Listening Back

I haven’t been able to get these words out of my head today:

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

My Wordsmith Studio friend, Lara Britt, keeps encouraging me to write memoir.

“But I write fiction,” I tell her; “I don’t write memoir.”

Oh sure, I’ve written some pieces for this blog, mostly in the context of exploring memory in relationship to story. Or at least that’s what I’ve told myself. I have to confess, though, that I found it cleansing to “get them out,” those stories, some of them like a painful tooth; it felt good for them to be gone, no longer cooped up inside my head. But a memoir, a cohesive story of my life? No, I don’t think I have the material. Or the nerve. Because it takes courage to remember.

no such thing as perfection

I used to think I’d had a nearly perfect childhood. Nobody beat me. I didn’t grow up poor. I didn’t grow up rich. But I was an only, overprotected child in a household where the grown-up dynamics were complicated, so not so perfect, after all. Idealistic and immature, I did what I was expected to do: got a teacher’s license so I could “take care of myself” if the need arose, married a good boy with “promise,” settled down and had babies and and generally lived what I thought would always be the good life. How can I get stories out of that?

Well, life doesn’t always turn out that way, does it? And that’s where remembering gets hard.

looking back, listening back

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

My dad's radio / Gerry Wilson

My dad’s radio / Gerry Wilson

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 helplessly in one place, not moving ahead but not able to go back, either, which of course we can’t do; we can never, ever go back, not to the previous minute or hour or day, not really, except through the filter of memory.

Too much dwelling on the past and we risk turning into “pillars of longing and regret,” Buechner says. Soured on life. Stuck. Sad. Lost.

deaf to the fullness

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.

So maybe my friend is right. 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.

Nobody wants to “live deaf to the music.” How do you confront—or embrace—your past?

Age Twelve: The Great Void

Around the age of eleven or twelve, a kind of cleansing took place, and my memories are as sterile as the old house became when my mother tried to make it new.

Not long after my grandfather died, my mother decided to remodel the house. Looking back, I suppose it had to do with wiping out those years of sickness and impending death, but she went for a modern look: more or less Danish modern inside a red brick cottage built in the 1920s. The ruffled organdy curtains came down, replaced by sheers. The oil stove, our lifesaver during the ice storm, was removed and the fireplace sealed off. My grandmother’s old-fashioned dining room furniture, including the table I had played house under since I was a toddler, was carted off and replaced by starkly modern pieces. I remember everything as being beige: beige carpet (that was new, too, over old hardwood floors), a beige couch, beige barrel chairs . . . Daddy installed a big, ugly window AC unit in the living room. He bought a television set, and although what we saw on the screen looked like snow, we sat glued to it. Milton Berle. The Howdy Doody Show. Roy Rogers. Kukla, Fran, and Ollie. Ed Sullivan. (There’s a great list of shows of the 1950s at Wikipedia.)

My room changed, too: the wallpaper printed with cabbage roses came down, and the walls were painted a pleasant shade of pale green. Mother had flowered chintz curtains made and a built-in window seat where I loved to curl up and read. I was changing, too, but not fast enough to suit me. I was behind other girls my age who were blossoming. I was still a straight-up-and-down girl, no curves for me yet.

My grandmother’s banana pudding recipe
The ledger is dated 1924.

During those years, my grandmother, not my mother, was the primary cook in our house. She was one of those instinctive cooks–a pinch of this, a handful of that–and she never used a recipe she didn’t modify. I found the handwritten recipe above in a small ledger she kept sometime after the mid-twenties. The ledger contains other recipes and notes and meticulous records of her sales of eggs, milk, butter, and cream to her neighbors. That’s how hard times were. It was the depression, after all. By the time I came along, the cow was gone, and although there are photographs of me toddling around the yard, chasing chickens, I don’t remember them. The ledger is falling apart now, and all the pages deserve to be scanned. They tell the story of my grandmother’s hard life, which may help to explain why life with her became difficult as she grew older.

My mother made over our house, all right, but she didn’t succeed in changing the dynamics of the relationships. My grandmother remained more the mistress of the house than my mother was, although my dad was the true head. It was as though my mother had never grown up; my grandmother treated her like a child. To give you an idea of how complex things were, I called my mother “Mother” and my grandmother “Mama.” At times it did seem like I had two maternal parents. And as I approached adolescence, the complexity of three generations of women under one roof began to take shape.

Do you understand the dynamics of your growing-up household better now that you have an adult’s perspective, or are they still a mystery to you? What questions do you wish you had asked when you had the opportunity? 

This is entry twelve in Jane Ann McLachlan’s October Memoir and Backstory Blog Challenge.

Age Nine: Penmanship and Shame

Fourth grade was the year of Miss Annie Nesbit, a spinster teacher who had also taught my mother (as had my first grade teacher, the one who spanked hands with a ruler). Miss Annie was a legend. We’d all heard of her since the time we entered school, and now it was our turn to endure her for an entire year.

Miss Annie was tall and thin and ramrod straight with a set of classroom rules to match. I don’t remember her ever cracking a smile. She terrified me. She prided herself on her penmanship and was determined to pass that art on to all fourth graders. She lived for cursive. We must have spent hours each day practicing our strokes and curves to make perfect letters. I tried very hard.

Image courtesy of

That year was also the year of the kiss.

On cold mornings when we were allowed inside the school before the bell rang, the game of choice was for the boys and girls to take turns chasing each other up and down the halls. Those wood floors were slick and smelled of oil, but we didn’t care. We ran with abandon, and we girls kept the boys at bay by hitting them with our book satchels. No lie. How we got away with such behavior, I don’t know.

There was one second grade boy–the younger brother of a boy in my class–who started chasing me. He was cute. He was just little. Having a boy your own age chase you was okay, but this little guy? And then one day he caught me and planted a kiss right on my mouth.

Everybody was laughing. Everybody had seen.

I went and hid in Miss Annie’s cloakroom. Every classroom had one. It was a big closet where we hung our coats and took off our galoshes on rainy or snowy days. It was dark and close and smelled of wet wool and rubber and sweat. I hid among the coats. Miss Annie called my name. Someone must have told her where I was because I heard footsteps, and then she was standing beside me.

“Come out now,” she said.

I was sobbing. She asked me what had happened, but I couldn’t tell. I was too ashamed. I already knew what a reputation was. Mine was ruined. Ruined.

I don’t remember what she said to calm me or how she coaxed me out. I do remember that she put her arms around me and told me it was all right, that _______ was just a silly little boy and I shouldn’t worry. But maybe I shouldn’t chase boys in the halls anymore. I went back to class, which as best I can recall had stayed quiet the whole time. If Miss Annie had told them to be quiet, they would have done just that. I went to my seat with my face still burning, and the lessons began.

I survived that first unlikely kiss. And I would never see Miss Annie in quite the same way. I’d discovered a softer side of her that not many people knew. I even imagined that sometime in her life, sour and old as she was, surely, sometime, she must have been kissed.

This is the eighth post in the October Memoir and Backstory Blog Challenge launched by Jane Ann McLachlan. For previous posts, see Recent Posts in the right column.