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?

Polio Summer

In the United States, the 1952 polio epidemic would be the worst outbreak in the nation’s history, and is credited with heightening parents’ fears of the disease and focusing public awareness on the need for a vaccine.[20] Of the 57,628 cases reported that year 3,145 died and 21,269 were left with mild to disabling paralysis. — Wikipedia

Most of those polio victims were children. I can’t attest to the accuracy of these numbers, although they are documented. But I can attest to the fear.

I was reminded of it when I read an article the other day about Mark O’Brien, a poet who was stricken with polio at age six and confined to an iron lung for the rest of his life. He died at 49. (His story inspired the movie, The Sessions.) As I read, the memory of a particular summer in our small town came flooding back. I’m not sure it was 1952. It may have been a different year, but it was our personal summer of terror and dread.

It was probably a typical Mississippi summer–the smothering heat, the mimosas in bloom, the late afternoon thunderstorms that didn’t cool things off but made steam rise from the pavement, the attic fan that barely stirred the hot air inside the house.

Ordinary, until children started becoming ill at an alarming rate.

As panic spread, my parents kept me out of crowds and away from swimming pools. My best friend’s younger sister and brother came down with severe cases. My friend did not. Her sister was transferred to a Vicksburg hospital, designated a regional pediatric polio center, where she would receive more treatment and therapy. Just as many other children did, that little girl spent weeks there, far from home. She would have been about five years old. What must that have been like for her? What was it like for her mother and dad, to be separated from her?

Boy and Vaccine Syringe / Photo by Sura Nualpradid / Courtesy of freedigitalphotos.net

Boy and Vaccine Syringe / Photo by Sura Nualpradid / Courtesy of freedigitalphotos.net

I had other sick friends, too, and there was little anyone could do to help. My mother suggested I share some books with a friend who had a fairly mild case of polio but still faced a long recovery. So I gathered books, and one of my parents delivered them (whoever took them would not have entered the house). I didn’t know my books wouldn’t be returned. They were burned.

The worst case, the one that affected all of us more than any other, was a young boy so severely ill that he required an iron lung. I remember our prayers for him at school and in church. I remember the day the teacher told us he had died. In my memory, it was September; we were back in school, and I was sitting in art class. Dead? My reaction was selfish. I was terrified. A child could die? Old people died, not children.

I didn’t get sick that summer. My friends got well, eventually. My best friend’s sister was left with scoliosis that would plague her for the rest of her life. None of us would ever be the same. Whether we were directly touched by polio or not, we learned some hard lessons: that our parents, no matter how good they were or how strong or how faithful, no matter how much they loved us and cared for us, couldn’t always protect us from harm. That our bodies were frail. That disease and death were real and close, lurking in the innocence of a shared sip, a touch, the water in a swimming pool.

In 1955 the Salk vaccine was introduced. A godsend, but it was too late for many.

Thinking about that long summer has been interesting. I’m surprised by the details I remember, like the burned books. The memory of the fear is so real it’s almost visceral. I’m surprised, too, by the things I feel I’m recalling incorrectly. (Was the child who died a boy, or was it really a girl? I can’t say for sure.)

Memory is a slippery thing. It warps our stories and makes liars of us, even when we’re trying our best to tell the truth.

Do you have a memory that eludes you, that’s difficult to recall truthfully? How do you feel about the fictions our minds create about the past? 

The Sisters’ Story

Enter a room with four elderly women–all in their nineties–in various stages of infirmity and alertness. They are sisters, and all of them grew up with my mother in a small town in north Mississippi. This means they were all born within a few years of 1920. They were girls during the Great Depression, young women around the time of World War II. I’m visiting with them just before Thanksgiving. They are having a grand reunion, and I’m grateful to be included for a little while.

I have driven to the family farm on a gorgeous late fall day, caught up in my own memories, a little apprehensive, not sure what to expect. One of the sisters, the one I see frequently and have stayed most connected with over the years, has Alzheimer’s and is declining. I’m relieved to see that the others–Julia, Eleanor, Genevieve (what beautiful names!)–are in fair shape physically, considering their advanced age, and their minds seem reasonably sharp. They all exclaim over me and say I’m the image of my mother.

Eleanor is exactly the age my mother would be. They were very best friends growing up and throughout my mother’s life. With some difficulty Eleanor stands when I walk in the room, comes to me, and hugs me hard. In spite of her age and having suffered a broken hip a few years ago, she stands straight and tall, but she feels fragile in my arms. I can still see the Eleanor of fifty years ago in her features. When we sit on the couch together, she takes my hand and holds on tightly.

Stories

Over the course of the afternoon, Eleanor tells me many times that she and mother walked to school together “from the fourth grade on.” I wonder how that was possible since they lived across town from each other, but I don’t ask. I have brought photos of Eleanor and of my mother and dad, hoping to jog her memory, hoping for stories. She talks about how beautiful my mother was and describes in detail a blouse Mother wore about the time she and my dad married. “It had a beautiful, pleated collar that framed her face,” Eleanor says. Remarkably, she has described the blouse in the photo below. Mother would have worn it around 1940, more than seventy years ago.

My mother, about age twenty
My mother, about age twenty

My mother died in 1985, and I never see Eleanor that she doesn’t tell me that she still misses her. But Eleanor’s stories are changing. She tells me she has letters Mother wrote to her about my dad when they were first dating. The last time I talked with Eleanor, the letters were about Mother’s pregnancy with me. I’ve never seen them. I’m not sure they exist any longer. The topic of letters reminds me that these women went off to college, and my mother did not. I wonder how painful it was for Mother to be left behind. Of course, if she had gone away, she wouldn’t have met my father when she did. They might never have met. She might have had an entirely different life. I wouldn’t exist.

Recognition

One of the other sisters says, “You played at my wedding reception!” It’s true. There’s a photo to prove it: Genevieve in her beautiful wedding dress, standing beside me at the piano. I was ten. Today, she has a lovely, serene face. She chats and smiles. But when it’s time to go to the table, her daughters lift and carry her.

Reception
Reception

During lunch I sit next to Eleanor. There is lively conversation, but she’s quiet. After lunch, a couple of the sisters doze in their chairs. “When are you coming to see me?” Eleanor asks. “Will it be soon? Will it be December?” I say I’m not sure, already feeling guilty, thinking about all the reasons I should go and all the reasons not to. They aren’t valid excuses. What better way could I spend my time during the holidays than to take a day–just one–and go and visit her?

Leaving

When it’s time for me to leave, I’m filled with sadness. I wonder about the memories and stories my mother might have contributed had she been here. I think about how, when I laugh, it’s my mother’s voice I hear.

Eleanor insists on getting up from the couch and following me to the door on her walker. She stands in the doorway and waves as I’m driving away. My last glimpse of the farmhouse, she’s still there at the door. I wonder what she’s thinking. My eyes fill with tears. I hate to leave her especially, not knowing whether I’ll ever see her again.

I’m overwhelmed by such an accumulation of life and memories and years gathered in that house. I’m struck, as I am so often now, by how stories change over time. I’m sure my own stories are changing, but what time robs from us it also invents, as long as we keep telling.

Are  you “in between” the very young and the very old? What are you doing to preserve the stories?