Wednesday, May 20, 2020

The Power of Place: Does the Home of Your Past Influence Your Present Preferences?

Marcia Moston

Think about a place of your childhood. What do you first see? Whether it’s the family kitchen, the grandparents’ woodshed, the baseball field, or the big tree in the backyard, our earliest memories are attached to a place. Places stick in our minds because they embody something more than the physical space they occupy. The places of our lives, especially those of our childhood, are saturated with emotional and psychological associations.

 According to builder and home designer Chris Travis,* the emotional and psychological attachments we associate with those places, even though we aren’t consciously aware of them, affect our responses to our present-day surroundings. Understanding the root of these attachments helps him design homes that take these buried associations into account and satisfy his clients’ preferences.

For example one couple was deadlocked about having a basement; the husband wanted it, the wife inexplicably against it. Through one of Travis’s Truehome exercises, they discovered she was claustrophobic and had negative childhood associations with closed spaces like deep closets and basements. This discovery helped the designer come up with something that satisfied the husband’s space needs and the wife’s aversion.*

Memoirists know that examining the past helps to understand the present and possibly affect the future. So of course, being the inward-looking person I am, I started thinking about the homes of my past and how they may have influenced the many other homes of my life.

My husband and I have moved about eight times over the years of our marriage. Although we haven’t always had a choice about our dwellings—the two-room adobe house with outside sink and scorpions climbing down the walls in Guatemala, the four-room downstairs parsonage apartment with the slanting floor and upstairs tenant in Vermont—I realized every house, from the first cape on Long Island with the ugly green asphalt siding to our present white, light, bright one—had great yards.

The yard is the first thing I look at when considering a house. When I thought about the places of my childhood, I realized my memories were mostly about being outdoors. Despite my mother’s efforts, the house I grew up in usually looked like someone had opened the door and let a hurricane pass through. But we didn’t care because we were allowed to roam the meadows, rivers and lakes from dawn to dusk. (What was my mother thinking!)  And that penchant for living outside while snug inside is always with me--as is the need for order--(Bob’s gotten used to it too.)

I’ve used the following example a gazillion times—and yes, I remember that I have in case you think I'm getting forgetful—but it is so good it deserves to be repeated. C.S. Lewis writes about the place of influence in his childhood. His father moved the family to a large house. Lewis’s brother went away to school, leaving Lewis alone much of the time. In Surprised by Joy, Lewis describes the impact this house had on him:

The New House is almost a major character in my story. I am a product of long corridors, empty sunlit rooms, upstairs indoor silences, attics explored in solitude distant noises of gurgling cisterns and pipes, and the noise of wind under the tiles. Also, of endless books.
Your Turn:

1.  Model Lewis’s format and write about a place that had an impact on you as a child.
2. Start a sentence with It was a place where . . .
3. What was home like for you? How has it influenced your idea of home now? What emotional or psychological impact does it have on your present preferences?

These are two fascinating resources about what the objects and places of our lives say about who we are:

*Snoop--What Your Stuff Says About You, by Sam Gosling, Ph.D.



Thursday, May 7, 2020

Mini Memoir Moment #8: Family Legends: Are Memories True?

Marcia Moston
My father used to play baseball in high school, in a semi-pro league back in the thirties and later, after the war, in the 50s. He was a catcher and apparently a good hitter. His batting average for one season was .436--although he writes about striking out against Satchel Paige, the great pitcher from the Negro League.

Each of my siblings and I have a mental image of Dad bending over home plate with a big rip up the seat of his uniform. Whether this is from an old newspaper clipping or from one of his games we might've attended as young children, I don’t know. But the picture doesn’t seem to exist. It makes me wonder if it were a family story, told so many times we collectively imaged it.

Today as I was going through his scrapbook from the earlier baseball days, I found a news clipping about the last game in a series in which the other team had a clean sweep so far. My father’s team held on for ten spirited innings, but finally lost 2-1, although it seems Dad did his best to annoy, confuse, and de-energize the opposing team:

The Cathedral catcher, Chadwick, caused much discussion because of his constant delay of play throughout the game. Twice while on base the fiery backstop, advancing a base on a foul ball, took an unnecessary amount of time in returning to his rightful position. Before going to bat in the eighth he walked out within ten feet of the batter’s box and took off his shoe and stocking, replaced it, tied the other shoe, and to top off the performance tucked in his shirt and pulled up his pants before proceeding to the plate. Finally immaculate, he struck out. 

After all that posturing he struck out! For those of you familiar with the famous baseball ballad “Casey at the Bat” this looks like a 1936 replay of a poem written in 1888. And maybe it’s the source of my memory.

Memories morph into images in the retelling. Although the actual account may change, I think what stays true is the emotional meaning the original had for you. That’s the part that memoirists and family storytellers need to explore. Not that I’m suggesting fabrication—verify facts where facts can be verified, but own your side of the story as you remember it.

So what do you do when you remember something but someone else remembers it differently?

1. Tell your version but give your reader an alternative option: Although my sister remembers it this way . .  .” Or—The family version is . . . That’s what Rick Bragg did in the excerpt I used last week about his birth:
“I am told it was a hot, damp night in late July 1959, one of those nights when the setting of the sun brings no relief. It might have been the heat, or something she ate—an orange slush and a Giant Dill Pickle—but about the time Charlton Heston laid eyes on that golden calf  . . . I elected to emerge.”

2. Use identifying words like perhaps, maybe, it could have been . . . to let your reader know you are filling in gaps or surmising something that may have happened another way.

3. Check facts where they can be checked, ask family members their versions, but in the end own your story—use the memory you have to make the point you want to give away.

Your Turn:

1.Write about an event the way you remember it and then ask someone who was involved what their version is. Where do you disagree? Are there “facts” you can verify? If not, does the difference matter to the story you have come to tell?

2. What are your family legends—stories handed down to which you may or may not have memory? How have they influenced you? What about them makes them special to you and yours?



Friday, May 1, 2020

Mini Memoir Moment #7: Stories of Birth and Origin

Marcia Moston
Stories have to be told or they die, and when they die, we can’t remember who we are or why we’re here.—Sue Monk Kidd

When we were kids, my brother, sister, and I watched the Lone Ranger on our black and white TV, and then spent hours playing cowboys and Indians in the woods behind our house. This was particularly fun because part of our family legend was that we were descendants of, what I imagined to be, a fierce and noble Indian tribe. 

Recently one of my sisters showed me a book that muddied the family myth. Apparently a distant relative was a fur trader of dubious character in Nova Scotia. He took up with a Micmac woman from whence the few drops of my Indian blood flow. Not to disparage the Micmac woman, but that wasn’t quite the glamorous narrative I had imagined about my origins.

Nevertheless, way back then I knew I belonged to something older and deeper and greater than myself. But my family didn’t tell many personal stories. I didn’t know until I was an adult about the lifelong effects my father’s experience in the Battle of the Bulge had on him. 

I didn’t think to ask about the dreams and longings and memories my mother harbored within herself. I didn’t ask about my grandparents and their parents. I wish I did. Because they are all gone and the stories with them. 

Family researchers say one of the best things we can do for our families is to pass on our stories. Kids who have a sense of belonging to something bigger than themselves are better able to handle adversity. 

Stories of Origin
When we moved to the South, I was surprised when someone asked me, “Who are your people?” All I had to do was open my mouth to speak and they knew my people certainly weren’t from anywhere around there. But linking me to a people and place was a way of identifying me, of knowing something about this “stranger.” In some cultures this is particularly important.

In her memoir Infidel, Ayaan Hirsi Ali says that as a child growing up in Somalia she was expected to memorize her lineage. Under her grandmother’s drilling, by the time Ayaan was five, she was able to recite her forefathers back three hundred years:

“Who are you?”

“I am Ayaan, the daughter of Hirsi, the son of Magan.”

I am sitting with my grandmother on a grass mat under the talal tree. Behind us is our house, and the branches of the talal tree are all that shields us from the sun blazing down on the white sand. “Go on, my grandmother says, glaring at me.

“And Magan was the son of Isse.

“And then?”

“Isse was the son of Guleid . .  . Was the son of Muhammad. Ali. Umar.” I hesitate for a moment. “Osman. Mahamud. I catch my breath, proud of myself.

My grandmother nods, grudgingly. I have done well, for a five-year-old. I have managed to count my forefathers back for three hundred years—the part that is crucially important. Osman Mahamud is the name of my father’s subclan, and thus my own. It is where I belong, who I am.

 In her identity/adoption memoir All You Can Ever Know, Nicole Chung writes about her need to know her origins. The only story she knew was the one her adoptive mother told her.

Your birth parents had just moved here from Korea. They thought they wouldn’t be able to give you the life you deserved.

It’s the first story I can recall, one that would shape a hundred others once I was old enough and brave enough to go looking. When I was still young—three or four, I’ve been told—I would crawl into my mother’s lap before asking to hear it.

How could they give me up? I must have asked her this question a hundred times and my mother never wavered in her response.

“The doctors told them you would struggle all your life. Your birth parents were very sad they couldn’t keep you, but they thought adoption was the best thing for you.”

Your origins may or may not play a meaningful part in your written story. People often think memoirs are cradle-grave accounts and start with I was born on February 10, 19 . . . Snooze. While this is certainly a momentous occasion it doesn’t necessarily belong in your story, or at least in the beginning. But for now, let’s get the elephant out of the room and talk about some of the ways you can tell a birth story. We’ll worry about when, or if, you should include it.

a. Your birth story can showcase your storyteller voice. Don’t you feel like you’re sitting on the front porch listening to this 92-year-old woman talk? Notice how she chooses a humorous (in retrospect) detail to highlight her birth.

I was born in 1905, at home, and I found out the doctor’s bill was five dollars. And my brother came three years later and his cost eight dollars. My sister was eight years younger than me and she cost ten dollars. But I was the cheapest one.—example in The Gift of Memoir

b. In Growing Up, Russell Baker includes information about the historical setting of his birth, as well as makes a tongue-in-cheek reference to one of the themes in his story: his mother ‘s insistence he make something of himself. 

I was born in {my uncle’s} second–floor bedroom just before midnight on Friday, August 14, 1925. I was issued into the governance of Calvin Coolidge. World War I was seven years past, the Russian Revolution was eight years old, and the music on my grandmother’s wind-up Victrola was, “Yes, We Have No Bananas.” Unaware of history’s higher significance, I slumbered through the bliss of infancy, feeling no impulse whatever to make something of myself.

c. Rick Bragg, the South’s storytelling darling, doesn’t insert the occasion of his arrival until several pages deep in his story. Notice how he fills in information he wouldn’t have known at the time with phrases like “I am told” or “it might have been.” Also, note the characteristic Bragg attention to detail.

I was almost born there, (at the Midway Drive-In Theater) during the stirring closing moments of the Ten Commandments.

I am told it was a hot, damp night in late July 1959, one of those nights when the setting of the sun brings no relief. It might have been the heat, or something she ate—an orange slush and a Giant Dill Pickle—but about the time Charlton Heston laid eyes on that golden calf and disowned the Children of Israel as idol worshippers and heathen sons of lewd women, I elected to emerge—All Over But the Shoutin’

Your Turn:  Each of these writers turns the straight facts of their birth into an engaging read by adding details, humor, or reflection—and does it in fewer than 200 words. Choose one or all of the following to write about your birth or about some aspect of your origins:

1. Model Russell Baker’s passage and write about what was happening politically or culturally at the time of your birth. Even if you have no information about your birth, you can research some of the major events happening at the time. Perhaps you’ll see a connection to your own life.

2. Respond to the family narrative you’ve been told about your birth. Include some humorous tidbit, interesting fact, or retrospective observation.

3. Write about the people or places you came from. Use the Where I’m From”
poem, by George Ella Lyon as a model. Here's how it starts. Note the concrete details.

I am from clothespins,
from Clorox and carbon-tetrachloride.
I am from the dirt under the back porch.
(Black, glistening,
it tasted like beets.)
I am from the forsythia bush
the Dutch elm
whose long-gone limbs I remember
as if they were my own.

 Have fun with these, and if you write one in two hundred words or less and want to share it, please do.