Monthly Archives: October 2012

Story Problems

When I was four, I spent the seven-month Michigan winter playing in our basement.  Dad had built walls in opposite corners, one to create a laundry for Mom and the other for his workshop.  The open area just outside the workshop had become my playroom.  Nothing special designated it as mine. The floor was concrete, which Dad had painted with gray industrial paint.  Scotch tape didn’t hold up my drawings on the cinder block wall, and when I tried to nail a finger-painting to the gritty cement, I wasn’t strong enough and Dad’s hammer was too heavy.  The nail slipped to the floor, my painting torn.

Halloween party in the basement–I am not in the photo as I was too young to be up this late

What my playroom contained were wooden crates of costumes and dolls and books.  These served as portals to my imagination.  With the single light bulbs shining from overhead, and these possessions spread out before me, the room felt cozy and cheerful, no matter that the window up near the board-studded ceiling was blocked by a snow drift.

One day, as I sat cross-legged, engrossed in Little Red Riding Hood, my mother came out of the laundry room and sang me part of an old song:

School days, school days,
Dear old golden rule days.
‘Readin’ and ‘ritin’ and ‘rithmetic,
Taught to the tune of a hick’ry stick.

She laughed and said, “I’m glad to see you’re so good at your 3Rs.”

I didn’t understand what she meant, so she explained to me that the basics of a good education were reading, writing, and arithmetic.  I could read and write and liked to add small sums on the notepads Dad brought me home from work.

She was right.  I loved all three subjects.  I couldn’t get enough of my Little Golden Books and each time we went to National grocery store, I begged for one of the 25-cent books with the foil spines.

The power of writing a sentence was already apparent to me.  There was a symmetry to subject-verb-direct object which thrilled me.

And who wouldn’t love to create beautiful numbers out of lines and curves and then find out that 2 + 2 always equals 4?  How serene I felt once I understood that certainty.

Upon starting school, I continued to relish all the subjects we studied.  Science, the partner of math, captivated me in all its forms—meteorology (keeping a temperature log), astrology (creating a scrapbook of the nine planets), biology (growing mold on potatoes).  I was complete, a whole person, half reading/writing and half math/science.

During arithmetic, we were presented with both numerical problems and story problems.  The latter were akin to reading mysteries.  It stands to reason that I would have loved story problems, but herein lies a problem.  A problem related to writing memoir.  No matter how much I think about it, I can’t remember whether I preferred numerical or story problems.  It seems that I ought to know the answer to that, but the experience is long forgotten or disremembered.

Along with the absence of that memory is another mystery.  I don’t know where I lost the math side of me and became identified with only one side, the reading/writing side.  How did something that seemed so fresh and interesting to me as a child become a burden by junior high?  If I could remember how I felt about story problems could I find the answer?

Tristine Rainer, in her book Your Life as Story, gives a variety of tricks to retrieve memories.  Her tricks include:

  1. study photos as “memory sparkers”
  2. listen to music from the time period
  3. re-visit the floor plan of your old home
  4. let your body remember through an action or movement

As I work on my memoir, sometimes I can’t remember important parts of my story, and I use Rainer’s ideas.  For me, internet research into a time period sometimes helps.  So do old television shows, since I am of the first serious TV generation.

If I want to solve the mystery of my dislike of math, maybe I should follow Rainer’s 4th trick and get my hands on an old arithmetic textbook and start solving problems.


Filed under Creative Nonfiction, Memoir, Memoir writing theory

Breaking the Codes of Childhood

“Each [memoir] is in its own way an account of detection, a realized effort to assemble the puzzle of what happened in the light of subsequent realization.”

The Art of Time in Memoir by Sven Birkerts

When I was a young teen we had a subscription to Psychology Today.  I read about codes and code breaking in one issue and all my Nancy Drew instincts banded together and urged me on to become a code cracker.  This desire had probably originated even earlier as I’d ordered a book on codes from the Scholastic Book Fair in 6th grade.  The book had seemed beyond my abilities until I read the magazine article; that’s when I appropriated the large blackboard on our basement wall and began studying code breaking in earnest.  My mother would shake her head when she came down to sort laundry.  The board was riddled with what looked like equations made up of hangman games.  It’s likely that I had a distracted absent-minded professor look on my face.  Within a year I started dating, which gave me human codes to crack, and I gave up on my CIA code-breaking dream.

Click here to locate book on Amazon

A few years ago I began work on a memoir.  As I write about my past, I try to find keys to the meanings of my memories.  This process is not much different from the code cracking I taught myself as a teen.  We have memories, Sven Birkerts explains, which are involuntary.  As memoirists, we need to investigate why a particular memory of a seemingly meaningless moment has such power that it still calls to us through decades.

One of those moments for me happened when I was a toddler.  I’d been quarantined to my bedroom for days from illness, but was finally well enough to be allowed out of my bed.  Mom carried me out to the living room and plopped me onto a chair. I leaned back, angling myself against the chair back, waggling my feet out in front of me. I felt antsy all over–as if I needed to get outside or I’d suffocate.

My parents had finished supper an hour before, and Dad had been at his workbench since then. Now he’d come upstairs and was conferring with Mom in the doorway to the kitchen.  “What do you think about going to Lockshore Dairy for some I-C-E-C-R-E-A-M?”

As if the fog in my head parted at that moment, my mind pounced with clarity. “Ice cream?! Mommy!  Daddy!  Please!”

My parents looked at me in surprise and then exchanged a look with each other. After all, I was not much more than an infant to them.  My mother said, “She can read!”

My parents would no longer be able to spell their secrets when I was in the room.  Their dismay over my code breaking was overshadowed by their pride in my spelling ability. Their beaming faces glowed together into one big shining focus.

I have no memory of learning to read.  I remember my mother making reading cards for my little brother and painstakingly teaching him to read.  I asked her the other day if she taught me to read the same way she did my brother, but she couldn’t recall.  What I remember is assembling the letters in my head into a readable code and the hidden answer “ice cream” popping into my head and onto my tongue.  The reward for reading was that my parents now had no choice but to load me up in the backseat of the car and head downtown.  The satisfaction of breaking the code of words was thus reinforced with a vanilla ice cream cone, as well as a taste of Dad’s butter pecan and Mom’s tutti-frutti.

Maybe it was more than the ice cream.  It could have been seeing my parents’ smiles glowing together, knowing that at that moment they were united and happy with my achievement.  It’s possible I spent years trying to replicate that moment with my report cards.

Looking farther afield from that moment, I’m struck by the timeline.  Reading came together for me after I had been sick in bed for a week, imprisoned in my bed within my narrow bedroom.  In this way, reading came to represent freedom, something which I spent my childhood longing for.  And so I read.  First, I read my Little Golden books and in kindergarten I graduated to my mother’s Bobbsey Twin books, which were followed by Nancy Drew and Judy Bolton and then the Louisa May Alcott books.  Eventually they led to the code book and Psychology Today and Birkerts’ theories of writing memoir.


Writing Prompt: A voluntary memory is one we  actively seek to remember.  An involuntary one is a small, mundane memory which appears in the mind without having to search for it by will.  Write an involuntary memory down using as much detail as you can remember.  Then try to recall, if possible, what came right before and what came right after.  Write it all down.  When you read over what you have written watch for details which surprise or intrigue you, as well as connections to other memories and connections to who you are today.  Write about these connections and what you learn from the details.


Filed under Creative Nonfiction, Memoir, Memoir writing theory, Writing prompt

The Study of Faces

A face reflects differently under each new light.  It seems to me that faces are holograms.  To compare them with still photos or even other faces is a futile task.  One day I look like one relative and my mother like a relative from another branch of the family.  The next day someone will see my mother’s face in mine, although I look nothing like her aunt who seems to have cloned Mom.

Certain people think I am the female image of my father who, with his vaguely southern European looks, could never be confused with my mother’s Dutch relatives.

I didn’t start to think about faces and relationships until a day in 1976 when my grandparents entered the front door of my father’s store and I wandered up from the backroom to greet them.

Grandpa approached the glass case of men’s leather goods.  “Here ta get me a wallet,” he said.  “Got a good deal?”

Grandma smiled at me with her sparkly eyes and timid grin.  “Hi, Lu.”  She rolled out my name as if she didn’t want to stop saying it.  “How is school?”

“It’s fine.  I have an exam next week, though.”  I grimaced and walked behind the case, slid open the door, and pulled out a wooden tray of $10 billfolds.  I was a senior, a double major in marketing and history at WMU, the same school where my parents and grandmother before me had graduated.  When Grandma attended, the big university had been a little teaching school.

Grandpa took hold of a Moroccan leather, stiff and durable as iron, with a surface like grains of sand.  He examined the price tag, then opened it up and checked out the pockets.

I wished they had picked a different day to come in.  My headache was paired with nausea because the night before Marshal and I had gone to a party and I’d gotten completely plastered.  I hadn’t shampooed my hair that morning as I was running late and had to take the bus to work, so I’d pulled it back into a crocheted snood on the back of my head.

Handing me the first billfold he examined (“Ring this one up”), Grandpa looked down from his 6’1 height to peer into my face.  His blue eye bored into me as he did so, while the blind green eye wavered uncertainly.

“Man alive.  You look just like my mother.”  He looked at me with more interest than usual.  “I never saw that before.”

The person I’d grown up compared with was my mother, a pretty brown-haired, blue-eyed Jeanne Crain look-alike.  I knew I wasn’t as pretty as she, but the association based on our hair and eye color was made often.  When I was in kindergarten, she bought us matching baby blue and white gingham dresses.  Her mother and sister wore dresses made from the same fabric, and the four of us went to the Mother-Daughter Banquet at the church downtown.  We won a prize for our matching outfits, but I never believed that I looked like my mother.

Two weeks after Grandpa bought the wallet, I was at their house, examining a box of 75-year-old family photographs and glass negatives.  Grandpa handed me a black and white professional portrait of his mother:  blonde, austere.  Not brown-haired me, the girl people said reminded them alternatively of Susan Dey, Barbie Benton-sans-bustline, and the anonymous girl in the new bra commercial (unfortunately, accentuating my flat chest).  I said, “Oh, I don’t look like her.

Grandpa set another photograph in front of me; in this one, her hair isn’t pulled back as tightly.  Now I could see it–the long slender neck and arms, narrow chest, and her face, tipped down and looking at her lap, is long with good bones and just short of being too ascetic or prairie-wife-ish.  This could be me dressed in a stiff Victorian dress with puffy sleeves.  Me sitting on the front steps of the brick house built by Cora’s father in his signature style, with the light brick line breaking up the dark brown exterior walls.

I felt as if I were seeing my own body from afar, objectively.  We were both young and thin.  I imagined her with the same blue veins at her translucent temples.  Pretty enough, but not physical, a bit detached from the world.

It’s hard to believe that great-grandmother Cora was the woman who heard a man beating his horse in front of her house and rushed outside where she grabbed his whip and hit him with the handle.  Or the woman who, besieged with leukemia which had begun a vicious attack on her mind, threw all the books in the house out the windows, then gathered them into a bonfire.

That day Grandpa hauled the box of photos and negatives out to my car, said that I should keep them for the family.  I still pull out the images of Cora, to remind myself and to look for anything I’ve missed.  Now I see that in the 2nd photo her dog Bobby is with her.  In many of her pictures, she is with one or two of her dogs.  There’s another similarity as I, too, spend a lot of time with my animals.  I notice that she holds her body tightly, as a shield against the world.  She appears more gentle than fragile.

Looking back, I’m surprised I didn’t worry about my resemblance to an ancestor whose history and health seem plagued by problems.  Now that I am the same age she was when she died, I realize things could have gone differently, that I have so far been spared much of what she endured.

I pull out another photo, one I haven’t noticed before.  She’s standing near a shed in the yard, wearing an apron over her dress.  Little bangs curl over her forehead, her hair certainly brown, and she’s smiling.  Here, I see a diaphanous mask of my mother’s face floating across her-my features.  Another slight shift of the hologram.



Filed under Creative Nonfiction, Memoir