Monday, November 30, 2015

Muddling Memoir: Letters

I opened Pandora's box, or rather Pandora's boxes. When I returned to my "Mexico Years" to explore the possibility of writing another memoir, I decided to dig out saved journals, photos, and letters.

My husband and I have lived in a very small house close to twenty-five years. Before that I lived in an even smaller cottage, and before that a one-bedroom Seattle apartment after five years and five months in two postage stamp apartments in Mexico City. I am amazed at how much stuff I saved, how easy it was to stash this stuff into nooks and crannies, and how overwhelming it became when it was time to take a peek.

The first box I found was pink cardboard covered in tiny white hearts that once held my daughter's dress-up collection. I was searching for Judi's letters. I met this British friend in Mexico and saw her again in England shortly before her death when we joked of writing The Ex-Mexican Wives Club. Stashed in the laundry room and crammed with yearbooks, merit badges, pictures, cards, letters, the box contained only a few of Judi's later letters. I was disappointed.

I dug deeper into the laundry room, the backs of closets, the crawl space under the stairs. On the floor of the linen closet, shoved deep behind my basket of journals, I found a large plastic storage bin of letters.

Several days went into sorting the letters into neat piles on the dining table by sender. Judi's letters were in that box along with letters from friends I've long lost contact with, letters from my Mexican ex-husband, and letters from people I no longer even remember. There were letters from my deceased parents and sister, and letters from each of my living siblings. I diligently labeled Ziploc bags and packaged what I recognized as an overwhelming wealth of research material.

Before settling into reading mode, I decided to give the house another sweep. Sure enough one more box was lodged behind a box of books on the floor of my clothes closet. I returned to the dining table and added this new box full of letters to the plastic bags. I haven't gone up into the attic yet, but I'm reasonably confident there's nothing there. Yet as I write these words, I know I will check.

I've begun reading these letters. I sort the collection in each plastic bag into chronological order and begin with the earliest. The letters reveal timelines and facts, experiences and emotions of the writer as she or he responds to my prior letter. I have only one side of these conversations, with two profound exceptions, but even that is plenty to fill in gaps and prod faded memories.

The two exceptions? Mom and Maureen. I didn't know how much my mother saved until I spent weeks sorting and emptying her house after my siblings and I made the difficult decision to move her into a dementia care facility. There was much I didn't know about my mother, but uncovering baby books, hospital bracelets, report cards, school projects, and saved letters from each of her nine children shocked me to my core.

At the time I was on a mission to sort and empty the house. I created nine piles, one for each sibling. It was not a popularity contest. There was no favorite child. The piles varied in size largely based on the physical distance between parents and kid, and how often we each wrote home. I didn't read the letters I'd sent to my Mom and Dad through the years, or those I'd sent to my youngest sister. It was too soon, too painful. I put them in a box and stashed them away. 

Now I will read those letters. All of them. In my Pandora's boxes, I will find the memories and truths hidden in words penned in a world before email made the art of letter writing obsolete.

Enjoying this blog series? To receive email notification of new posts, please subscribe by entering your email address in the box in the upper right column. Thanks!
Prior posts in this series:

Monday, November 23, 2015

Muddling Memoir: Journals

"Is there anything you'd like to include?" the attorney asks.

"I'm wondering if there's any way to ensure my journals are never read after my death," I say.

My husband and I have finally met with a professional to create a will. She adds a  note, but I'm certain it is insufficient. I know I need to destroy my own journals when the time is right. But when is right?

My first journal was a sister's gift as I departed on a solo Greyhound trip to California and flight to Mexico. The first entry reads 7-2-74. I was nineteen. I hold this journal here beside me as I scribble these words.
 I also have an overflowing storage bin crammed with others. These journals hold decades of secret thoughts, experiences, and emotions as well as the early scribbles of scenes for every book I've written. They are private and without them I could never have written those books.

Over the past months I transcribed the journals from the five years and five months I lived in Mexico City in the early 1980s. In the process, I discovered something interesting: a coming-of-age metaphor in a foreign city, the most populous city in the world at the time, a city that spoke a language I was only just learning.

My early entries are in English. As months passed, English mixed with Spanish, a word here, a sentence there. Toward the end of my life in Mexico, Spanish dominated my pages. Now I struggle not only to understand that younger me but also the language she mastered.

Without my journals, the thoughts and experiences of that girl would be lost. I'd venture to say that without those journals this woman would be lost as well, and this writer, certainly this memoirist, would not exist.

I live an examined life, but I do not want my unfiltered journals read by others. My rants and rages, my whining and whimpering, my gloating and bragging are private. But I am not yet ready to burn them. I need them. They are my memory, my path, my connection to a world, a language, a culture, a me, long forgotten. So, I ask they be destroyed when I die. Morbid? Perhaps. A viable safeguard? Probably not. Better than nothing? Maybe. In a perfect world, I will finish mining these journals before my time comes, and I will celebrate with a glorious backyard bonfire.

Enjoying this blog series? To receive email notification of new posts, please subscribe by entering your email address in the box in the upper right column. Thanks!
Prior posts in this series:

Monday, November 16, 2015

Muddling Memoir: Beginnings

My husband comes home to a dining room strewn with research materials and a very moody, distant wife.

"Are you living too much in the past?" he asks.

"I'm a memoirist," I snap. "I have to go back there."

Later we talk. He understands memoir. He's lived through my writing of two earlier memoirs. He knows the value of facing the past head on and making sense of lives lived. I am fortunate. He is not threatened by my past. At the same time, I acknowledge the importance of finding balance, of not letting the past control the present, of making certain memoir writing does not overshadow present living.

The determination to understand one's past is fundamental to memoir. It requires honest self-examination which makes some writers uncomfortable and some readers disinterested. For me, truth - personal and historical truth - are vital to self understanding. I live an examined life and that examination has been my salvation.

Memoir writing also requires memory, or so one would assume, but remembering the people, events and emotions from twenty, thirty, forty years earlier can be challenging. That's where journal and letter writing, photography, and general pack-ratting are useful. Despite my travels, my moves, my instability for the first three decades of life, I seem to have saved everything. As a UC Santa Cruz archaeology student in the late 1970s, I had no idea I'd be using learned techniques to dig into my own past decades later. Perhaps those classes instilled in me the need to document my life and to preserve all.

I began a third memoir this past summer. In this new work, I return to the early 1980s when I was an ex-pat living in Mexico and to 2010 when three of us friends re-unite in London and reminisce about our shared experiences in that city. An idea surfaces and a title emerges: The Ex-Mexican Wives Club.

The challenge in writing this memoir is to re-enter a world so radically changed I no longer recognize it or myself. I am no longer that lost young woman. To write this memoir I must re-enter the confused mind of that twenty-something ex-pat in Mexico City who was me.

Over the next many months, I will be sharing my journey in memoir writing. Whether you are a writer interested in the form or a reader who loves it, I hope you'll join me.

Thursday, November 12, 2015

Some Things Never Change

I am grateful to author E.C. Moore for sharing this short piece in her blog series, An Honest to God True Story. If you missed it there, I hope you enjoy it here!


My daughter sits beside me, her head on the pillow smashed against the car window as I drive. I take furtive glances in her direction as I maneuver Interstate 5 from Seattle to Portland. I admire the beauty of her sleeping face and am lost in memories of the face of a colicky newborn, the face of an energetic toddler, the face of a sullen teenager always gentle, peaceful, beautiful when relaxed in sleep.

A month earlier my daughter asked what I wanted for my birthday.

"You," I said. "A weekend with you in Portland."
My daughter will be married in the coming year. She and her fiancĂ© work full-time and have recently bought a home. She has a tight schedule, and now she is applying for grad school. Weekends alone with mom are a precious gift.
I made the mother-daughter trip an annual ritual throughout my daughter's childhood. Our first trip alone together, we flew to San Francisco to visit one of my sisters. My daughter was four, small and pink in the airplane seat, her eyes wide with excitement, her arms clutching her white Bear-Bear. Thirty minutes into the short flight she slumped against the airplane window, Bear-Bear her pillow, her face peaceful perfection. Now, twenty two years later, as I drive toward Portland, I see that same perfection.
Another mother-daughter trip, our first to Portland, she was a pre-teen. We took Amtrak. Again the movement lulled her to sleep, again I admired her beauty and felt pangs of jealousy of her slumber, of her beauty, of her oneness with the world. No, not jealousy really, maybe envy, maybe joy. I knew her trust allowed her peace, and that knowledge was my reward.
At fifteen my daughter insisted on bringing a friend on our mother-daughter trip. I stalled and struggled. Was no trip better than one with a friend along?
"But we've visited my aunties," she argued. "And we went to Lummi Island to see your friend. It isn't always just us."
I had to admit she was right and went along with her plan. I felt like a chauffeur, the front seat beside me empty. When I looked in the rearview mirror, I saw the two testy teens in the backseat, deep in sleep, their heads on pillows against opposite doors, all traces of the testiness gone. I admired the beauty of my daughter's face and was reminded again of all our travels and all the stages of my daughter's life. I relaxed into the drive, the quiet, the peace.
That was our last trip together for a while. Mother-daughter trips were not something my daughter showed interest in as she navigated high school and university. Maybe I should've pushed harder, made the trips more enticing, but she was off exploring the world on her own, and some part of me knew that's what she needed to do.
Two months ago, when she asked what I wanted for my birthday, I hesitated. Rejection at any age hurts.
"A trip to Portland," I said.
"Fun," she said. "Let's stay at The Benson."
We decide to drive and once again I bask in the peaceful beauty of my daughter's face as the movement of the car lulls her to sleep. I enjoy this amazing person who came from me and the memories of our life together. These are the unexpected birthday gifts my daughter gives me.