scene, lead to the next, no matter how circuitous the path through memory. Taken together, the seemingly random recollections create a sketch of the past and suggest ways the past has led to the present. Here’s a short example of the approach that does, in fact, help to remind me of who I was, and still am. If I choose, I can mine these memories for subjects to explore in more depth.
I carried my pink ballet slippers in a blue case decorated with
a felt ballerina.
I liked spending school lunch hours in the clearing under
the weeping willow beyond our playground.
I wove bracelets from the long willow branches, but I don’t remember
wearing or even keeping the bracelets.
The act of braiding the pliable thin branches was the pleasure, much as
with making clover chains in the front yard at home. With my fingernail I poked a slot near the
end of the stem of one clover and inserted the stem of the next through the
slot. Sometimes I put a clover crown on
my head or tested a clover jump rope, but any such usefulness was
superfluous. I imagine Daddy had to deal
with piles of discarded clover chains when he mowed the grass.
One afternoon when I was in first grade, I was showing off
my handstand skills for a neighbor girl and a boy from school. When I flipped over after the handstand, I
sat in a pile of manure that the girl’s dog had left behind. My patient mother took crying me to a sink in
our basement to clean off the mess. I
was mortified by the outcome of my effort to impress my friends.
Daddy made me a pair of wooden stilts, and I was proud of
being able to tramp around the yard on them.
When I was small, Mother helped me bake a chocolate
cake. A picture from that afternoon
shows frosting smeared across my smile.
Mother told me I once said, “It’s the frossin’ what makes it
We put salt or sugar on grapefruit in those days to cut the
sour taste; I preferred sugar.
I made meatloaf for some of my fellow teachers at the
boarding school where we taught. I put
eggs, ketchup, and breadcrumbs in my meatloaf, which was the centerpiece of my
most reliable menu. When my friend David
came to eat meatloaf with me one night, my dog, Maggie, chewed his wallet, so I
had to buy him a new one. I don’t recall
having to replace any cash.
On the first evening David and I were in Germany with the
students we were chaperoning, I asked him how to say, “Could I please have some
change?” in German. On subsequent days,
when I had a chance to get away from David and the students, I used my
phrasebook to figure out how to meet my needs.
When I was fourteen or fifteen, I cried listening to Gerry
and the Pacemakers’ “Don’t Let the Sun Catch You Crying.” I wanted a boyfriend—if not a Beatle then one
of the boys at school.
Ringo was my favorite Beatle, probably because in the early
days he looked more like a little boy than like an intimidating young man who might
My love for Ringo—if not my affection—faded by the time I
was in college. My love for Andrea
Bocelli hasn’t diminished in twenty-two years.
When I was six, Santa Claus gave me a record player in the
form of a small blue suitcase.
Coordinating with Santa that Christmas, my parents gave me two
records. The first included Tchaikovsky’s
The Nutcracker and The Sleeping Beauty. The second was Haydn’s Surprise Symphony and the Toy
Symphony, then attributed to Haydn but now more often attributed to Leopold
Mozart, Wolfgang’s dad. Even after we
moved to our new home, I often rolled up the small blue hooked rugs in my
bedroom so I could dance to a Tchaikovsky ballet playing on my little record
Sunlight filtered through light-green leaves on the first
morning after the last day of school.
At summer camp in Maine, after we campers were in bed, the
camp director’s Doberman thundered down the cabin line like a galloping pony.
When I was a camp counselor, I played taps on my flute in
the evening. The sound drifted out over
the lake as infinite stars drifted overhead.
The Milky Way was a broad stripe across the sky.
And so, as perhaps these memories suggest, it’s nearly impossible not to be able to write if the mind is set
free to jump here, there, and anywhere.
The backyard is both a place and a state of being.
The front yard is partly for the neighbors. In the front yard, the grass must
be cut and the crabgrass kept to a minimum. Even if the homeowners think
dandelions are pretty, the neighbors will expect the flowers to be mowed before
they turn to seed. Children may play in the front yard from time to time, and
company is greeted there, but the real living takes place in the backyard.
In our first little white house, where we
lived until I was six, I loved our backyard. Mother planted wide beds of flowers
along both sides, and my parents grew vegetables—I liked the green peppers
best. My wading pool sat partway down the yard. One day I took my life-sized
doll, Susie, swimming with me; doing so made her seem like a real girl, and I
wanted Susie to share my fun.
When I was four, I came home from a
playmate’s late one afternoon to find my father brushing forest-green paint on
a wooden jungle gym he had just finished building. A long ladder with smooth
round rungs was suspended between shorter vertical ladders. I couldn’t believe
this magnificent structure was meant for me. On it, I could hang upside down
and then flip over to land on my feet. I could travel hand over hand down the
long horizontal ladder. I could swing over to the bars on the swing set. I was
fearless on the jungle gym, and my parents trusted me to stay alive.
At the far end of our backyard, where the
area known as “the mud” began, other neighborhood children and I wandered and
explored, stopping to look up when the occasional airplane passed overhead. One
afternoon, accompanied by Inky the spaniel, we children set off on a turtle
hunt. “Inky is going to find us a turtle!” I called to my mother. Against the
odds, Inky came through for us. After she helped us take off our muddy shoes,
Mother found a box for the turtle and lettuce for his lunch.
The backyard of our second little white house
did not include a jungle gym, which I was sad to leave behind, but half of our
new backyard was wooded. Wild plants, dry leaves, and boulders surrounded
hundred-foot-tall trees. When I was in the woods, it screened out all memory of
bullying classmates and teachers who piled on the homework.
The branches of an ironwood tree bent down to
meet the top of a tall granite rock, and in the space between, my friends and I
played house. A flat rock by the largest oak created a porch, as we called it,
for sitting a moment and deciding Native Americans had worn the nearby path.
Around us grew blueberry bushes, spring beauties, dog-toothed violets, and
jacks-in-the-pulpit. Tadpoles lived in the small pools of water left from the
spring rains. On the June morning when summer vacation began, the woods greeted
me with still-fresh, light-green
leaves. Sunlight illuminated the last of the mist from the cool overnight air.
In front of the
woods, on the backyard lawn, my friends and I played croquet and softball, sat
on another of the yard’s boulders to converse with our dolls, held handstand
and cartwheel contests, and swung on the swings. Unlike some parents, mine
didn’t mind that our feet wore away the grass. I
liked to swing high and then jump to the ground. The neighborhood girls shared
some traits with my classmates—as in, “We’re in a club, and you have to pay
five cents to join.”—but in our backyard, I never felt second-rate or thought
about needing to be different than I was.
Every summer, we visited our relatives in
Harrodsburg, Kentucky. The backyard I most loved there was behind Aunt Ruth and
Uncle Larry’s big white house on College Street. We ate dinner outdoors on long
tables: a big family eating late in the evening after Aunt Ruth’s lengthy
preparations—green beans cooked for hours with country ham, corn on the cob,
huge pieces of lemon-meringue pie. Two-year-old Kelly toddled toward the side
of the property, to be brought back and then start off again. Mark, a year
older, called me “Cussin Winnie” and wanted me to play with him. No one rushed
away. Nannie and Aunt Winnie had only to walk next door to be home.
One evening, my cousin Shirley and Shirley’s
husband, Duffy, danced for us all: Mother and Daddy and me, Nannie and Aunt
Winnie, Aunt Ruth and Uncle Larry, Cousin Carol, and Mark and Kelly—their
sister, Ruthie, was not yet born. The Landrums were there, too; Aunt Winnie
managed the Landrum Insurance office. The layers of Shirley’s party skirt
swirled as she and Duffy waltzed to the music from the record player.
Afterwards, Aunt Winnie and Mr. Landrum performed a comic routine. She stood in
back and extended her arms in front of him; he kept his arms hidden. As Mr.
Landrum told a story, Aunt Winnie spread her arms wide to emphasize the
dramatic points and wiped his eyes at the sad parts. Her dainty arms made an
incongruous contrast to her boss’ tall frame. Daddy told his story about the
hoarse ice-cream waitress. “Do you have laryngitis?” asks the customer. “No,”
the waitress replies, “just chocolate, strawberry, and vanilla.”
The world in which summer evenings brought time to climb on the jungle gym, backyard games of Mother May I? and Harrodsburg family suppers has long since spun away. Present life includes more front yards than backyards. But in my mind, I see my dear ones gathered on the tranquil, broad, green lawn of Aunt Ruth and Uncle Larry’s backyard, from which no one will be forced to leave, torn away from the pleasure and affection. Shirley dances; Nannie gives her saucy commentary; Mother tells a funny story; and Daddy soaks up the textures of the layered trees against a brilliant sky.
Pictures can be profoundly evocative and so may have an important role in telling your story. They will ignite your own memories, capture your readers’ imagination, and add to your readers’ knowledge and understanding.
Photographs carefully ordered and presented with explanatory captions could, by themselves, create a meaningful memoir. And if you have artistic skills, you might tell your story in part or wholly through drawings and paintings. More often, photographs and artwork are a captivating adjunct to a story told in words.
In his memoir Growing to 80, my father, Mason Hayek, makes extensive use of his drawings to help communicate his history. In some sections, the drawings carry most of the weight. More often, my father’s drawings, as well as photographs, supplement his prose and poetry.
Examples from Growing to 80 may give ideas of how you can use artwork and photographs to tell your story.
This drawing of my father’s boyhood home and his caption introduce us to his parents and to the setting for his childhood:
The drawing here shows our house, 317 Superior Street (formerly Yankee Street), St. Paul. Mother and Dad bought a cottage at this address shortly after their marriage, in 1904. Dad then enlarged the house in 1922 to that shown here, using his skill in carpentry and bringing much of the material for the alteration on his bicycle.
Including photographs such as this one, which is of my father’s parents, also adds interest and depth to the memoir—and helps to ensure the photos’ preservation even if the originals are eventually lost:
Frank Hayek and Eugenia Lydon Hayek
In addition to photographs of people and places, the chapters about my father’s Minnesota boyhood include pictures of artifacts such as school documents, a letter to Santa that my father wrote when he was seven, and cards that he made for his mother:
In my father’s memoir, drawings help him convey some of the experiences he had while visiting the Kentucky village where my mother, Doris Lynn Burgess Hayek, lived until she was a young adult:
Doris’s friends from Paint Lick and nearby towns have remained her lifelong friends. I’m grateful that I have been accepted as a friend by Doris’s friends, and I feel bonds to them. Among these friends was Elizabeth Coy, who is now gone. Below is my pen-and-ink drawing of her home, located in Richmond, Kentucky.
My father introduces a section called “Northern Scenes” this way:
During parts of the years when Winnie was in camp in Maine, Doris and I vacationed at “David’s Folly,” a salt-water farm that had been converted to an inn by Minerva Cutler. The enjoyable times in David’s Folly were augmented by drives to Blue Hill, Stonington, and Castine and by walks to nearby woods and the beautiful coves, inlets of Penobscot Bay. Enchanting scenes were everywhere, subjects for drawing. Then during the years that Winnie lived in Maine and Massachusetts, Doris and I visited her many times, and we three enjoyed the scenery of the New England states.
Then he shares numerous drawings, such as this one:
Penobscot Bay cove, West Brooksville, Maine
The section also has this photograph:
Mason Hayek sitting by Penobscot Bay
My father’s prose and poetry are captivating in themselves, but his drawings and photographs add dimensions that cannot easily be communicated in words.
What visual elements are available to you to help you tell your story?
Instead of creating a traditional narrative memoir, you could decide to present your story as a long letter or a series of letters. You could either be addressing a single person or group or be addressing letters to the full range of people who have been important in your life so far. Using letters as a memoir-writing strategy can offer advantages.
Imagining that you are writing to a specific person (a child or grandchild, a friend or spouse, the daughter you never had . . .) or group (your grandchildren, people facing the same challenges you have faced, your former boyfriends/girlfriends . . .) may help you to focus your writing. By writing directly to a person or group, you will keep that person’s/group’s needs and interests in mind as you compose your work. Your “recipient”/”recipients” for the letter or letters that become your memoir will, in effect, become a character or characters in your essay or book. Other readers will enjoy eavesdropping on your one-sided letter-conversation.
Instead of seeing your memoir as a long letter or series of letters to a single person or group, you may want to write separate “letters” to many of the important people in your life, past and present. These letters can then be compiled and organized into a memoir. Writing letters to the people who have affected you (for good or ill or some of each) can be powerful. You will not only be exploring significant parts of your life but also be clarifying for yourself your memories and feelings—from loving and grateful to furious and resentful. It is, of course, important to avoid libel and to consider whether disguising or even omitting some parts of your story is appropriate.
Here are excerpts from three letters that illustrate what can emerge from “writing to” people who played memorable roles, whether fleeting or long lasting. In these letters, I address a small girl who became an indelible memory, “talk” to a former boss, and revisit my relationship with a man with whom I was once engaged. Maybe these excerpts will bring to mind letters you, too, would like to write (for your memoir rather than the mail!).
Dear Little Girl,
Do you remember me now? You seemed to know me then. I call you “Little Girl,” but you’re almost grown by now, nearly fifteen years after that October day in New York City. You and your mother were together in a waiting room where my parents and I also sat. You, a tiny storybook child of two or three, walked over to me and laid your head on my knees, staying beside me until embarrassment seemed to call you back to your mother.
Who was I to you? To me, you were affection and acceptance, but I’ve wondered since if you were more. I’ve wondered if you and I were more, more than a chance encounter. As bizarre as some may think this question: did you remember me from a life before the one we share as strangers now? Were you my daughter then?
I have longed for you in this life, longed for the daughter who was not to be. I have felt that I failed, failed to find a husband, form a family, mother a child. . . .
I have been thinking back on the years I wrote for you and their weight in my life. Let me first recognize that you have admirable qualities as an administrator and boss. . . . I don’t know if you realize, however, how difficult I found working for you. I would like for you to understand.
I should first explain my views on the right and wrong use of ghostwriters. A ghostwriter fills a useful and ethical role by helping leaders express their own ideas effectively. In contrast, leaders who cannot or will not articulate the main points to be conveyed in a book, report, article, blog, or other project are asking their writers to do their thinking for them. . . . While I appreciate your graciousness in acknowledging my role as a member of your team, I wish you had assumed your full share of the teamwork. . . .
I wonder what life has brought you. Can you believe we’re now in our 60s? It feels like just a few summers ago that we met in Dr. Andrew’s course on drama. He always wore sandals and Bermuda shorts to class. You were starting your master’s degree in English and would begin teaching in the fall, and I was a semester away from completing my undergraduate English degree. My hair was long then, and I often wore it in a bun, which you later criticized as severe and proper. You seemed to like my looks well enough to ask me out, however, and I agreed to your invitation with reluctance. With your slim height, fine features, and beautiful hair, you could have been attractive. . . .
I remember studying in Millstone Hall one afternoon and seeing you walk by outside. I’d agreed to meet you but was tempted to disappear instead; I wish I had. I do find some pleasure in being able to say I was once engaged and had set a wedding date. (This month we would have celebrated our forty-fifth wedding anniversary in the unlikely event that we had stayed married.) But when I review our year-long acquaintance in my memory, I experience resentment toward us both. . . .
If you feel inclined, try jumpstarting your memoir by writing a letter to include in your essay or book. Will letter writing be the key to your writing and finishing your memoir?
Next: Nontraditional memoirs—photographs and drawings
The poem and story I’m sharing here make a companion to my recent post “Embracing Now,” in which I tell about hearing my mother’s voice, in spite of the veil between worlds that separates us for now.
I would know for sure.
Would become vistas
Over all sides of creation.
I could help others,
But above all,
Doubt would disappear
To be replaced by knowing,
By reaching out to you
And finding you,
Not just sometimes
And then forever.
In the fourth grade, our teacher taught us about the Navajos. I loved drawing pictures of pueblos and became fascinated by Native American jewelry.
Under the tree at Christmastime that year, 1958, I found an interesting-looking gift about four inches square and an inch deep. The tag said the present was for me from Mother and Daddy. On one of the long days before Christmas, my impatience overwhelmed my self-control. I slipped off the package’s ribbon and carefully unstuck the tape on the wrapping paper. The box inside was stamped “Marjorie Speakman,” the name of a local store selling children’s clothing. In the box was a turquoise-and-silver pin. My parents had forgotten to remove the price tag, which gave the cost as eight dollars. Thrilled and awed by the present, I reassembled the paper and ribbon around it.
From December 1958 until May 2007, the turquoise-and-silver pin from my parents was my favorite piece of jewelry. The pin—about an inch tall and just over an inch across at its widest point—was in the shape of a three-branch spray of little turquoise leaves, fifteen in total. The silver branches joined toward the bottom and ended in two little silver knobs. I wore my pin on the collars of my blouses, dresses, and sweaters. It came with me to college and to my first apartments. When I was twenty-eight, my parents gave me turquoise earrings for my newly pierced ears, and from then on I wore the earrings with my pin as it continued with me through my years in Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, New York, and Delaware. When my father died in 2004, I moved back into our Wilmington, Delaware, family home to be with my mother. I continued to wear my pretty pin.
On May 7, 2007, my mother moved to the Maris Grove retirement community, and I went to an apartment in nearby West Chester. We shared the same moving van. The movers delivered my mother’s furniture and boxes and then drove the seven miles up Route 202 to my new home.
I had left my clothes, jewelry, and other possessions in place in the dresser drawers. But in my new West Chester apartment, the first time that I opened the drawer where I kept my turquoise-and-silver pin, it wasn’t there. The missing small pin left a cavernous gap. Perhaps the drawer had come open while the men were loading or unloading my dresser. I imagined my pin lying on the bottom of the van, crushed now under the legs of other people’s furniture. Or perhaps, I hoped, I had put the pin in a different drawer or left it on a collar the last time I’d worn it. I searched every drawer and examined every collar I owned, without success. The pin seemed irrevocably lost.
For the four years and three months I lived in West Chester, I missed my sweet pin. In my mind, I saw it as it had been for five decades, among my other jewelry and decorating my clothes. How could I have been careless enough to allow its loss by any means?
In August 2011, I prepared to move in with my mother at Maris Grove. As I was readying my belongings for the movers, I opened my jewelry drawer. Sitting in an open box in clear view at the front of the drawer was my turquoise-and-silver pin.
I cannot unequivocally explain how my pin returned to my drawer after being gone for more than four years. But I have chosen to adopt one of the possible explanations. I choose to believe my late father somehow recovered the pin and returned it to me. The idea is not preposterous. My father in several ways showed my mother and me that he continued to be a part of our lives—as both my parents now continue to be in my life. I believe my father found the means for me to have the pin again. This time, instead of honoring my interest in the Navajos, the gift honored the life my mother and I were to live together, always with my father in our hearts.
“My Turquoise-and-Silver Pin” and the poem “Being Psychic” are from my book A Woman in Time. If you wish to read more about afterlife communication, I recommend the four books I’ve listed at the end of “Embracing Now.”
This is a meditation about floundering and about renewing connections—with memories, dreams and joy, courage, and loved ones on the Other Side. If you don’t wish to read the entire essay, then choose the last section because it may offer comfort and assurance if you are missing people dear to you.
Returning to the Patio
I’m sitting on my patio for the first time since sweet Mother and I were able to sit here together. Because of regrets, I have resisted enjoying the patio since Mother’s passing. But now I seem to be here with the three of us—Mother, Daddy, and me. The birds are singing for us, and although it’s already July—yesterday was the 4th—the bird chorus sounds like dawn in spring. While the air is almost hot, a little breeze makes the morning inviting.
The summer that I moved here, the summer of 2011, Mother and I often sat on our patio together. We used the antique wicker chairs on the patio then. I’ve since had them repainted and moved inside to preserve them; they were in Mother’s girlhood home. Four years ago, I bought two pseudo-wicker chairs from Target to use outdoors. This morning is the first time I’ve sat in either of them.
On that summer I moved to our apartment, I often sat on the patio as I wrote on the small, inexpensive notebook computer that I’m using now. Mother and I also sat outdoors into the night, past dark, talking and being together. And the patio takes me back into our screened porch at 113 Rockingham Drive, where Daddy loved to do his writing, and where all three of us ate countless summer dinners and then sat together as the insect chorus tuned up and swung into their full-throated renditions.
Holding Back, Weighted Down
In much the way that I’ve waited to sit on the patio, I’ve been waiting to begin life. Yet I’m already what most would consider old. If I were to be the subject of a news story, I’d be called an “elderly woman.” I don’t feel elderly, and except for my wrinkles, I don’t look elderly. I’m blessed to be physically agile and quick, in spite of my limited store of energy, a lifelong limitation. It seems as though life was fresh—a bud just opening—and then, bang, it was two-thirds over, at least. What am I waiting for?
Even though I’ve been retired for a little over five years now, I’ve let myself feel weighted down with “shoulds.” Almost all of these shoulds are things I like to do or at least value, but there have been such a host of them that many days, and especially evenings and into the night and on to early morning, I have sat in paralysis, wishing I could or would move forward.
You’d think I would have figured it out before this morning that I can, right now, begin living the life I want to lead—that living life the way I choose does not require that I first master and fulfill everything on my ideal to-do list to prove my worthiness. And when I speak of living the life I want to lead, I’m not suggesting that problems won’t appear—health, financial, social; mice in the kitchen; who knows what. Rather, I’m speaking of my attitude toward each day, toward each moment of the day.
Turning Blessings into Joy
I have so many blessings, including wonderful friends and enticing interests. I love to take classes, especially in French and Italian. I do love to write, in spite of writing’s smothering shadow and sometimes-burning sunshine in my life because of the power I’ve given writing to tell me whether or not I am sufficient. I love my apartment—the apartment that was first my mother’s and then ours together—although I see so much that needs doing to return it to its loveliness. I want to play my piano and flute, learn to play the dulcimer and ukulele (both of which have sat waiting for me for years), make more bead necklaces. I have lines to master for the play that I’m in. And on and on. But I’ve let my interests kidnap my peace of mind because they became expectations rather than hobbies.
When I was merely “middle aged,” I daydreamed about someday having a small cottage. I’d sit on the comfortable couch in the living room, feeling cozy and reading books. I don’t own a cottage, but I live in a cozy apartment. It needs a big dose of my love to rise to its full potential, but I can return to loving it immediately. And that is what I am doing this morning by sitting on the patio and writing.
Getting rid of the shoulds, I can relish each moment of the day: making my simple meals in the kitchen, turning on the computer to see what interesting e-mails have appeared, reading, meditating, writing without letting the shadow of judgment take away the nourishing light and air, doing chores, greeting neighbors, playing music, even paying bills, which after all are a sign of my blessings. If I’m not worried about being insufficient, I can relish what I have and do. I can shed the fear that has continued to bind me, even as my world of blessings offered itself to me.
As I’ve often told myself and others, part of the reason that I had a thoroughly rewarding three weeks in Italy several years ago is that I decided ahead of time to find everything about the trip interesting and to have fun no matter what. And I did, in spite of a few days of upset when a traveling companion and I clashed (we soon parted ways), a national train strike that threatened to strand me alone in Naples when I needed to be in Pisa, and a bad case of sunburn and hives (from mosquito bites) decorating my face. Nevertheless, I was massively happy in Italy.
And one reason for that happiness was that I had decided ahead of time to be happy. Throughout the trip I also released my normal shoulds: I simply lived. Everyday life usually offers more challenges than even strike-laden travel, but the principle, I believe, holds true: Being content and serene are as much a state of mind as a state of external reality. I now choose contentment and serenity. And I will do my best to maintain this choice when true hardships come.
Hearing an Answer to My Prayer
Although over the last couple of days I had one of my confidence meltdowns (since passed), I have a new profound reason for experiencing contentment and serenity. In spite of many signs from my dear ones since their passing from this life, I had been feeling alone and even uncertain that my past experiences of our ongoing connection were real. I prayed for a new sign and wished for the kind of irrefutable direct communication that a few people have known. And then my prayer was answered.
I am playing Eliza Doolittle in a much-cut-down version of My Fair Lady. (A chorus will be singing the songs, although I will sing along.) To help me learn my part, I recorded my lines and the lines surrounding mine into a digital recorder. Then, using a line in, I transferred the digital recording to my PC. I opened my recording in iTunes and also copied it to my iPod, for use on my evening walks. The first time I listened to the recording on the computer, I was astounded to hear, behind my spoken words, a voice softly singing, “on the plain, on the plain,” and then more clearly, “in Spain, in Spain.”
When I made the recording, I did not own the movie or soundtrack, and I did not sing; I only spoke the words from the printed script. And the singing voice is not mine. To make sure I wasn’t mistaken in that belief, I tried transferring a new recording from the digital recorder to the computer. During that transfer, I sang vigorously; none of my singing registered in the transferred recording, not a peep. Interestingly, the singing voice that I hear when I listen to the recording on the computer (and on my iPod) is not present on the original digital recording, only on the recording after it had been transferred to the computer. On the computer and iPod, I eventually discovered a softer addition: a few notes sung just after I mention the song “Wouldn’t It Be Loverly.” I’d not noticed those notes at first because they are faint—but absolutely present.
In this life, my mother had a beautiful voice. Daddy said hers was the most beautiful soprano he’d ever heard. Mother was also a truly talented actress, and she loved the stage. How appropriate that she would answer my prayer for a tangible sign by singing a few notes from the play that I’m in. I am blessed by this gift beyond words. I think that Daddy, too, had a hand in making the gift possible. Mother and Daddy are my universe, always and forever. And each time I hear that pretty voice singing, “in Spain, in Spain,” I am comforted that we truly are together in the universe, even now.
If you are interested in afterlife communication, you might like to read the following:
Through the Darkness, by Janet Nohavec (In this memoir, Janet Nohavec, a former Roman Catholic nun, tells of her experiences with those in spirit. I have spoken with her and find her impressively credible.)
In this short story, two sisters confront memories and their strained relationship.
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?”
“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?”
“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.
“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.”