Just before Mother’s Day, my brother and I went with our spouses to lunch and then spent the afternoon doing what the four of us love to do: antiquing. Quite by accident, we discovered an enormous antique mall and wore ourselves out looking at things, picking up things and trying not to break any of it.
We talked about continuing the hunt, but opted for a shot of caffeine instead. Once again quite by accident, we found a little coffee place that had everything a sagging body required for a caffeinated perker-upper, including a pianist.
She was a woman who had grown up during WW2 and she played song after song from that era, the ones she had always loved. As it happened, what she played were also the songs my brother and I heard throughout our childhood. They had also been our mother’s favorites.
As soon as we sat down in the cozy alcove with our specialty coffees, the pianist began to play “Sentimental Journey.” It was as though Mama had requested it herself. Glancing at my brother, I felt like crying. I thought: Mama is letting us know that she's here with us today.
We lingered over our coffee listening to the tunes we have loved for years and as we got up to leave, the pianist began to play, I’ll Be Seeing You, yet another one of Mama’s much loved songs that never fails to fill my heart with memories of her.
In writing memoir, it is important that one does not overlook the five senses.
Sight: Look at those old photos and put yourself back to the time they were taken. Were you a child? Was it a school picture, a graduation, wedding? Go back to that time and allow yourself to be there, fully engaged.
Sound: Music is what does it for me. I hear a song and immediately I remember why that song is important to me. It’s the songs we heard when we were younger that can connect us with memories of special times “back in the day.”
Smell: Certain smells remind me of certain people. My mother’s fruitcakes a s they baked; my husband’s after shave lotion that made me nauseous when I was pregnant; the smell of Brasso as he polished his military brass before his 2-week after duty each summer; baby powder … no need to elaborate.
Taste: I ate some pound cake recently that tasted like my grandmother’s recipe. It brought back memories of Sunday dinners with all my aunts, uncles and cousins, many of who are gone now. When I taste fried chicken I never fail to remember Lula Mae Green who fried the best chicken on the planet.
Touch: After my mother died, I brought a lot of her good towels home with me. I can rub my hand over one of those towels and remember how she loved shopping at the towel outlets that were scattered throughout South Carolina before the textile industry moved off shore. I can pet an animal and remember the cats and dogs I’ve loved. Wearing a pair of too-tight shoes will always remind of the days I was required to wear spike heeled, pointed- toe shoes as a flight attendant.
We were given the ability to see, smell, hear, taste and feel for good reason, not the least of which is in order to recall times gone by.
“You may forget the one with whom you have laughed, but never the one with whom you have wept.”~ Kahlil Gibran
Laughter can be cathartic, but a good cry is how I cleanse the clutter from my soul.
My penchant for sad movies began the day Mama took me with her to see the movie, Sentimental Journey. She was crazy about John Payne and I guess because she was Irish, she believed that Maureen O’Hara was her distant cousin. Mama apparently kissed the Blarney Stone at a very early age.
I was six-years-old but I clearly remember that day in the theater. Mama started to sob about five minutes into the film and I, lacking the capacity to understand her tears, cried along with her. She would pull out two Kleenex tissues at a time from her pocketbook, hand one to me and then blow her nose with the other.
Mama loved going to the picture show and it didn’t much matter if it was a drama, comedy or musical. Whatever was showing at the Carolina Theater (with the possible exception of Roy Rogers and Trigger) was the movie she would stand in line and pay a whole quarter to see. For many years, I went with her.
Together we saw Pinky, Johnny Belinda, Imitation of Life and Little Women, of course. Tearjerkers, every one of them. Occasionally, she took me with her to see a murder mystery. After seeing Edward G. Robinson stab a woman with scissors in the film, The Woman in the Window, I woke up screaming for weeks.
But Sentimental Journey set the emotional bar for Mama and me. For the rest of her life, anytime that movie was mentioned either in conversation, a recorded version of the song, or even if the movie was replayed on television, Mama would look over at me with a knowing smile. That long ago day in the theater with her when I was just a child continued to be our shared moment in time, one that lingered between us for nearly fifty years.
Once when I was living in Los Angeles, she sent me a newspaper article about the movie. It was a tiny thing, not much more than a blurb, but I still have it. It’s tucked away in my memory box, yellow now with age. The day I got it, I opened the envelope and lifted out the two-inch square newspaper clipping and thought, “What in the world is this?” Then I read the heading: SENTIMENTAL JOURNEY. It said that Turner Movie Channel was planning to run the movie again at such and such a time.
I skimmed it and then read the note Mama had attached which said: “I saw this in today’s paper and thought of you. How could I not?”
Oscar Wilde said, “Memory really is the diary we carry around with us.”
When writing memoir, it is so important to NOT write it as though you have cut and pasted information from Ancestors.com. Jotting down lists on a SEPARATE piece of paper will serve you well when setting your story in the correct time frame. But unless you are researching genealogy and you are the only one who will ever read what you’ve written, do not start off with dry facts. If you write I was born Mary Margaret Smith on January 1, 2014 and I went to school, blah, blah, blah, nobody will read it.
Why? Because nobody cares about those dates but you. Do you want your memoir to read like a telephone book? Of course not. Make it entertaining and readable; stay away from listing fact after fact. If certain facts have become important in writing your memoir, then get creative. Weave them into a story line that will capture the reader’s attention.
Keep in mind that a memoir is NOT an autobiography. An autobiography is the story of an entire life. If you found a cure for the common cold and were awarded the Nobel Prize, then by all means write an autobiography. If you have been elected the first female POTUS, yeah … you should write an autobiography. Why? People will want to read everything about you ~ every little detail. It will be of historical importance to document the steps you took to get to that incredible point in your life.
Chances are you are a regular person and you lead a normal life with memorable experiences that are unique to you. If that is the case, then think memoir. One thing to remember, however is that memoir, like testosterone, is best served up in small doses.
What does this mean, you ask? It means that you begin with a theme and carry it through to the end. I’m not talking about the end of your life with a reading of your Last Will and Testament. The end is where you wrap things up in an interesting and entertaining way. The end does not mean the ABSOLUTE end. You are free to write as many memoirs as you want. We don’t live in a vacuum so we have all sorts of things to write about.
By all means write them but stay within the framework of time:
“The years I spent in Africa“ for example.
“My life as a short order cook at Waffle House” is a theme.
(Your theme may be about people you have loved or hated or murdered.)
“Mama and Me” is the themed memoir I am currently working on.
“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times. It was high school.”
“Death Row is Not for Sissies.”
“I was brought up to be a mother.”
“When I Married a Butcher, I Became a Vegetarian.”
Stick to one theme but not necessarily one subject. Once you write the first piece on your theme, you will be amazed at how quickly your memory bin will spill over. You will remember people, places and things you had long forgotten about.
And when that happens, write it. Just write it. You can edit it later, but it’s important to get it all down on paper while it’s fresh. One door unlocks another door that unlocks yet another door and before you know it, you have typed your last sentence. Before you wrap it up, however, read over it with a critical eye as though you were not the author.
Have you used appropriate humor for comic relief? You’ll need that when writing about serious illness, death or other sad things that happen in everyone’s life.
Are there enough anecdotes to make it interesting? Entertaining? Will it be difficult for the reader to put your memoir down, or while it be used as a sedative for a good night’s sleep? As an unbiased reader, what is your opinion about what you have written?
You don’t need to be a professional writer to author your own story but you owe your reader words that make it interesting. You don’t want anyone to feel they have wasted their time on your memoir.
Tell about those embarrassing moments. We all have them. Be human and above all, write honestly. Don’t be afraid to tell it like it is.
Write until it feels right to type THE END.
The following is an example of how I begin to tell MY story, the one I will probably name Mama and ‘Em, or Mama and Me.
I came into the world kicking and screaming, a rebel without a cause. While in labor, my mother asked the doctor if she was about to give birth to a kangaroo. She said I kicked my way out of the safety of her womb and I never stopped. I sassed her before I could string sentences together, she told me. She often said what a shame it was that duct tape wasn’t invented sooner.
I thought learning to walk entitled me to tie my own shoes. Mama and I fought the Shoelace War every day before she gave up and told me to just go barefooted.
That’s about the time she said to Daddy, “This kid’s gonna be a captain. We might as well call her Cappy.” Cappy was the nickname for sea captains during the war and since I was born in the early forties, I suppose it made perfect sense to them.
Mama was an excellent seamstress and haunted Belk’s Department Store in search of wartime remnants to make me girly dresses and pinafores. I preferred to wear clothes my brother had outgrown. My innate rebel tore holes in dresses so I wouldn’t have to wear them. Since that time, however, I’ve developed an incredible love for beautiful clothes.
When I was five-years-old, we moved into a rented post-war bungalow, one of six identical houses with reversed floor plans. I wandered in and out of the neighbor’s houses feeling right at home since they were so much like ours.
After finding some old whisky bottles underneath the house next door, I filled them with water, put them in a wagon and went up and down the street selling whiskey bottles of water, or trying to, for a nickel each. Mama nearly snatched me baldheaded.
In the dead of winter, I washed a neighbor boy’s hair under the outside spigot. It was so cold that day I nearly caused the poor kid to catch his death. When his sister fussed at me, I tossed my five-year-old hair and defiantly told her to keep her fat ass in her own yard. Mama used a hairbrush on my skinny ass when she heard about it.
By my sixth birthday, I had run away from home four times. I thought of my escapes as early adventures for the unexplored but looking back on it, I think it pretty much established a lifelong pattern.
Rebel or gypsy? Maybe a little of both.
It seems to me that I have lived many lives since I kicked my way out of Mama’s safety zone. Going back over the years I have spent on this earth, I realize that I have often compartmentalized my life into relevant segments and now I ask myself why. Maybe it’s because on some level I always knew that sooner or later I would find a way to connect the dots. Or maybe it’s because I don’t want to bore my readers.
There are many things I love remembering and lots of things I wish I could forget. I am not unlike most people in that regard. In this memoir about the relationship I had with my mother for almost fifty years, I will attempt to tell it the way I remember it as honestly as I know how because I have a story to tell.