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

13 responses to “Story Problems

  1. Sounds so familiar. I wrote my memoir using music and songs from my childhood. I had no access to the place nor photos.
    I was never good at math as a child and still am. I don’t think we change much from what we started with as children.
    Enjoyed visiting and reading

    • lucewriter

      Laila, SO nice to hear from you! How are you and how is your writing life? I love hearing that you used music from your childhood to write your memoir. Please stay in touch. Luanne

  2. Pingback: Story Problems « Inspirations from Wake and Sea

  3. Darcy Pavlack

    Loved reading this story…I had the same basement (which I had forgotten about until I read your story!!).

    • lucewriter

      Darcy, that is so funny about your basement. Now that I think about it, our house was closer to your side of town–it was off Gull Road, almost to Comstock. Have a safe trip. xo

  4. Love this post – the memories it evokes are priceless! Thanks!

    • lucewriter

      Ginny, thank you so much for reading. I’m glad you enjoyed it and that it stirred up those valuable memories for you. So nice to have you as a reader!

  5. Lisa DeNike Ercolano

    Luanne, I remember seeing a Gull Road when Olivia did a summer at The Barn Theater in Augusta. Could it be the same one?

  6. Another trick to retrieve memories: read a story that takes you back to your childhood like yours did for me. Our home had a similiar basement with the cinderblock walls. My father converted sections of it to a bedroom, a laundry room and a study. Thanks for the trip down memory lane. 🙂

    • lucewriter

      Ah, I love that reading my post took you back in time to your own childhood! And I’d love reading about your basement with a bedroom, laundry room, and study!!

  7. Pingback: The List You Need to Write a Memoir | Writer Site

  8. So glad you sent me off to look for this post, Luanne! I really like to see that your childhood resembles mine! I was also a reader at age 3 or 4, I was even embarrassed by my teacher in kindergarten and she took me off to a corner where there was a machine that had like a “ticker tape” where the words went quickly across the screen. My Mom called it my “speed reading” time, but apparently I was fairly adept at this. I answered questions like the SRA cards we later had in second through sixth grade. I am sure I was good in math in elementary but by high school we had mini courses in English, exciting courses like “20th Century Novel” or “Rebel in Literature.” I took 5-6 courses a day, only one math in 9th and 10th, no math again until college! I took 2-3 science classes, the required American History and Psychology, etc. But loved those mini -courses! My favorite was “King Arthur’s Court” class. All kinds of 4-5 page papers were due which really helped my college years, again. My basement had an unfinished floor but my Mom and Dad bought one of those carpet remnants, it was even frayed on the edges, unfinished. That helped a bit on the cold winter days downstairs.

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