Remember the Memoirs

by Carolyn L. Barkley 

We are the keepers of stories. My musings last week about music, specifically sheet music and its role in our family histories, crystallized my awareness that I am now the eldest person in my family who can remember stories of our past. My mother’s memory is fragile at best, and my son and his family have not shared the same multi-generational experiences as I have. This awareness comes with a clear obligation to write about these stories, even as I am also aware that I didn’t listen carefully enough and that some of the details have already been lost. For me, this preservation of the fabric of my family’s life must be emphasized equally with genealogical research, which I will (arguably I know) define here as the search for, discovery of, and documentation of specific events, their dates and locations. Such genealogical data creates the backbone upon which to hang, if you will, the stories that flesh out the lives of our ancestors and allow their reconstitution as three-dimensional characters.

This process of memory preservation does not need to be overwhelming. Memories normally pop into our consciousness in bite-sized pieces, prompted by an association with a smell, taste, location, or some similar trigger. When that happens, we need only to write about that specific memory. It can fit into a larger whole at some later date.

Here’s an example of a “moment in time” memory which I wrote for a creative writing class some years ago:

They seemed ageless to me, heroes of my fourteen summers. They weren’t as old as my grandfather, but old enough to have taught my mother to drive a Ford truck in the hayfield. They were mysteries to me, three bachelor brothers living on the farm next to my grandfather’s summer home: Ralph, Everett and Charlie.  They were my link to a past way of life which, for those warm summer country months, was my present: a wood stove, a pump in the sink, kerosene lamps in case of a storm, a four-part-line phone, and the huge horses from up the hill to pull the mowing machine, tedder, and hay wagon.

The rhythms of those past summers linger as I picture Ralph and Everett sharpening their scythes in the shade of the barn, and then slicing effortlessly through the hay where the cutter bar couldn’t reach. Haying was beautiful work, the long rows of hay mounded into shaggy piles by wooden-toothed rakes. With a single downward thrust of the pitchfork, they could pick up each mound cleanly and swing it onto the towering hay wagon, shifting its landing to balance the load. There was pleasure in watching and, I imagine, a pleasure in doing, in the satisfaction of an empty field, the hay safely in before the rain. For me, the best part was tagging along with my miniature rake, confident in the infinite patience of these men for my questions, enthusiasms, and help. The reward in such a day was a ride back in the wagon, leaning into the turns, safely held in Ralph’s lap. The warmth of the barn at the end of the day, filtered light dancing through the hay mow window, and the scampering of the barn cats are memories rich with the quiet patina of nostalgia.

Ralph was my favorite, his evening visits a daily anticipation. I would sit in the dusk of the parlor listening to his conversations with my grandfather about people and events I knew only through those evening stories. Their voices held me motionless, attentive. No one thought of lighting the lamps, the darkness increased the spell. A special night would include music at the piano, hymns or sentimental songs, with Ralph’s voice added to the accustomed family ones. When he left to walk home, I would watch him cross the long lawn to the road, following the light of his cigarette and his flashlight, twin fairy lights bobbing in the darkness.

I think of those three often, even now that I am probably the same age that they were then. I stopped going to “the farm” during high school and so unthinkingly allowed a door to close. I never said goodbye; just let the connection drift away, but I find upon reflection, a special place in heart and mind that cherishes the memory still.

This vignette touches on several topics and seeks to evoke images and almost tangible impressions to illustrate a particular time and place in my life. In fewer than 500 words, the intent is to offer richer information than that which might be gleaned from the factual statement that I spent the summers from my first in 1948 to those of my teenage years in the early 1960s at my grandfather’s summer home on Norwich Hill, Huntington, Hampshire County, Massachusetts. Diane Ackerman, in A Natural History of the Senses (Vintage, 1991), succinctly summed up one facet of the power of memory: “Nothing is more memorable than a smell. One scent can be unexpected, momentary and fleeting, yet conjure up a childhood summer beside a lake in the mountains; another, a moonlit beach; a third, a family dinner of pot roast and sweet potatoes during a myrtle-mad August in a Midwestern town. Smells detonate softly in our memory like poignant land mines hidden under the weedy mass of years. Hit a tripwire of smell and memories explode all at once. A complex vision leaps out of the undergrowth.”1

In addition to many useful sites available through Cyndi’s List under the category “Writing Your Family’s History,” there are numerous books to assist you in writing memoirs. These titles include the following:

Legacy: a Step-by-Step Gide to Writing Personal History by Linda Spence (Swallow Press, 1997).

Old Friend from Far Away: the Practice of Writing Memoir by Natalie Goldberg (Free Press, 2009).

To Our Children’s Children: Preserving Family History for Generations to Come (Doubleday, 1993).

Turning Memories into Memoirs: a Handbook for Writing Lifestories by Denis Ledoux (Soeleil Press, 2005).

Write the Story of Your Life by Ruth Kanin (1981, Clearfield, reprinted 1997); currently out of print.

Writing Life Stories: How to Make Memories into Memoirs, Ideas into Essays and Life into Literature by Bill Roorback (Writers Digest, 2008).

Writing the Memoir: From Truth to Art, 2d. ed., by Judith Barrington (Eighth Mountain Press, 2002).

You Can Write Your Family History by Sharon DeBartolo Carmack (2003, Genealogical Publishing Co., reprinted, 2008).

The next time a memory comes to mind, if you don’t have time to write about it immediately, at least jot down some notes so that you can come back to it later in the day, or the next. By capturing the complex essence of an event or the personality of an individual, you offer current generations, not just those in the future, a rich connection to the generations of individuals who have preceded them. My mother was reduced to tears when she originally read the reminiscence I’ve shared above. She was unaware that I remembered any of it. My writing is a way to preserve stories for future generations, but also can serve to remind a current generation that such memories had not already been lost.

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1 “Quotations about Memory,” Quote Garden (http://www.quotegarden.com/memory.html : accessed 09 August 2012).

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