Memory, Revisited

Last October, I participated in what I thought would be an impossible challenge: to write a memoir piece for each of the first 25 years of my life. Jane Ann McLachlan has launched the 2013 October Memoir and Backstory Challenge, and I’m having a go at it. This year, each week has a theme, and because October is such a busy month, there may only be a post or two a week. But I hope you’ll join me here and read whatever surfaces—because that’s exactly how it happens for me: the stories “surface,” they rise out of deep memory and time.

The first week’s theme: a childhood memory

Second grade scrapbook

I was surprised, reading through last year’s posts, that I’d neglected to write about one of the more traumatic events of my childhood.

I was a sickly child. I won’t go into the details, but by the time I was six, the doctors recommended that my chronically infected tonsils be removed. That would solve all my problems, they said.

October. I was already into my second grade year, but the surgery couldn’t wait. So we were off to the big hospital twenty miles away. I don’t remember being afraid. I remember the operating room lights, the smell of ether. I remember waking up with a terrible sore throat, sucking on ice chips, not crying because crying made it hurt even more.

The evening after the surgery, something went terribly wrong. There was blood, lots of it. A flurry of nurses, another trip down the long hall, rushing this time, the lights, the mask closing over my face, and darkness. Waking again in a dim room.  I was one sick, weak little girl.

I stayed in the hospital for a long time. After I went home, I was confined to bed for weeks. I remember spending the days in my parents’ bed, so big, light, and comfy compared to mine. I was out of school for two months that fall. I ate basically the same things every day, a diet designed to cure my anemia: poached eggs mixed with cubed, buttered toast and lots of salt and pepper (the only way I would tolerate the soft eggs); a ground beef patty (made with bread softened in a little milk and another egg) at least once, maybe twice a day, with mashed potatoes (not for building the blood but because I loved them).

A pipe-cleaner butterfly and my own cursive handwriting
A pipe-cleaner butterfly and my own cursive handwriting

I passed the time listening to the radio, playing with my dolls, and eventually, catching up on schoolwork. My mother bought a scrapbook where I pasted all the cards I’d received, even the ones attached to flowers. My own little handwritten notes are on some of the pages—in cursive; I think I wrote in cursive before I learned to print.

My grandmother, a no-nonsense woman who loved me deeply, was the magical finder of treasures. Every day, she brought me something I’d never seen before: a china doll that had belonged to her sister; an old story book, a beetle in  a jar, a collection of pine cones or flowers out of her garden. “Surprises,” she called them.

I don’t remember gradually getting better. I don’t remember getting out of bed or going outside to play for the first time. The entire fall is a blur except for one image, as though I’d stepped outside my body: a wan little princess propped up in bed, the bright windows with their organdy curtains, the food brought on trays, the grandmother’s footsteps down the hall, bringing something—anything—to relieve the monotony of the days.

Eventually, I got well. I went back to school and finished the second grade with the rest of my class. And here I am.

Back to the present

My book group just finished a book I highly recommend: Life After Life by Kate Atkinson. In the book, Ms. Atkinson tells one story in various ways: what if this happened? Or no—what if this instead? Fascinating. Genius.

But isn’t life like that? At any given moment, with every potential choice, with everything that happens to us along the way, aren’t we shaped? Might things have gone differently? If we had gotten to the intersection two minutes earlier, would we have been the ones involved in a fatal accident? If the surgeon had been more careful; if my mother had not discovered the bleeding when she did; if I had not discovered music at my elderly neighbor’s upright piano; if I had not met a blue-eyed boy at a college dance–how different would my life have been?

What are your turning points? Do you ever play “what if” with the circumstances of your life and stand in awe of where you are and why? 

Thanks, Jane Ann, for the challenge.

“Mama n Em”: Tales of a Hospital Waiting Room

This post is a day late, but I have a good excuse! I won’t be writing about craft or language or blogging today. I won’t be clever. In fact, I’m going to be a little serious, so if you dare, read on:

Huddled Masses

My husband had surgery on Tuesday (he’s doing great, thanks), and we spent four hours in an admissions waiting room before his case was called. Such a cross-section of humanity you’ve never seen (or maybe you have). I was reminded of the words of Emma Lazarus: “Give me your tired, your poor, / Your huddled masses . . .” Just add “your sick” to her words, and you’ll get the picture.

Waiting / image at

I’d believed the days of entire families gathering in hospital waiting rooms were long since over. My ex-husband, a surgeon, used to talk about hordes of family members in the hospital hallways, waiting to snag the doctor on his way in or out of a patient’s room. He called them “Mama ‘n ’em,” which is Mississippi Delta speak for “mother and all the rest of the kin.” Maybe it’s a Southern thing, this gathering of the clan. Anyway, it was happening in that big room on Tuesday.

Made-up Stories

To pass the time, my husband and I invented the lives of the folks around us. The couple across from us? Retired teachers. Or, because of her severe haircut and lack of makeup, I thought she might have been a nun and he a priest who . . . Well, you can finish it.

Down the way, a tall, elderly, elegant-looking African-American woman wearing a wonderful black and white caftan. She sat in a wheelchair surrounded by five or six older adults and teenagers who brought her blankets and coffee and catered to her needs. She was “in” for a hip replacement. Just before her name was called, a man who I took to be her son stood up and said, “You’re gon’ be all right. We gon’ pray before you go back.” I certainly hope she was. Those family dynamics? Who knows, but there’s a story for sure, one of close ties strengthened through hardship.

Next to me, a man in his forties, his complexion yellowed. Several family members sat with him: a sister, his mother (a woman with poufed, Mormon-wife-style hair, carrying a red plaid purse), a daughter who sat on her boyfriend’s lap, both preoccupied with their cellphones. Texting? Surfing? The young man had two dog tags tattooed on his left arm. Nobody talked.

A few rows over, three women in their sixties who had to be sisters. Their elderly mother was the patient. She must have been ninety, but she sported a pink eyelet sun hat and seemed the calmest of them all. How many years, how many relationships were represented there?

And one more: In the far corner, a couple facing away from each other. Enough said.

Two Fiction Writers in a Game 

So there we were, my husband and I, two fiction writers in a game of making up stories to keep our nervousness at bay. But you know, I haven’t stopped thinking about those people. I’ve wondered what happened to each of them after their names were called and they underwent their procedures. I’ve thought a lot, too, about the fact that they—and we—were only a small portion of a larger flow of humanity through rooms everywhere, undergoing “surgery”—physical, emotional, spiritual—at any given moment in time.

I couldn’t help being struck by the diversity, the emotions, the dramatic circumstances. But if we’re looking for stories, we don’t have to do it in a hospital waiting area. All we have to do is look around us. Really. See.

Wherever you go this weekend, take a notebook, sit, watch. You’ll find plenty of stories or poems, if that’s what you’re looking for. If you’re not, you’ll become more aware of our common humanity. Come back here and tell me what you see. Leave me a few lines of a story!