Listening Back

We cannot live our lives constantly looking back, listening back, lest we be turned to pillars of longing and regret, but to live without listening at all is to live deaf to the fullness of the music.  — Frederick Buechner, The Sacred Journey

A friend encourages me to write memoir. “But I write fiction,” I tell her; “I don’t write memoir.”

Oh, I’ve written nonfiction pieces for a blog or in the context of exploring memory in relationship to story. Or that’s what I’ve told myself. I have to confess that I find it cleansing to “get them out,” those stories, some of them like a painful tooth; it feels good for them to be dredged up, examined in new light, and then they’re gone. But a memoir? I may have the material, but I don’t have the nerve. It takes courage to remember.

I used to believe I had a near-perfect childhood. I was a doted-on only child, but I was also an overprotected child in a household where the grown-up dynamics were not even close to perfect. I came out of that background idealistic and immature. I married a boy with “promise,” had babies, and lived for a while what I believed would always be the good life.

But life often doesn’t turn out that way, and that’s where remembering gets hard.

winter sunset / g. wilson

I understand Buechner’s “looking back” as a metaphor for examining the past. When we look back, we either boldly face the past head on, or we glance over our shoulders so memory comes at us sideways, a little slant of the truth. Either way, we see visions of how things used to be. Sometimes they’re lovely; sometimes, nightmarish.

Too much dwelling on the past and we risk turning into “pillars of longing and regret,” Buechner says. Soured on life. Stuck. Sad. Lost. But then Buechner makes the turn, important in a poem but also in any good story: “to live without listening at all is to live deaf to the fullness of the music” [emphasis mine]. To shut off remembering is to miss out. Shutting off the past makes us less than what we can be and keeps us from living fully now.

But how do we “listen” back? Maybe Buechner means the way we play old “tapes” in our heads: the reruns, the should-haves, the voices, the patterns of thought that occupy our minds and keep us spinning in one place, unable to move ahead but unable to go back, either, which of course we can’t do: we can never, ever go back to the previous minute or hour or day, not really, except through the filter of memory.

Maybe all our remembered stories, no matter how simple they seem on the surface, deserve to tell their noisy little selves: to shout out, to sing off-key, to be messy and loud, heartbreaking and beautiful at once. Just like our lives.

“Listening Back” appeared on the TellingHerStories blog at Story Circle Network July 26, 2022 and originally appeared here in longer form.

Daddy’s Girl

This morning, I was looking for old photos of my dad to share on this Father’s Day when I ran across a piece I wrote about him a few years ago. It seems as good a time as any to return to the blog. Here’s the essay, and Daddy, here’s to you.

Daddy and me

The Saturday morning Daddy died, I’d washed my hair, and I was sitting under the dryer when my mother called. It was February, cold but sunny in Jackson, even colder in north Mississippi. Daddy had been raking leaves, she said. Yes, in February; the falling leaves had dwindled to one here and there, but she and I always joked that he had to be there to catch the last leaf when it fell. He knew he had a serious heart issue. My mother and I knew it, too, but she and I had given up policing. “We can’t take everything away from him,” she’d said. And so he still puttered in the yard, played a little golf, and went to the grocery whenever she “needed” something.

When she called, they had already arrived at the local hospital. He’d refused to let her call an ambulance, so she’d driven him, and now he was in what passed for intensive care. “A heart attack,” she said, her voice even but tinged with fear. His condition was too precarious to risk moving him to the medical center twenty miles away. “I think you’d better come.”

A three-hour drive. “I will. I’ll be there as soon as I can.” We hung up. What to do?

Frantic, I took my damp hair down and threw clothes into a bag. My boys were playing at a neighbor’s house. I would call my ex-husband to come get them. Surely he would do that. But before I could call, the phone rang. He was gone.

My first thought was, I didn’t get to say I loved him. But he knew. Surely he knew.

Born the eleventh and last child of a north Mississippi farmer, he claimed he was his mother’s favorite child. When he was old enough to work in the fields with his brothers, she kept him home. After high school he went to live with and work for his older brother. A handsome man, Daddy followed the big bands all over the Southeast and collected a number of lovely girlfriends. The proof is in a packet of photographs of beautiful young women I found in a trunk after he died. When he was thirty, his brother moved back to their hometown, and so did he. There he met my mother, whose best friend’s house was across the street from the service station where Daddy worked. Mother was eighteen and he was thirty-two when they married. I was born three years later, an only child because, he once told somebody who was rude enough to ask, “She’s all in the world we ever wanted.”

He was the epitome of a self-made man. He opened an automobile parts store where he worked long hours six days a week. When he was expecting a parts delivery, he would go early in the morning to take inventory and stock the store. Some summer mornings, I went with him. I loved the tin ceilings, the tall bins of parts, the floors stained with motor oil, the smell of automobile paint. My mother was his bookkeeper, and once I was old enough, I’d walk the quarter mile from school to the store in the afternoons and get a Coke from the machine Daddy kept in the back.

His work ethic was his downfall. He was diagnosed with ventricular fibrillation soon after he retired. Their plans to travel “later” evaporated. His frugal nature was the one serious flaw in his and Mother’s relationship. For years she dreamed of building a house out in the country. They bought the hilltop land and an architect drew plans, but Daddy balked. “What if I die?” he told my mother. “You’ll be alone, living out there.” Not building the house deeply disappointed my mother. Yet they loved each other with a love I envied.

His death stunned me. I had thought we would have more time. We’d talked less in those last years, my visits home a whirlwind of activity focused on my sons. Through my divorce, he was the rock. He mailed my children boxes of dime store trinkets. He sent me checks to help out because he knew money was tight. He sent me valentines and big boxes of fresh-cut greenery at Christmas. Sometimes, nearly forty years after his death, I hear his voice: “Things could always be worse,” he would say when life seemed dark.

A few years after both my parents had died, I dreamed they came to visit me. They drove up in their car, much like they used to, got out, and we had a pleasant few minutes together. I was so happy to see them! They couldn’t stay long, they said. “We just came to make sure you’re doing all right.” In the dream I told them I was, and they got back in their car and left. The dream never recurred, and I don’t believe in ghosts or “visitations” from the dead, but I woke from that dream full of their presence and love.

Sometimes, I’m reminded of him: the smell of pipe tobacco, a certain hymn, my adult sons’ resemblance to him. I’m grateful my sons remember his love, strength, and perseverance. I’m grateful, not the least ashamed, to have been a “Daddy’s girl.” I still am.

The #MeToo Thing

I have avoided posting the #MeToo meme, thinking I didn’t qualify because I had not been physically abused. But I “got to thinking,” as we say down here, about the whole spectrum of abuse and how destructive and demoralizing emotional abuse is. That, I can testify to. 

And then I had an encounter this morning while I was waiting in the dentist’s office.  Now understand, I am way past expecting a man to flirt with me. I have, as the actress Frances McDormand says in a recent article, become invisible to men. So I was stunned when this guy struck up a conversation. He was talkative, he was friendly–but in a way that made me instantly uncomfortable. We were the only people in the waiting room; none of the staff had come to the desk yet.

He was wearing his camo jacket and his cap, and he told me about the traffic driving in this morning, about how heavy it was, and there must have been a wreck but he never saw one. He told me what he does for a living (he paints houses), how his partner left the business years ago and then his brother left too but he’s still at it, he’s “only 69,” and “you got to eat, right?”

All the time he was talking, he was moving. He made jokes and laughed and touched my arm, my shoulder. Made jokes about age: “You’re like, 28, right? or maybe 25?”

I don’t remember what brought up President Trump, but this man said, “You’ve seen what the president has done, right?” His eyes bright with wonder. And I froze. I lost my courage to say, “Yeah, I’ve seen it, all right” and cut him off, I think because I didn’t believe it would. So I tried to ignore him, but he kept going on about what great things the president has accomplished, like getting rid of all that “green” stuff, and we should continue to drill for oil anywhere and everywhere, because oil comes from rock, and “Are we ever gonna run out of rock?” Laughing. Sure of his point. “If we don’t drill for it, it’ll just ooze right up out of the beaches and spoil them anyway.”

Finally, one of the staff came out and the guy started the same joke routine with her. I slunk away and sat down, praying he wouldn’t sit by me, and he didn’t. He announced he needed to go to the back and “use the little room.”

I had failed to stand up.

As I said, I haven’t had the horrible experiences other women have testified to in recent days. But how many times in my life have I been subjected to this kind of bullying disguised as a “friendly” male? Years ago, I was deep-kissed and touched on a dance floor by a drunk friend, and when I reported it to my then-husband, he called me a prude. I lived in an emotionally abusive situation for years because I was married to it, and for me, marriage was sacred. You could work anything out if you tried hard enough. Wrong.

So is it a matter of degree? Are these (and other instances I could relate) any less worthy of rebuke than if I had been physically attacked? 

It’s a mindset–to stay silent—that I hope is more typical of women “of a certain age” like me, who were schooled in a kind of male dominance that was the heart of the family. That would explain, I suppose, why I would excuse a man’s behavior as his “right.” Well, I’ve gotten older and wiser. I hope, for the sake of my granddaughters and the other young women I know, that the mindset is gone for good. I hope they’ll be braver than I was this morning. That they will speak their minds. That they will take care of themselves first.