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.


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