Sometimes, looking into my journals for one reason or another, I come across bits of my life I’ve completely forgotten. In truth, a great deal of my life is completely forgotten, but you may know what I mean when I speak of bits we encounter again, how they’re like pretty stones or shells children pick up and tuck as treasures into drawers or the bottoms of backpacks, how they’re delightful all over again.
In a recent example, in my 2003 journal I saw mention of the first session of a “Writing Your Memories” class I taught at a local seniors centre. Six participants. I noted their names. (I’ve changed them here.) “It went well,” I wrote, saying further that I was drawn to the person and accent of Katharine, who had lived in India, England, and now Canada. And that Florence was rough, always ready to talk, and said she’d had polio in high school. Perry, the oldest at 84, had related his earliest memory of seeking his mother’s breast only to find she’d turned her blouse around; hence, his weaning. This reminded Alice, who complained she couldn’t hear and didn’t want to write and hadn’t realized the class was two hours long, of her own drawn-out breastfeeding as a child, and her weaning, and her refusal, ever since, to drink milk! The suggestion of breastfeeding as birth control reminded Delores of what a women who stuttered had said, that by the time she’d managed to say “t-t-t-that’s enough,” she had five children!
I paged forward a week in my journal. I’d mentioned the second class. “I felt sort of panicky, because I feel like I’m out of my league. The class itself went well–but …I’m leading people forward not knowing where I’m going myself.” Florence, I noted, told me I was a good teacher, which encouraged me, but I wasn’t sure I believed her, for to be honest, I hadn’t done much memory writing myself at that point. I also didn’t tell her I wasn’t sorry she wouldn’t be able to attend the last two classes. She was talkative, in a dominating way, and I didn’t know how to manage that.
I’d had the class make a timeline of major events in their lives, as a way of breaking personal chronology into manageable sections they could write about. Alice’s #3 on her list said “period.” She explained that she let a boy kiss her. When her period didn’t come the next month she figured she was pregnant and was so scared, she looked for a rope in the shed to hang herself. Her period came, but after that she didn’t let anyone kiss her until her wedding, when she heard the minister say “you may kiss the bride.”
“I like these people,” I told my journal. “I like people generally, I’d say!” Shy Delores. Alice who didn’t write but came anyway, talking. (“Look at them write,” she said to me. “I’d have two words.”) Perry with his long and amazingly detailed memories of a northern town in Alberta where he’d lived. Katherine with lovely memories of her Ayah in India.
I looked ahead in my journal to the next Monday and the next, but there was nothing further about the class or any of these people. My husband and I were busy building a new house at the time and I talked about that instead. Looking at these brief notations now, I remember a little — very little — but am given pleasure in what’s there, and in a fresh awareness of the vast number of human stories that exist, and I wonder if those six people got further with their memories than what they wrote and related in the class. I wonder if anyone else jotted down some of Alice’s life so she would have more than two words left behind.
I had a similar experience teaching an elder hostel group about language learning at Conrad Grebel College. What stands out for me from that experience is a woman who confided in me that she had lost a child at birth—a twin. The other one survived. We were two mothers, who had both experienced the loss of a newborn, and we had a unique language about that, only experienced by those who have had a similar experience!
Thank you Elfrieda. Wonderful story. I’m also reminded of the resonances and treasures contained in the obituaries we used to get at the MB Herald.
Two words. E. M. Forster did it. If we each only had two words, what would they be?
Oh, I like how you’ve turned this, Shirley! It’s making me think. Two words…..
Hi Dora – if you teach a series on Writing your Memories again I would be interested in taking it.
Thank you for sharing this part of your first time.
Ah Rose, thank you! But even though I’ve now started writing my own, I don’t feel much further ahead in being able to teach it. But there are many ideas online. 🙂