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Week Three: Exploring “Memory’s Heart”

June 15, 2015

The Purser Homeplace

Week 3: “Memory’s Heart”

In the first two weeks, we’ve been building up to writing, but now we’re going to start tackling the richest vein of writing—memory. “But I want to write fiction,” you might insist, “or poetry. Not memoir.” As McClanahan points out later in chapter four, when she refers to the merger of memory and myth, that’s okay too.

Be forewarned: There is so much we can do with Chapter Four.

Don’t lose sight of the idea that this is your  project. Pick the parts that are most useful to you.

For this week’s suggested activities, if you have a long-range goal this summer, then make selections that will move you toward that end. If not, then just let your memory take you in the ripest directions to see where they will lead. This particular chapter is so rich with ideas for the nitty-gritty of narrative that you may want to go in some different directions from those where I am leading you, or you may plan to come back to this chapter later for re-reading.

Part I: Return in memory to one or more places that intrigue you. McClanahan begins with her mother’s impending sale of a home that had been in her family for generations, a place that had been “imprinted on [her] memory” (59).

Revisit (in your mind) one place from your past. You might start by sketching if that works for you. Can you draw the floor plan? What specific items do you recall? Although I probably spent more time at my maternal grandparents’ home, lately I find myself drawn back to the home where Mama Coats and Pawpaw lived.

You might choose to explore an entire house or one particular room, an entire school campus or one classroom. What objects are in this place? I remember the framed pictures of “Pinky” and “Blue Boy” in the formal living room where company rarely entered. When I enter the house at child’s height, though, I remember the knick-knacks on the little shelves at the end of the counter separating the kitchen and den, in particular a glass cat with little chains attached to two baby kittens.

What happens when you enter this place from you memory at different ages? Look at it from different angles. You might even imagine the view from above when everyone is gathered for a holiday meal.

One of my favorite “poem in progress” activities I used to use in class was to have students remember a window from their past and then to decide if they were inside looking out or outside looking in.

Next, invoke the other five senses. What do you smell? When I wander, in memory, into the single bathroom, with its pink tile walls and swans etched in the sliding glass tub doors, I smell my grandfather’s Aqua Velva shaving lotion. If I open the hall closest, where all the handmade quilts are stored—piles of Dutch doll quilts, flowered appliques—I smell the scent of cedar and polish.

Smell and taste merge, of course, in the kitchen. Okra is frying, or someone is scraping corn from the cob into big metal pans, getting ready to bag it for the freezer. I also feel the cold of metal folding chairs against my once-scrawny legs, sitting at the children’s table.

Now it’s your turn. Decide on your perspectives. Allow your present self to reenter the setting of scenes from your past.

Part II. We all hear the age-old advice, “Write what you know.” You may find plenty of rich settings for writing without traveling any farther back than last week. Follow the cue from page 61 and list all the places you’ve been in the past week: the farmer’s market, a friend’s house, the post office, a local museum or the aquarium. These may allow you to travel back in time as well: your uncle who ran a roadside stand every summer, the stranger in front of you in line at the post office window. Do any of the people you encounter bring to mind people from your past?

What’s the benefit of mining our own past? I was struck by McClanahan’s statement that “to lose your past is to lose the places, people, smells, tastes, and dreams that comprise the album of your life” (63) while, conversely, as she quotes Patricia Hempl, “To write a life is to live twice.” I love Billy Collins’ poem “Forgetfulness,” in no small part because I heard him read it first over NPR on my trip home from visiting my grandmother after she’s had a mild stroke. I had sat at her kitchen table (in that same kitchen I was visiting early in memory) as a therapist helped her recall words for some of the simplest objects—hairbrush, spoon.

Don’t be afraid to step closer in your memory, even if it may be painful. I think of Aunt Gene’s hands after overtaken by arthritis. My youngest son was afraid of her because she had “witch’s hands.” Now I imagine how they must have felt to her. Or I think of the time I sat with a friend’s great grandmother and how I feared I hurt her tissue thin skin trying to help the tiny birdlike woman to the bathroom. I can still recall the feel of her bones through the powder soft flesh.

Take the time to capture these people and places. Remember, though, that sometimes the details will be transformed in the process—and that’s all right too. You aren’t responsible for factual exactness; you are capturing your version, your perspective.

Part III. As you are entering “memory’s room” focus on who is there. To recreate the mood or emotion, don’t rely on abstractions. If your second grade teacher is in that room, then you might try to pinpoint what she did that scared you so. Although Mrs. Hester was probably younger than I am now back in 1963, I thought she was one of the ancients. I imagine her as a sort of giantess, looming over my desk. Little wonder I feigned sickness and asked to go home when I failed a test on telling time, the first failing grade I recall making.

Try following the suggestion to give your scene a “working title” to get your started, “Helping Pawpaw chase the baby pigs through the corncrib” or “Getting off the bus a stop too early without permission to learn to ride Greg’s bike.”

If you are writing about a scene from before you were born, one passed down through the family, or if you are writing a scene from your childhood, trying placing your present self in the scene. You might trying writing about yourself in third person. Strike up a conversation with another person in the scene with you. Begin by asking, “Do you remember the time when…?”

Part IV: Time Line

I love Mr. Hamaker’s definition of history as “the places on the time line where things happened to people like you and me.” Try making a time line of your own life and note “earthquakes and tremors” along it. The “earthquakes” are those events that shook the world—September 11, the Challenger Explosion, the Kennedy assassination. Tremors are those events that shook your small corner of the world—when your childhood home burned, a divorce in the family, losing a friend to death or relocation.

It may help to play the “I remember” game, listing like a poem. Then choose a starting point and write, using special attention to sensory details. Imagine you’re looking through a camera lens. Do you need to move in closer or to back up and take in a wider view?

In writing class, we used to refer to “exploding a moment” and “shrinking a century.” Authors have to do both. Neither fiction nor nonfiction operate best solely at real time. As you read this week, pay attention to times when an author may take a whole chapter to describe what is actually a two or three minute scene. Then notice how, by contrast, the author may describe the passing of a few years in just a sentence or two. You are the author now. Which choice makes the best sense for your purpose? Try both.

Try McClanahan’s suggestion and pick one particular day, but instead of detailing it all chronologically, compose a series on one-minute scenes from that day. They don’t even have to be written or read chronologically. If I were to write about my wedding day, I might start with the moment we realized the rainclouds had rolled in and the only way to the back of the church was outdoors.

Part V. Warm up with some of the list activities in this chapter. I attended a fiftieth anniversary party this weekend, and the couple’s daughter had a string of fifty cards on ribbons, with an entry for something related to each number 1-50. One had the number of cars they had owned; another, in how many different states they had lived. The author suggests in this chapter that being asked to list her three favorite songs by the Rolling Stones sent her back to specific times and places (and automobiles), she’s onto something Tennessee Williams observed: “In memory, everything seems to happen to music.”

Try listing favorite songs—year by year, or all the places you’ve lived—or vacationed, old boyfriends, jobs you’ve held, pets. If you have the opportunity, ask your oldest relatives or family friends to makes similar lists for you.

Part VI: Experiment with McClanahan’s variation described beginning on page 76: Don’t just retell a story, but tell about the “telling of the tale.” We all have family stories that vary enough from one person’s telling to another to make us aware that the “truth” may lie somewhere in between—or far outside the telling. Release faithfulness to fact in favor of truth.

The narrative device of the telling may free you to take the story you want to tell in a direction you never expected.


11 Comments leave one →
  1. June 16, 2015 12:11 pm

    Getting ready for this week’s writing, I had so much fun re-reading Ch. 4 of Write Your Heart Out. I already know how important PLACE is to writing and remembering. In my introduction to the week, I began by describing my the home where my Coats grandparents moved when I was a little girl. I just barely remember the house before that, but it had no indoor plumbing. I don’t remember using the outhouse, but I do remember being washed in a galvanized wash tub.

    When my grandparents built the house on Chisholm Road, where they lived out their lives, we thought that ranch-style house in Zip City, Alabama, was a mansion. One of my poems that is set there is called “Bumper Crop,” since I so recall that after Pawpaw quit driving (and not soon enough for others’ safety), tiny mimosa trees sprouted from the bumper as it sat in the carport. If I’d made a bet, I would have predicted watermelon vines instead.

    If I were going to write more about that house, I might describe the empty house when some kinfolks reentered (without telling the rest of us) right after the second funeral, emptying the place of my grandmother’s quilts and countless keepsakes. Did they tiptoe around as if they knew they were committing an act of impropriety at best or did they walk right in, feeling entitled. Did they handle those quilts from her closet gently or did they quickly pile them up and haul them out to the car before anyone was any wiser?

    I wonder if Pawpaw had any old Sunday hats in the top of his closet? I rarely recall his wearing a hat in all that time he spent outdoors. This could be a trick of my own memory, but since he eventually lost his eyesight, the blue turning almost white, perhaps he never wore a hat for shade from the sun. I would have loved to go through the drawers in their rooms, looking at those small pieces that find their way to the bottom–old cufflinks, rarely worn, coins worn thin, maybe an old buckeye carried in trouser pockets for luck.

    The pictures that sat on their dresser must have gone somewhere. They kept a picture of me I had made at Kmart (!) during college. My roommate and I both sat in front of the fake backdrop–quite unconvincing–a sunset and trees. I suspect our children and grandchildren will think the whole world was overcast in shades of orange, judging by the photographs that have survived the 1970s.

    I’d also choose a child’s eye view out the den window (the one without the window unit air condition with water dripping out the back). I’d see the grapevines, remember the taste of those wonderful purple grapes, nothing like the ones in the grocery store. I’d remember the spot out in the garden where Mama Coats killed a ground hog with a stake or the time Amy and I spied countless little rain frogs, collecting them in a big jar, only to watch them die. We then learned we’d picked a jar that had held insect poison. Oops.

    I’d have to walk out into the backyard to peer under the house where they kept the potatoes we ate on all year. (“Some of these are a little shiveled up,” he would tell me, “but you can just rub off the sprouts.”) I remember that each year, he dug up their banana tree and put it under the house for winter. It was out there in the backyard I’d often find Pawpaw sitting in a metal folding chair with his small tape recorded, listening to tapes of sermons. Even though he only went to school through third grade, he was no ignorant man. He not only served as one of the elders of the Salem Church of Christ, but he also trained young boys to give talks and lead singing. Some of those same young men he drove all around so they could have the experience of leading a church service in a number of congregations were present to help with his funeral service, a lovely testament to his impact on their lives.

    It’s time to take a break from this particular peek back into just one place in my own past. I look forward to building a list, almost like a time travel itinerary.

  2. sandyyoung75 permalink
    June 16, 2015 9:46 pm

    Love this, Nancy! What a great memory you have! Mine is very fuzzy, and that’s why I’ll have trouble writing about PLACE, but I’ll try. Thanks!

  3. sandyyoung75 permalink
    June 16, 2015 10:33 pm

    401 Crenshaw Street, Apartment A – Mobile, Alabama

    I was born in Tri-State Hospital, Shreveport, Louisiana, on May 6, 1940, around 10:30 AM, according to my mother. I was there, of course, but you couldn’t prove it by me. I know that we lived in Bossier City for a while, but where, I have no idea. Neither do I remember living in Baton Rouge until sometime after my third birthday. Isn’t it strange how when we’re growing up, we tire so easily of hearing old stories? And then, after those who know the details are gone, we yearn to know more. I recall no stories whatsoever about living in Bossier City or Baton Rouge. How I wish that I had set my mother down and said, “Now, tell me about living in the first two cities of my life!” But I didn’t, and now it’s too late.

    However, I do have some specific memories of the third place where I lived – 401 Crenshaw Street, Apartment A in Mobile, Alabama. I can even remember telling people my address in a baby voice that still echoes in my mind.

    The apartment houses on Crenshaw Street must have been well built because they’re still standing today. My mother, daddy, and I lived in our apartment from 1943 – 1945, and back then, the apartment houses had white shingles on them. Today, they’re a pale yellow, with some major changes in the outside . . . porches on the corners instead of screened-in rooms, where little girls and boys could play safely. I’m sure that my memory of the screened-in room is mine only because my Mother loved to tell the embarrassing story. It seems that we had new neighbors and that I announced to the child in the family that my mother said I couldn’t play with him until we found out more about his family.

    Before I take you inside, I want you to know that the front steps were concrete, not very comfortable, but a great place for parents to take pictures of children. When it rained, and it has always rained a lot in the South, I remember playing in a mud puddle in the street after my mother told me not to. My punishment was to tell Daddy what I had done. Because my mother expected him to spank me, he did. That night, I had a high fever, and he was convinced that he had caused it. Of course, he didn’t, but that’s what he thought, and he vowed never to spank me again. Good idea as far as I was concerned.

    Now, we’ll go inside. I don’t remember specific items that might have been in the living room, the first room that we’ll enter. I’m sure that the furniture was covered in “flowerdy” fabric because in the ‘40s, most furniture was. I’m sure the living room wasn’t large, but it seemed so to me, just as my elementary school had seemed huge in my memory. When I visited it several years ago, it had miraculously shrunk!

    The kitchen was small, with only a four-burner stove, a sink, and an ice box in it. It probably was actually an old-fashioned refrigerator, not a real ice box. I know Mother had to defrost it frequently because it “grew” frost in the freezer compartment. That’s it for the kitchen . . . not much there. Outside the back door is where the milkman would leave quarts of milk regularly. Mother always had to carefully scrape ALL of the cream from the top because I wouldn’t drink the milk if it had even one little speck of cream in it. She used the cream for her and Daddy’s coffee.

    The dining room was also small with only a table for four in it. I’m sure that we must have had the buffet that I remember more from our next apartment. The memory concerning the table is vivid, or maybe I just remember Mother telling the story. In any event, it seems that Mother had one stick of butter, bought with her ration stamps. We were having company for dinner, and she put the butter on the table early, probably so that it would soften a bit before they ate. I loved butter! The next time Mother walked through the dining room, I was standing there with the stick of butter in my little hands, just eating away. I’m sure I got a spanking for that!

    I remember a short hallway between two bedrooms with a small bathroom off from the middle of it. If you walk into the hall from the living room, my room was to the left and Mother and Daddy’s to the right. I had a metal junior-sized bed, but that’s all that I remember about the furnishings in my room, and I remember nothing about the bathroom and my parents’ room. I do remember having scarlet fever and being quarantined in my bedroom for about two weeks.

    But . . . I surely do remember the remaining room, not really a room . . . more of a closet. It was in the living room and was shaped inside sort of like a cornucopia. It was my toy and play room, a heavenly place for a little girl and her boyfriend to play. Leroy Willingham was my first boyfriend, and we played for hours and hours. Only children sometimes do strange things where friends are concerned, and I was no exception. I would find all sorts of ways to bribe Leroy to stay longer to play, even to the extent of letting him tear up my toys if that’s what he wanted. Mother would get so angry with both of us!

    Outside the back door were garages for people who were rich enough to have cars. That didn’t include us, the Cheathams. I don’t recall ever going into the garages, but I do remember the beds of sweet peas and pansies just to the side of them. I loved to sit on the ground in the flowers, picking and sniffing the whole time. These are the flowers of my childhood, and I still love them. In fact, our hanging baskets this year are filled with pansies! I have one definite memory from a day when I was sitting happily there. My mother walked out the back door with a letter in her hand. She sat down on the back steps and began to cry. When I asked her what was wrong . . . I didn’t know Mother could cry . . . she read the letter to me. Her childhood home had been completely ruined by a flood. Some of my cousins remember the old house in Logansport, Louisiana, because they lived there with their mothers while their dads were in Europe in World War II. I have no memory of it, though.

    So much for my first home. Maybe my memory isn’t too bad from seventy plus years away from living there!

  4. June 17, 2015 12:08 pm

    The mention of the “floweredy” couch reminded me of the time my parents bought a new one, but wouldn’t let us sit on it. I think we may have even left the plastic on for a long time, although that memory may have actually been at the grandparents’ house.

    I find that writing about one place leads me to thinking of about twelve others. I guess this journal I’ve started on Penzu is going to be filled with lists too.

    • June 17, 2015 12:32 pm

      So glad you understood my spelling! I was afraid someone might think I meant to say “flowery.” Yep . . . while I was writing, I thought of other things to go with Mobile and may write about them. HaHa on the couch!!

      So glad you’re on Penzu. I think the reason that I went with Pro is that I can upload photos and change the date if I want to.

  5. Kathy permalink
    June 18, 2015 11:15 pm

    I wrote four pages describing the house I grew up in … I’ll share just a few paragraphs here.

    My childhood home on Christy Drive in Pensacola, was a small concrete block 3 bedroom, 2 bath house. Originally it was a grey/blue color but later we painted it white with dark green shutters. There were a couple of steps up to the front door that came in to the right side of the elevated porch, and the porch had those wrought iron floral supports. We lived in that house from 1963 when I was 4 until 1977.

    Our kitchen was in a U shape with Coppertone appliances, the refrigerator and upright freezer across from one another. Funny I don’t remember what the counters were made of at all. We had a tan formica kitchen table with brown and white chairs that had metal legs. The kitchen was open to the dining area and on into a small den (it was all one room). I have a lot of old photos taken at that table, some of family and some of my annual birthday slumber party girls. There were glass sliding doors on one side that went out to the back porch and patio. Originally there was also a door that went down steps to the carport, which was later enclosed for a larger family room. I have two vivid memories of the little den area next to the table. 1) When I was 10 after a complicated tonsillectomy and an ensuing bad case of thrush, my parents put a webbed chaise lounge (like you would use at the beach) in the den for my “sick bed’ so I could be near them in the kitchen and living area. I was too sick to get out of bed, and I stayed there about two weeks. 2) Dad was always in the process of weaving cast nets. He would hang the first loop on the top door hinge of the coat closet and sit on a stool or chair and weave the net longer and wider, with it eventually puddling on the floor. There was always one in process hanging from that hinge, since as soon as he finished one he started another.

    We have pictures of Dad and Dave (my brother) painting my bedroom pink. I loved that color as a child and still do. I had pictures of Pinky and Blue Boy in my room. When we were kids we got to pick out shag carpet for our bedrooms. Dave chose gold and I chose red. My room was red and pink for years, then red, white, and blue as I got older. For some reason I frequently organized my closet into a little clubhouse for myself. I guess I wanted a private place to hang out? I would put shelves in it, and books, and dolls, and a little lamp, and it was a tiny closet! I can still feel how it was to hole up in there sitting on the floor with my clothes hanging overhead. I had my own room, parents who respected our privacy and taught us to knock before entering, so why did I have to make a cave in my closet??

    • sandyyoung75 permalink
      June 20, 2015 1:30 am

      Thanks so much, Kathy, for bringing the Christy Drive house back to my memory. Am I remembering correctly that someone gave a shower for you in that house? I had forgotten how much your dad loved fishing. I remember how sad I was for all of you when he died and sad for me that I couldn’t be there for my dear friend Ethel. You had a “hidey hole,” too! Weren’t they wonderful? Wish I had one now!!

      • kathy permalink
        June 20, 2015 6:47 pm

        No shower for me in the Christy Drive house, as we moved before I got married in August 77. That wedding was planned in a week so I don’t remember any showers, actually. Yes, 1987 was a sad year for us. I poured out my heart writing about it earlier this week, but not brave enough to share those pages.

      • sandyyoung75 permalink
        June 20, 2015 7:37 pm

        Never a need to share what is too dear to your heart, Kathy! I must be getting houses mixed up for showers for who knows who. That’s what happens to me with memories. So very difficult for me to remember details; hence, not many details in my memoir writings. I’m sooo glad that you’re writing with us, Kathy! I really loved your Christy memories!!

  6. June 18, 2015 11:36 pm

    Kathy, your post with your mention of spend-the-night parties reminded me of one particular kitchen in one of our many houses. Since Daddy was a preacher, we lived in the church’s preacher’s home until I was in high school and my folks bought their own place. I turned thirteen when we lived on Pearl Street, and for some reason, we had the ice ring from my cousin Christy’s wedding reception at my party. We had a bad case of the giggles and got sticky punch all over the kitchen.

    In that kitchen, I found out Mama was going to have another baby (Emily) and that one of my parents’ friends were adopting. I was sitting at the kitchen table there when I heard Bobbie Gentry singing “Ode to Billy Joe” for the first time. I also earned my Girl Scout cooking badge, but when we discovered an inch worm in my tossed salad, I had to make a new one before mother would sign off on that part!

    Mother always had a radio going in the kitchen in every house where we lived, so I always associated that room with music–and Paul Harvey. Different songs return me in memory to different kitchens.

    By the way, my shag carpet (early 70s) was red. But that was another house–and so many more stories!

    • Kathy permalink
      June 19, 2015 1:07 am

      okay, I am LOL at the inchworm in the salad story!! Yes, my memoir is growing and growing and as McClanahn predicted, every memory evokes more memories! I did write a list of songs that take me to certain past events and places, as was suggested in chap 4. That was a fun assignment 😉

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