Write It: Your Story is Everything

There is something about cold autumn days and gray skies that can transport me to my ‘life at home’ years ago in the 1970s. Not in a sad sappy way, but a gentle remembrance of running home from school through the woods behind our house, the trees naked with mystery, geese in formation honking their way south, and that crisp cold air that filled the lungs with energy and opened the nose to a plethora of aromas like wood smoke and damp decaying leaves, the leather of boots, the smell of books, and even the oily-metal smell of the inside my flute case.

In just a flash, I can see my father, mustached and still so young getting out of the station wagon with a hint of burnt tobacco still swirling around him. I can hear someone playing the piano, the house bustling with the sound of teenagers talking about basketball practice or musical play try-outs, with the warmth of home-cooking simmering on the stove, dishes clinking as the table is set, and a chocolate cake waiting on the counter; life was full and alive with busyness and sensory delights.

It is in stark contrast to what I come home to now, my nest empty, no dinner cooking or music coming from rooms upstairs, no voices full of possibilities…and so far from the landscapes of my own youth. Interesting, that’s all, just interesting how life evolves into worlds that we land in through circumstances. I’m not sure that I ‘miss’ that time in my life, but am quite sure it is only a brief turn of the page, like all things, and one needs to snap a picture of it in their mind before it is gone. Those everyday moments are a part of the intricate fabric of who we are.

More and more, especially as the seasons circle around so quickly now, I feel the need to share my stories with my children. Fortunately, they are good listeners, though like so many aging people who want to relate the now to then, I often get the preverbal, “We know, we know, mom, you don’t have to tell that story again,’ response when I am particularly reminiscent.

That’s where the benefit of writing down our memories, the times of our lives, comes in.

I was a sensitive child, and gratefully so, able to see and feel things even amid all the noise of life. That early, keen awareness gave me much to write about, even if no one reads it. That is what I get from writing; a travelogue of memories….a review, a sorting out of things, a sense of continuity and order, a reminder of who I am and where I came from, even as a new chapter begins to reveal itself, even if no one else remembers it the way I do.

Second to youngest, with my sisters on the lawn in Roseville, MI, later 1950s.

Second to youngest, with my sisters on the lawn in Roseville, MI, late 1950s.

Maybe there is some truth in the idea that everyone wants to be remembered, and somewhere down the line some curious child will open a book about their great grandmother and be….interested… in her ancient school days running home through the autumn woods. That would be enough for me, knowing that I might inspired that child to be aware…to be present…to even write her own story. Better yet, that she may see a bit of herself in me and come to understand some of her own mysteries.

But what if that never happens? What if my typed pages burn up in a fire or my CD of memoirs melts, floats away, or gets thrown in a trash heap of what is deemed ‘junk’ by some less sensitive person? So what? The act of writing has become a form of therapy for me; it’s cathartic and transporting, as well as a spring board that propels me forward. I’ve often wondered why people are so afraid, or timid, about writing their memories early enough in life that they might still have clear recall of the voices of people that mattered, of places they could still smell and clearly walk through in their minds. If I am anything, I am an advocate for the memoir of everyday people written BEFORE they are too old to remember.

Sure all the movie stars and celebs have already started to write their tell-all books, but that is not what I am advocating. When talking to older people, or even co-workers and people my own age, I’m amazed at the varied lives they have led, tours of duty, Peace Corp adventures, childhoods with dirt floors on Indian reservations, a year spent on the road with only a backpack, or a full career in some market that failed and brought someone to a new station in life. Their painful losses and proudest moments and how they moved through the changes that crippled some and inspired others, is worth the telling. Surely we can learn from each other, feel supported (and not so crazy), as well as empowered by theirs and our own stories.

Whether it was the damp autumn woods of Michigan, rows of cotton fields in Texas, or corn fields in Iowa that each of our young selves have run home through, our stories link us as human beings and are like an out-reached hand to help us along. We are not so alone. In sharing we become united in our commonalities and uniqueness. In writing we define and learn to embrace who we are, why we laugh the way we do, why we fear what we fear…or love with a cold, bitter bite, a sincere kindness, or warm lusciousness.

There was a time when I was intimidated by others proclaiming that they were ‘writers.’ I’d throw up my guard and rattle off my academic and work credentials like a badge in a battle of words. But, I have since met and read the works of countless everyday ‘writers’ whose words read from idealistic to sarcastic, from trite to profound, from simple to highly philosophical, and each not only have the right to call themselves writers (because, after all, that is what they are DOING), but I welcome the words of wisdom and whatever I can gleaned from their thoughts. They are a voice that needs to be heard, and I’m a willing listener…a warrior on the same side.

My father wrote his memoirs in the last year of his dying life. I was left with a pile of fragmented thoughts smeared with tears, some pages poorly ripped from notebooks leaving only half the story, some, I’m sure, were lost to no time left to tell. But, oh how I fell in love with the boy who became my father just through reading his stories. I learned things about him that he never spoke of, as if the pen was a secret key that finally opened up the book of his life. My mother, on the other hand, had twenty more years and despite my prompting, left me only a handful of little notes. She was a talker, so I learned to absorb everything our conversations could yield. I knew someday I would feel the need to write her stories for her.

My father was well-educated, scholarly, and well-versed in literature and history. My mother was, well, my mother. Her stories were sentimental and simple, even jokingly crude, yet just as important as my fathers. Even ‘the way’ we tell our stories reveal so much about who we are.  In both cases, I got an in depth picture of who they were and how they became the parents I knew and loved.  Though we are all bound to vanish from this earth, there is some comfort and satisfaction in knowing our stories may continue long after even our children are gone.

Maybe that’s not important to you. But if it is, than ask yourself, “What is it that makes me remember who I am?” Ponder that for a while and then start scratching out your thoughts. Pay attention to everything, but mostly to your senses and what memories they trigger. When you’re at football game, does the energy of the kids, the cheers, the announcer, the band, or the lights take you back to your days in high school? When you’re in church, does the light streaming through the stain glass, the smell of incense, and the hymns find you once again an eight year-old fidgeting in your seat or veiled on your first communion day? A cup of fresh brewed coffee, a walk along a river, the smell of a new car, the oil and grease smell of a gas station, catching fish off a dock with your grandchild, the sunrays streaming through the windows on a winter’s morning, or the sound of a screen door closing; at every turn there is something that triggers your memories, and you know this! Why not share where it takes you? Make a mental note, if no one is around to listen or too busy to care. Stop…and write down what you recall.

Don’t try to sound like a ‘writer,’ just use your own words and descriptions the best way you can. Remember the details; take yourself back into the scene. If it is sentimental, than let yourself weep. If it is painful, then bleed and heal. Pound out the demons, strike up the band, and be in the arms of your first love once again. Writing can do that all in a safe, almost magical way.

If it’s not for money or fame (hard to come-by in the writing world), than write just for yourself, and who knows, maybe someday…somewhere down the line…some great grandchild will open up your journal, your cookbook, your old work briefcase, or your hardcover published book….and read your story. Maybe they’ll find themselves in those same woods and see you there where your spirit still lingers…under a golden canopy of leaves on the same foot bridge where you had your first kiss.

The story is everything. Think about it. Without stories there would be no books, no movies, no poetry, no news, no song lyrics, nothing to listen to, nothing to tell, no conversations, no inspiration, and no reason to remember anything. Life IS just one story after another. Why not include yours?

Singer/composer Joni Mitchell wrote in her song, Hejira, “I know no one’s going to show me everything.
We all come and go unknown. Each so deep and superficial, between the forceps and the stone.”  Surely, none of us can be completely known and remembered for all the complexities that we are. But in writing your story, you have nothing to lose, except the memory of you.

Your old aunt’s string of pearls are nice to touch. Your grandfather’s pocket watch a treasure in the glass dome on your shelf, but what of your aunt or grandfather? Who were they? Who were you? Believe me; someday someone will want to know. Summer field or autumn woods, antique treasures or a stack of old love letters; it’s all in the story. And it’s in the story, your story, that someone might find themselves. Write. Find yourself and leave your story. It’s a powerful legacy to pass along.

Written by Cynthia L. Currie, November 2015

“Crawford Road, Mt. Pleasant, Michigan,” Photography courtesy of Craig Goodrich

Memories Stuffed in Little Purses

“As the purse is emptied, the heart is filled.” ~Victor Hugo

My mother had a quiet passion for little coin purses. We called them ‘change purses.’ She had them, lots of them, tucked away in her dresser drawers, in the night stand and her stored-away handbags. She sent them as gifts, especially to her granddaughters, handed random ones off to people who admired them, secretly slid a special change purse into the tightly packed suitcases of loved-ones leaving her home, and chronically gave in to the urge to ‘spend a little’ on a new one, or an old one at a yard sale, or a creative one at an art fair.

Maybe it was a throwback to her childhood days during The Great Depression, when people only carried change …‘Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?’ ….and when paper money was rarely seen. The purse was as important as the coins it held, and my mother seemed to still value and delight in the styling of those little pouches. One of the charms of living far from home, was the arrival of brown-paper packages filled with a menagerie of trinkets, newspaper clippings, and little things my mother was giving away, which, even in my children’s words, was ‘such a grandma thing,’ and is now missed. Always, there would be a change purse buried in the box.

My daughter quickly picked up on the love of the little purse. We’d find change purses hidden away in her room and closet, carrying an orphaned Barbie shoe, a sparkly sticker, sometimes an unstrung bead or a dropped bird’s feather, and a penny or two. Sometimes we would find tiny pieces of ripped up paper, a small colorful collection of seed beads, and strands of doll hair cut from the head of some unsuspecting doll; a collage of tidbits that seemed to have no rhyme or reason, except perhaps in her beautiful mind. Good Lord, we were always so curious, and a little nervous, when we opened them.

The tiny plastic change purse I bought for a dime in the 1960s.

The tiny plastic change purse I bought for a dime in the 1960s.

When I was little and we would spend our summers in our family cabin in Mid-Michigan, the summer wasn’t complete without a ‘trip to town’ and a stop at the old ‘Dime Store’ in Gladwin, Michigan. One time, my mother had given each of us little kids ten-cents for spending. That was big deal in my seven-year-old world, and we couldn’t wait to browse the wooden-floored, old-fashioned store with its aisle bursting of penny candy and childhood play things like pop-guns, paper dolls, coloring books, marbles, polished rocks, miniature puzzles, tiny games where we were challenged to line-up little steely balls into strategically placed holes, rubber snakes, whoopee cushions, wiffle balls and plastic bats, and six-shooters in kid-sized gun belts. My sister Clara and I eventually eyed our prized purchase, two little plastic change purses. Our eyes met, our hearts stopped; we knew right away that is why we had come to town. Those two little purses might as well have had our names printed on them. We were in a state of consumer bliss when we slid our skinny, silver dimes over the counter to the cashier. Fifty years later, we both still have them, and the sweet memory of that day.

My mother now gone, my daughter since moved away from home, I am here still holding on to a multitude of tiny money cases that once were treasures to those two beloved women in my life, plus a couple of my own. I even have one of my father’s. Worn leather with tiny travel decals now faded out; it was designed to look like a traveler’s suitcase of those romantic train travel days. I remember looking at it in wonder and seeing it in my father’s handsome hands that I loved so well.

Like so much of what we gather, hold on to, save, and cherish, I’m at that point in life when I’m incline to start letting these things go. Done filling rooms, no longer in hopes of finding a ‘big’ house for all my bits of antiquity; there simply isn’t a drawer or closet left for one more little change purse.

And yet, I look at them, this collection of my mother and daughters, and I put them back into a bigger bag and wait for another day; a day, when I am feeling courageous or maybe too feeble to care.

Sometimes I bravely muse at the possibility of selling those little change purses at a garage sale. I imagine some little girl, whose mother has given her a small amount of money to spend on some choice item during their day of exploring garage sales, eyeing my collection of change purses. I see her fingers plying the tartan, the beaded kitty, or tiny embroidery embellishments, her eyes wide open at the beauty of such a small purse that fits so nicely in her little hand.

I’m charmed by the thought of ‘giving them away’ for some other child to bring back to life just by hearing some coins jingle in its pouch once again.

I could do that; give them away, let them go. Except maybe not the little soft-haired cowhide one that my daughter loved to rub up against her rosy cheeks, or the one that my father carried for years with the tiny travel labels faded off, and certainly not the last change purse my mother carried before she died, her perfume still lingering on the green leather and tiny golden shamrocks, reminding me of her love of change purses, now almost as obsolete and devalued as the pennies people once cherished.

Memories, all stuffed in little purses, like little bits of torn colored paper, a tarnish locket, or an ancient Avon lipstick sample; holding, holding, holding…for someone like my mother, with a story, a child’s heart and a reminiscent smile, and a few coins to spare, to come along and carry away in a new pair of loving hands.

Stories That Gate Could Sweetly Tell

Our exit to freedom and welcomed return,

broken-hearted, the champions, the loved, and the burned.

Over its pickets long kisses, deep trances,

prayers and curses and sweet romances.

 

We’d run out the gate in boots or high heels,

through snow drifts, the deep woods, across football fields.

The path led home to whence we came,

in pride or in shame, the same pebbled lane.

 

Mom in her garden with roses and saints.

Dad with his ladder and buckets of paint.

We’d lie in the sun, sister-talk sharing all;

star-spangled barbeques, colored leaves in the fall.

 

The apple blossom tree pink and frilly,

winter haven for rabbits, where the lights glowed so pretty.

Bird houses, lilacs, wind chimes tinkling in the breeze,

gave solace and hope to the gardener on her knees.

 

I’d float in the pool all alone in the dark,

watching the stars in that shadowy park.

Warm light from the windows of the place I called home,

Never knowing back then how far I would roam.

 

Sneaking in late, a drunken stumble;

secret laughter, backward glances, his engine rumble.

Three brides left veiled in white-laced frocks,

stepped over its threshold to the church beyond its lock.

 

Covered in snow it would creak and whine;

a portal positioned beneath arching pines.

In blinding sun and weathering rain,

It still swings open and calls my name.

 

Once in a dream I saw you there,

looking at me with your blue-eyed stare.

It was in a time when we were young,

before the lessons and lies, the sever and run.

 

In thunderous storm, standing wet in the grass,

You whispered and pleaded, said our love would last.

We left through that passage-way and promise no harm,

Then you let go of my hand, ripped me from your arms.

 

Child after child reached for its latch,

Until time and usage worn a dark smooth patch;

Not far from the place that once was my sill,

where I sang and wrote letters; I can see it all still.

 

With the chime of the church bells we’d run with guitars,

To lead and sing praise just steps from our yard.

Watching from windows out on that scene,

white birches, fiery maple, and seasons of green.

 

The band uniforms, gauze dresses, and football gear,

The singing, the gatherings and games played there.

The gate let us in, let us out; a revolving door,

until no one was left, it’s not ours anymore.

 

On that worn trodden path draped in gray and black,

empty and mournful in the last look back;

There’s my brother, my mother, my youthful love,

perched on the fence a chickadee, a cardinal, a cooing dove.

 

The stories that gate could sweetly tell,

of wishes and kisses and wedding bells;

Of a hundred goodbyes waved through smiling tears,

from the gate in our backyard over forty years.

~Stories That Gate Could Sweetly Tell, by Cynthia Currie