Memoir depends upon memories, yet memory is a living thing—a slippery, unreliable thing.
In her book The Art of Memoir, Mary Karr describes memory as “a pinball in a machine—it messily ricochets around between image, idea, fragments of scenes, stories you’ve heard. Then the machine goes tilt and snaps off” (Karr 1).
How can we trust this tilting machine to deliver something whole and wholly reliable? If we want to incorporate even short memories into our work to serve as illustrations, Karr says, “even the best minds warp and blur what they see…For all of memory’s power to yank us back into an overwhelming past, it can also fail big time” (5). She sends copies of her manuscripts to people who appear in her books because she doesn’t trust her “wiggly mind” (5).
This week is my grandmother’s birthday. If she were alive, we’d be celebrating her 121st birthday. And when her birthday comes around, even though she’s been gone for decades, I still remember the coo of mourning doves in her small Midwestern town, and the sensation of walking on cool linoleum in her kitchen, and the taste of soft sugar cookies with gumdrops pressed in the center.
My parents would drop me off to spend a week with her in the summertime, and I loved sleeping in the front bedroom under fresh sheets spread taut and tidy over the big double bed with its high and regal ornate wood-carved headboard—part of a set she’d inherited from a cousin. Grandma would fold a loosely woven “summer weight” blanket over the sheets, and for a long time I felt like the best of summer was somehow linked to that pastel blanket.
In the narrow, horizontal window of that bedroom, she displayed a collection of colored glass bottles. Light streamed through the blues, yellows, pinks, purples, and greens—morning magic. I blinked myself awake, rested and safe.
In my memory I can still walk through every room, from the baker’s cabinet in the corner of the kitchen to the daybed along the dining room wall; from the collection of gardening books on shelves in the living room, to the glass jar of leftover yarn balls sitting next to a chair in Grandma’s bedroom.
I wander out the screen door and hear the squeaky stretch of the spring that pulls the wooden frame shut behind me with a solid “thunk.” Under the grape arbor, I pluck a Concord grape, manipulating the skin off with my teeth to suck the sweet, cool insides and chew the sour skin for a few seconds before spitting it out.
In my mind, baby’s breath still blooms white behind the garage and orange daylilies line the side of the house. My grandma made rag rugs on a loom set up on a small porch. I can see its threads and recall how she’d slide the shuttle across the strings and pull the long wooden beater forward to bind the strips of cloth snug and firm, her feet pressing pedals as the strings shifted to weave.
When Grandma passed away in 1987, the house was sold, remodeled, and turned into a rental after the possessions were divided among my mom, uncles, cousins, brother, and me. Though the structure remained, the home as I knew and loved it had been gone since I was young.
Why, then, did it hurt so much to hear from my mom that the house burned down in 2010?
It sat derelict for months. My mom and dad drove to visit the cemetery on Memorial Day a year later. Mom snapped a photo of the beloved house, her childhood home, and sent it to me.
At first, I couldn’t bear to see the house like that—one glance at the scorched brick and I grieved my grandmother and that space all over again.
Then I forced myself to look, to remember.
I stared at the snapshot for a long time. Weeds grew tall and gangly and the grass was high and uncut. But next to the porch where the loom once sat, under the window that had framed the gleaming display of colored glass, a pink rose bush bloomed.
Eudora Welty in her book One Writer’s Beginnings wrote:
[T]he greatest confluence of all is that which makes up the human memory—the individual human memory. My own is the treasure most dearly regarded by me, in my life and in my work as a writer. Here time, also, is subject to confluence. The memory is a living thing—it too is in transit. But during its moment, all that is remembered joins, and lives—the old and the young, the past and the present, the living and the dead. (Welty 104)
During those few moments of remembering my grandmother’s house, the old and the young, the past and the present, the living and the dead, joined and lived.
Karr may have likened memory to a pinball machine gone tilt, but she also says, “[A] single image can split open the hard seed of the past and soon memory pours forth from every direction, sprouting its vines and flowers up around you till the old garden’s taken shape in all its fragrant glory” (2).
My mind might be unreliable and wiggly, but the hard seed of the past split open and memory poured forth in every direction, bringing back to me a beloved, safe place—and person: my gentle grandmother, who sits at her loom wearing a simple cotton dress, her thin white hair pulled up in vintage combs, smiling.
And I’m a child again, in a T-shirt and denim shorts, silently watching, transfixed, grateful for the quiet place where a loom thunks and weaves something useful out of something discarded, where summer sweet blooms like sugar, its aroma drifting through the screen in all its fragrant glory, and I listen to the soft coo of the mourning doves that perch on the telephone lines that droop across every yard.
- Excerpt from Mary Karr’s The Art of Memoir (contains the pinball machine reference and includes a big ol’ swear word, so be warned)
- Source: Welty, Eudora. One Writer’s Beginnings. Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 1984. Print. (Affiliate link: One Writer’s Beginnings)
- Dare to Write (post inspired by a Eudora Welty quote)
- Source: Karr, Mary. The Art of Memoir. New York: HarperCollins, 2015. Print. (Affiliate link: The Art of Memoir)
- Mary Karr on memory
- My grandmother’s recipe for sugar cookies
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