For thirty years, our family shared the care of our two of our children, Kristin and Johnny, with Misericordia Home, a residential and learning center for persons with multiple developmental disabilities. Many treasured memories of our family’s time at Misericordia live in my heart, but the ones I remember best are times when its generosity of spirit lit up like a giant Christmas tree.
a giving heart
In 1985, when we took our son John for his first visit to the school, we shared a dinner with a friendly group of fellows in one of the Village Homes. At the end of dinner, one resident pushed back his chair. “I’d like to stay and have desert with you,” he said, “but it’s my night to volunteer at the homeless shelter.” His words solidified my trust that Johnny would find love and empathy among his new housemates.
heart big enough for the entire world
Some years later, the students at the Learning Center engaged in a geography program which focused deeply on one nation each year. Through their studies, they became aware of hunger in the world. This realization heightened the gratitude they felt for the abundance of care they received at Misericordia and motivated them to help those less favored. With their teachers’ help, they organized an on-campus “Walk for Hunger.” Family and friends pledged funds to support the walk.
please, stay off the grass
Johnny’s dad remembers that bright October day as though it happened last week. The residents, staff, and some parents gathered outside the Learning Center. Sister Rosemary gave a rousing opening talk–and then asked the participants to stay off the grass because landscapers had recently seeded the lawns.
the last shall be first
Johnny’s pace was a slow slouch in the best of times. So, his dad had stationed them at what he believed to be the end of the line. But no, at the end of her speech, Sister pointed out the direction of the walk. It put Jay and Johnny at the front! For a while Johnny set the pace, but then Sister broke ranks and walked on the grass to get around him! Soon, everyone followed suit. By the time father and son arrived back at the school’s gym, the organizers were putting away the refreshments. That didn’t matter, the spirit of joy and generosity of the day still lives in my husband’s stories, which he is willing to share with anyone who will listen.
Neither of us ever tires of telling the world how blessed we are to be a part of the Misericordia family.
My favorite guest blogger, intrepid world traveler, Nancy Louise, shares a favorite story with us this week.
a half-century ago
Fifty-one years ago my newly minted husband, and I took off on a month long round-the-world honeymoon courtesy of a Trans World Airlines interline rate of $98 each!
I had been working in the airline industry; my husband, Frits, was working for a tour wholesaler designing tours to Europe and the Middle East.
Our third stop on the journey was Israel. I had traveled a bit in Europe… but this was my first time to venture further. I was 24 years old and having grown up in the Bible Belt of the South in the US — I had never even met a Jew — much less a Muslim. Or a Palestinian.
My entire “understanding” of Israel was based on Leon Uris novels and gorgeous Paul Newman playing the lead in the movie, “Exodus”.
Frits had a business contact, Emil, in Israel and had written him (yes, an actual letter in the mail!) asking him to make us a hotel reservation. We arrived in Tel Aviv on New Year’s Eve of 1971.
Emil was there at the airport to meet us. He informed us we would not be staying at a hotel. We were going to stay with his family!
Emil lived in Jerusalem near the top of the Mount of Olives (next door to the Papal delegate). We pulled into his yard, which overlooked the Old City just at midnight as the bells of Churches pealed out the New Year. It is a treasured memory.
We stayed five days with Emil and his wife,Um Hani Abu-Dayyaeh. Emil gave us our own private tour guide, driver and car with Palestinian license plates. It was an eye-opening experience. Our guide, Mohammed, was a Palestinian Muslim who knew the Christian sites and their meaning better than most Christians did. With our Palestinian license plates, the Israeli military stopped us every half hour for “security” purposes. Mohammed also had to caution us frequently on taking photos of anything thing or person who could be construed as our “spying” on the Israelis. We were quite oblivious.
Emil and Um Hani also took us to a Palestinian Refugee camp—a sobering sight that I would never forget.
struggle to survive
In the evenings Emil and his wife shared with us their lives and struggles to live in a country that had been Palestine when they were born—- and was now Israel. Emil had sent his two sons to study in the United States to keep them out of the constant conflict between Israel and Palestine. That had been a painful decision, but one he felt necessary for their safety.
The family had lost everything in 1948 and again in the “Six Day War”of 1967. In January of 71 when we visited — Emil was unsure if his once more struggling tour company would survive. He and his wife were Christians—Lutherans — specializing in Christian Pilgrimages. And tourism hugely depends on the stability of the country.
Frits continued to work with Emil for the next two years, but then we moved from Michigan to Chicago, Frits joined KLM Airlines, and we lost contact with Emil.
many returns but no re-encounters
Over the years I have returned to the Holy Land a half dozen times mostly as a Tour Director, which allowed me no private time to hunt up the Abu-Dayyaeh family.
Now retired, I thought I had done my last tour of Israel. I was, however, persuaded in the summer of 2022 to join friends through Loyola University to come back for one last visit—a full-fledged pilgrimage.
Our itinerary was to include a dinner with students from a Palestinian University and a group of Palestinian Lutherans. My thoughts went back to that first trip and Emil and Um Hani. Their first names were the only ones I remembered. I thought, “How big could the Lutheran Palestinian community be in Israel?” I knew Emil had most probably gone “home to God” by now. It had been fifty-one years ago—and Emil had been well into his 50s when I met him. I wondered though if anyone would remember this hard-working, dedicated man and his family. So I texted Frits and asked him for the name of the fledgling company that Emil had started. Frits responded, “Near East Tours”.
an extraordinary coincidence
I was standing beside my tour bus when I got the text. And there in BIG letters on the side of the bus were the letters “NET”. I went up to our driver, Haseem, also wearing a shirt emblazoned with “NET” and asked him if “NET” stood for Near East Tours. He replied. “Yes it does!” “And was the founder named Emil? ” Haseem confirmed that Emil’s company was now owned by the two sons. One son, Hani, would be at the dinner that evening.
Hani and I had dinner together at our special gathering that night. I regaled him with my memories of that first Holy Land visit courtesy of his family—and how that eye-opening journey profoundly impacted my life and would lead me to be involved for many years in Interfaith endeavors with a group called “Soul Space,” of Jewish, Muslim and Christian women — with a mission of sharing the commonalities of our faiths through mini-retreats.
Hani informed me that his Mom, Um Hani, was still very much alive. Indeed, she had worked every day in the office until Covid hit! And at 96 she still lived independently in that same house where we had stayed.
I asked Hani if she was still up to having visitors. I wanted to thank her for that life-changing visit so long ago. He called her there and then… and the next afternoon our driver, Haseem, took me in his own car up for a visit. When Haseem dropped me off, I told him I would probably only be a half hour. After all… she was 96 years old! When he returned… Um Hani had barely gotten started! Haseem joined me — and we sat riveted, listening to the stories of the very long life of this remarkable woman. Near East Tours had not only survived — it had thrived — expanding throughout the Mediterranean — to such places as Greece, Turkey, and Egypt.
It has been a “full-circle” life event for me. My first… and what for sure will be my last visit to the Holy Land impacted so much by this wonderful family.
I have long treasured these words from Mark Twain: “Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness” That journey was my first proof of Twain’s truth.
Over the years, Nancy’s friends and family have urged her to record her experience as a memoir. She has had so many, she feels she doesn’t know where to start. I think the theme of “Then and Now” could be a wonderful organizer for her writings. Let us know in the comments if you agree.
If one imagines a hero’s journey for authors, then your dark night of the soul is probably when no one believes in your work except yourself.
Jane Friedman <firstname.lastname@example.org
Coming to the end of a first full edit of the memoir I’ve been writing for two years, I spiraled down into a dark night of despair. Who but me believed in my projected book? Was I my only audience?
In her blog, Electric Speed, Jane notes writers can fall prey to the temptation to internalize the “NO” they receive from editors or publishers. (Jane Friedman, August 5, 2022)
I have found one can also internalize the critiques that one receives from fellow writers, those colleagues you ask to access your work.
a sign from the universe?
If we treat that “NO” like a “sign from the universe” that our work doesn’t make the grade, our life as a writer can end right there. A chance encounter or an unexpected opportunity could reverse your fortune, but that’s not the likely outcome. What we need is the more straightforward solution—turn up the volume of your dedication to your work.
Straight forward, yes. Easy, no.
For that reason, Friedman suggests authors think of this task in terms of a “Hero’s Journey.” What is a “Hero’s Journey?” It’s a literary device that breaks a character’s story arc into discernable steps with a probable outcome. The journey typically has twelve steps in three acts. (Thirteen Step Guide to the Hero’s Journey)
If my writing struggle follows this arc, what would that look like? Here’s how I imagine it.
Act I—The Departure
Step 1– The Ordinary World in which the hero is living their everyday life oblivious that they are called to something bigger. For me, I was retired and finally had the time to write I had dreamed about for years. I crafted two novels, several short stories and started a blog.
Step 2–The Call to Adventure: An incident transforms the hero’s life with a sudden jolt. As a member of several writing workshops, I read and edited memoirs for colleagues. The more I worked with these manuscripts, the more I knew I had to put down my other writing. I had to memorialize the lives of my two extraordinary children.
Step 3–The Refusal of the Call is where the hero doubts her abilities to accomplish the task. There seemed to be so many reasons this story couldn’t be told. It covered too many years. It was too complex. The mystery that shrouded it would be difficult to unveil.
Step 4–Meeting with the Mentor: There were multiple mentors in my life. Friends and writing colleagues, as well as family members, all urged me to write this book. My Wanderer’s Writing Workshop colleagues promised to read and give advice through every step of the process.
Step 5–Crossing the Threshold: Ready to head the call. The hero sets out on the journey. As best I could recall, I wrote a chronological record of what had transpired during Kristy and Johnny’s lives. Then I constructed an outline on which to base my writing.
Act II – Initiation
Step 6–Tests; allies; enemies: This is a long beginning of the adventure when the protagonist finds all their abilities stretched, discovers some new allies, and encounters expected enemies. I started the memoir in many places and gave it different emphases. Nothing seemed to work. New colleagues agreed to read the work. I took two memoir-writing classes, which both taught me techniques and bolstered my confidence. My memory and my self-confidence were constant enemies, begging me to give up this arduous task.
Step 7–Approach to the inmost cave: Here, the hero faces the genuine challenge. It’s the call to the ultimate battle. In December, 2021, I finished a complete draft, seventeen chapters! It felt like such an accomplishment. But it was only a “vomit draft,” that is everything I had in me about our story. With the new year, I faced turning those thousands of words into a well-paced, page-turner that someone would want to read.
Step 8–The Ordeal: This is the moment of truth where the hero dies, even if metaphorically, and must be reborn. For the last eight months I’ve “killed my darlings” as the jargon goes in the publishing world. With each part of the memoir that I chop from the final draft, a part of me goes with it. My hope is the final product will be a true rebirth.
Step 9–The Reward: The hero has achieved a major success. When I finally believe that I have edited my manuscript to where it can be offered for publication, I’ll have reached this step. But I’m not there yet.
Act III –Return
Step 10–The Road Back: The Hero returns home with the reward. Once I have what I am convinced is a publishable work, my journey will be to decide whether to self-publish or offer the memoir to a traditional publisher. Either of these will be a long, painstaking trek, but I’ll be buoyed up by having finished the manuscript.
Step 11–The Resurrection: The hero faces a major threat, often the threat of death itself. For me, this would be if they published my book, and no one buys it. I know absolutely that getting it out there will not be enough for me. I’ll need the affirmation that someone values it enough to pay for it.
Step 12–The return with the Elixir: After this, the hero is no longer the same. The challenge has been successful. Death is beaten. If my narrative fulfills its intent, others will understand what rich and meaningful lives Kristin and Johnny led. The meaning of their lives and mine will endure even when I die.
No one publishes the first draft of any piece of writing. At least, they shouldn’t. Not if the writer wants to be read.
Rewriting makes their work better. Important truths get honed. Images brighten and sharpen. Your ideas begin to POP off the page. Rewriting is also the author’s hell!
if only this was it!
That first draft – the vomit draft – it just spills out. Sure, it’s challenging work sitting down at the computer day after day, mining your memory and your research for the information you need. Then constructing those thoughts and facts into a literate narrative. But it’s honest work – like solving math problems. Simple. You put in the effort. You spend the time. You get results. But for the solution of the problem to mean anything, people need to be able to use the answer to solve concrete problems, not just abstract mathematical ones.
there’s a problem?
Even before we come to the solution, in fact, we need to identify the problem. That’s where a memoir must begin, and it is most likely not where the vomit draft begins. As an example, my draft begins with s school director calling Jay and me home from a Florida vacation to manage a family emergency. Nowhere in that first chapter do I identify the seriousness of the challenges facing our family. Nor do I let the reader know what a rare thing it was that we were on a vacation on our own. I simply started with an interesting scene (at least to me), but I don’t really name the problem. I don’t identify what is at stake.
In the final stages of editing my memoir, I need to become relentless. That will require four to five rewrites. Each time the argument will be stronger and the universal appeal more engrossing. By the end, useless adjectives and adverbs, overly long sentences, and awkward phrasing should be gone.
Those are, however, the last parts of this memoir-writing journey. Long before I arrive at that point, I must reconstruct the overall project, break down the “vomit draft,” mine it for its best parts, lay them out like a deck of cards, choose the best, and rearrange them for the best impact. One card must be a dazzling opening scene that leads immediately to the next one, but also ultimately to the final scene of the book.
a cosmic graft
Close on the heels of this opener needs to come, what Marian Roach Smith calls my “Cosmic Graph.” This is the moment where I, as a writer, pan back from the moment like a camera pulling off into the sky. This must show up by the fourth paragraph of the first chapter. It contains four elements: what the memoir is about, what’s at stake, what’s up in the air, and what values I need to learn or acquire.
I try and try to do this, but conciseness eludes. Wordiness dogs me. But without a Cosmic Graph, I cannot chart my way through the morass of material I have accumulated. Still, my star vision blurs.
adjusting the telescope
Help, however, is on the horizon. I signed up for and took Roach-Smith’s “Constructing Your Memoir” class. What I learned there helped blow away the clouds that obscured my vision. It turned out I had used the wrong lens. My focus was out of kilter, but I didn’t yet know how to use the telescope. The class gave me more of the skills I needed. A new beginning and a new ending for my story emerged. I began to lay the cards out in patterns that worked together.
it’s only just begun
Piles of cards remain in the unshuffled deck, but increasingly of them are making their way either to the recycle bin or their deserved place in the structure of the memoir. The next blog post should be able to let you know if I’ve discovered my Cosmic Graph. But I’m paying attention to Roach-Smith’s warning that I may have to rewrite the introduction over and over as the ending unfolds itself. In the words of my dear friends the VanderVoorts, “We’ll know more later.”
Last month, both on this blog and on my Facebook page, I bragged (and there’s no way to put a kinder word there) about having completed a draft of my memoir. I felt darn right proud of that “accomplishment” because I had attempted to complete a memoir four other times and never got to “The End.”
Then I read Marian Roach Smith’s The Memoir Project in which she firmly states, “self-congratulatory is very bad.” She would add that this is especially true than when one is talking about a “vomit draft.”
My husband gagged when I used that term. “That’s a terrible thing to call your demanding work,” he told me. But I really get what Marian is saying when she writes, “It’s called the vomit draft because it will both sink and be pretty much everything you’ve got in you.” (p. 86)
Writing a memoir, I’ve discovered is like mining for diamonds. Before any actual mining even takes place, prospectors need to locate the diamond sources first. If I choose to write a memoir, I hope will be worth reading, my first step is exploring my life experience to determine whether there may be sharable value there. Do I have something to offer readers that will enhance their lives?
Anything and everything are mine to explore. But just as diamond seekers often follow second sources that never lead to “pipes,” or deposits where the diamonds will prove true and profitable, not everything I dig up from my life belongs in a memoir. I need to locate a primary source.
When prospectors are certain they have found diamonds, shanks are inserted into the ground at the ore-bearing “pipes” and vast amounts of soil are extracted. I knew I wanted to write about parenting my children, especially my two children with an extraordinary neurological disorder. That, however, covered forty-five years of my life. As I dug into my memories I retrieved copious numbers of incidents, funny, sad, delightful, challenging, discouraging – piles of memories.
the wheat from the shaft
Diamond miners typically do not examine the raw rock and soil on-site. Instead, conveyor trucks transport the composite to special plants which process the ore and extract the rough diamonds. This is where I stand in the memoir-writing process. My “vomit draft” is the huge pile of rock and soil from which I need to extract the “rough” diamonds. What pieces of the narrative I’ve captured on the page can I dole out in the final story? What have I learned that I can share in a meaningful way? Which of the “rough” diamonds, I sort out of this pile now, will work to build an argument for me, one built upon what I now know about the human condition because I lived this life? Which of these scenes best illustrate what I learned?
In diamond mining, there is no assurance of fortune. Three hundred tons of ore might be sieved just to produce a single carat of gem quality rough diamonds. I may have written 100,000 words. It would be fortunate if a third of them are still standing when I finish my work.
not there yet
Even after extraction, the rough gems are a long way from the jewelry store. In heavily secured facilities, workers sort rough stones into various gem-quality categories and industrial-specific grades. To get from here (staring at my “vomit draft”) to there (the finished manuscript) is mind-boggling arduous work. Each paragraph even of the “rough diamonds” needs to be reevaluated. Is it necessary? Does it help the argument? Did I make the same point elsewhere? Am I falling asleep? If I am, so would my reader would be. Does this sentence help to show that I moved forward? If not, either it shouldn’t be there or it needs to explain the stagnation. Not until I’ve evaluated the “gem-quality” of each scene can I feel free to move toward the next draft.
In the ultimate step of its violent transformation from rough stone to exquisite gem, the roughs are sold, cut, polished, and commercialized. As I work toward a final draft, I’ll be doing four or more cuts. Are my sentences overly long? Break them up. Have I used a phrase where a single apt word would work much better? Did I just skim over that sentence? Get rid of it. To shine as brightly as an engagement diamond, this memoir needs to be perfectly cut and polished. It’s a long and violent transformation process for “gem,” but you wouldn’t give your beloved a diamond straight out of the ground. And I don’t dare offer you my vomit draft.
“Parents would be much better off if, like defense attorneys, we knew the answer to the question before we asked it. Except we never do, which makes a very nice place to write from.” Marian Roach Smith, The Memoir Project.
Last week’s blog post, “Memoir as Smorgasbord,” I promised to tell you the most enlightening moment of the memoir writing course I took this autumn from Ellen Blum-Barish.
two heads are better than one
Every class contributed immensely to expanding my understanding of memoir creation. All the discussions were lively, supportive, and inspirational. But the shining moment of the class for me was the one-on-one hour that Ellen spent with me. As a component of the course, Ellen scheduled a one-on-one hour with each student. She encouraged us to choose whatever aspect of writing we believed was giving us the most trouble, that we found the most discouraging.
I told Ellen I struggled with how much of my story of parenting two children with profound disabilities to share. The narrative covered so many years and so many different challenges as Kristy and Johnny’s needs and capabilities changed and shifted. The work felt encyclopedic. Where did I begin? Where did I end? What could I leave out and still be authentic?
caught in a maze
I knew my obstacles were not unique but did not see an effortless way through the maze. Ellen asked one question. That question turned out to be the key to the locked gates between me and a finished draft. “What,” she asked, “is your mission in writing this memoir? Are you hoping to inspire or help other parents of children with similar disabilities?”
“Absolutely not,” was my immediate response. “I can only tell what happened to us and how we muddled through. I can’t pretend to have the answers other parents might be seeking.”
seek your mission
“That’s totally valid,” she replied. “I completely understand, but there must be something driving you to tell this story. You need to be able to name that very clearly. That’s the only way you can discern the parts of the story that must be written.”
I knew why I wanted to write this memoir. But I had not thought of it as a “mission.” “Kristy and Johnny were such special kids,” I told her. “And I mean that in ways that go beyond their special needs. They were unique and wonderful, and they gifted the world with their presence. I do not want the people in our family to forget them. I’m writing this story so that their niece and nephew, cousins, and the many other folks in both our families and among our friends can remember them as the extraordinary human beings they were.”
there’s your focus
Ellen’s face crinkled in a big, bright smile. “Wow, that’s a mission for sure. It also definitely tells us where the focus of the memoir needs to be.”
“It does?” Her claim perplexed me. It did not sound like it limited the span of the story very much to me.
“Without a doubt,” Ellen stated, “You have to tell the stories that make them come alive. You need to make Kristy and Johnny pop off the pages of your memoir. Choose to tell the things about them that were unique and stood out. Let the reader really know them.”
still caught in overwhelm
“I see how this theme could be a good guide, but it still feels like a lot of material,” I objected.
“That where there’s a trick of the craft that comes in,” Ellen explained. “Limit yourself to a certain number of scenes – much like you were writing a play. Then choose the action that would bring those scenes alive.”
That work covers forty years of her life, yet she focuses on seven specific springs during those years to tell the whole story. I knew and loved Ellen’s book. Picturing how it laid out, I could envision tackling my own project in a comparable manner.”
“Sometimes,” Ellen said, “certain numbers have a particular meaning for us spiritually and emotionally. Working within the confines of such a number can inspire and enlighten us.”
She advised me to sit with that notion and discover my number. Once I knew it, I could start working out what the “scenes” of my “play” might be.
This approach has galvanized me. I have plowed ahead – not creating scenes just yet but recording down all the best information I can about Kristy and Johnny. Once I have that in mind, I will let the contemplation begin. I’ll let the number emerge. When it happens, you will be among the first to hear about it.
“One of the most important things you can do on this earth is to let people know they are not alone.” ― Shannon L. Alder
I announced in this space on August 30, that before the year is over I will complete my memoir. It’s an ambitious task because, in that narrative, I attempt to cover all the years I shared with my two extraordinary children, Kristin Margaret and John Brophy. That journey began on May 14, 1969, the day my Kristin was born, and ended on February 3, 2015, the day she died. Forty-five years.
Birth and death do not necessarily make satisfying beginnings or endings for a story. Life’s meaning is not in the coming and the going, but in what happened in between. Yet, there is so much! It all feels terribly important, but an impactful memoir needs to be succinct. A long, rambling narrative loses readers long before they learn the important things you need them to know.
looking for a life raft
By the time I had written halfway through the fifth version of my memoir, I knew I required serious help. I signed up for a writing class. Rather than a course on how to write a memoir, author/mentor Ellen Blum Barrish offered a “smorgasbord” of topics. Each was designed to help potential memoirists dig deep into their own inner experience. I wasn’t entirely certain that the class was what I needed, but I trusted Ellen and I couldn’t go it alone any longer.
What a good decision that was!
The very first week, we dug into the conundrum of truth in memory. We dissected Amye Archer’s searing essay, “Writing Truth in Memoir,” in which she adjures writers to give up hidden agendas they uncover as they write. “It is more important to be honest than vengeful,” she warns us. We are not writing to make the reader “be on our side.” For our story to be visible to our readers, we have to pull the lens farther back than that.
Amye made me realize I had to watch out for my own hidden agendas. I wasn’t after revenge, but I did tend to “protect” my characters.
what is a family?
Week two’s topic really excited me. “Writing Family” was exactly what I was trying to do. I looked forward to hearing about the other writers’ struggles and triumphs with this topic. At first, the evening’s reading disappointed me. It wasn’t about “real” families. The essay poignantly recalled the writer’s early days in the funeral industry and how the personnel at the funeral home formed a close-knit and caring “family” so that they could better support the grieving families whom they served.
No, that wasn’t exactly what I hoped for. Yet, when we talked about all the different ways people form “family,” I began to see our story, mine, Kristy’s and Johnny’s, against a backdrop of a family that extended beyond biological connection.
No, not that funny
Our focus for the third week, “Writing Humor,” had me cringing. I have no idea how to be funny. When I was a professor I would hear students in other classes laughing uproariously and a sharp, green slice of envy stabbed me in the heart. My studies never laughed in my classroom. Maybe I should have been grateful, but I wasn’t. I took heart, therefore, that as our group discussed Amy Poehler’s “Take Your Licks,” a humor piece about a job she had as a teen, I found out I wasn’t the only one who didn’t find it funny.
I felt kind of sorry for Amy. After all, she is a comedian. She has to be funny to earn a living. I don’t. I gave up worrying up hope to entertain readers by showing them the funny side of my story – there wasn’t one.
“Writing the Lost Loved One,” the theme of week four most likely was the one that made me sign up for the course. My memoir focused not on me, but on two beloved lost children. They say be careful what you wish for. The reading that Ellen chose for that week ripped my soul apart. I could hear Jaqueline Doyle’s voice cry out from her essay, “Dear Maddy,” “Talk to me, Maddy. Tell me what it was like. Rise up from the depths of twenty years in all your shadowy splendor. Tell me.”
We do that, those of us who have lost a loved one. We don’t want to let go, especially of someone yanked away from this world “before their time,” whatever that is. Doyle’s abrasive honesty made me question myself. Did I dare put the searing blaze of my own emotions into black and white and offer them as a sacrifice? Was, perhaps, my whole project a mistaken quest?
perspective can be everything
We examined writing about trauma in the fifth week of class. We read both a touching testament to the moment a woman realizes her marriage is over and a horrifying witness to the 9/11 attack on the Twin Towers. The latter, Brian Doyle’s “Leap,” might appear to be the more “traumatic.” After all, it depicts people jumping from window and hitting the pavement transformed into a “pink mist.” That is only one of many tragic images Brian presents.
Yet, we found ourselves equally engrossed in the pain of the woman in the first piece. Our assessment of the two different pieces reinforced my conviction that how well a writer crafts their tale can determine how well the story will grip their readers.
always more to learn
Every week of the class continued to build my understanding of what it means to write from the very core of one’s being. It was my one-on-one session with Ellen, however, that answered many of my most troubling questions about my memoir. She also gave me a whole new perspective from which to view my life. That tete a tete will be the topic of next week’s blog post.
“Your memoir stories all seem to focus on Kristy,” a reader commented recently. She then asked, “Did Johnny have the same disorder as your daughter?”
There is no straightforward answer to that question. It’s not like answering, “Did both children have the chickenpox?” There were many ways that assault on Kristy’s brain presented itself that resembled symptoms that Johnny had as well. Frequent grand mal seizures was one and developmental delay was another. Yet, there the similarities stop. They had such different personalities that at times it almost seemed like they had two completely different syndromes.
Recently, I shared a Johnny story with a group of fellow memoir writers. It will illustrate those differences. Maybe it will help other readers understand why I struggle so much to give an honest account of our life together.
no time between crises
Kristy and I had. just returned from an appointment with her physical therapist. I pulled our minivan into the parking space behind our Chicago rowhouse and before I’d even turned off the engine, my thirteen-year-old daughter Betsy, her red braids flying behind her, came running down the back-porch steps, “We can’t find Johnny,” she shouted.
My heart sank into my gut.
Well, crisis or not, I couldn’t just let Kristy sit in the car. “Help me get your sister into the house. Have you searched the whole house?”
“Yes. Twice.” She screeched. “We looked everywhere, even in the clothes chute.”
“What about the piano top?” It wouldn’t be unlike him. “Where’s Carrie?”
“She’s calling neighbors,” Betsy said as she helped me ease her older sister into her wheelchair. At the back door, I forced myself to focus on getting Kristy and her chair down the five steps to our basement rec room.
first things first
As I wheeled her up to the Formica table at a diner-style booth in the basement, Kristy, oblivious to the panic around her, pronounced, “I’m hungry.” I glanced at the TV. Its digital clock read 1:29. Kristy had to eat. I couldn’t risk her having a seizure right now. We had to find Johnny.
“When did you miss Johnny?”
“About twenty minutes ago.”
“He can’t have gotten far. Go down the alley and check people’s yards? I’ll get Kristy something to eat.”
“Should we call the police?”
“Oh, my God, I hope not. Let’s wait a bit.”
I fixed Kristy a quick peanut butter sandwich and a glass of milk and made sure her chair was securely braked.
I found fifteen-year-old Carrie sitting on the rug in the living room, her long wavy hair draped over her knees. The telephone cord straggled from the far wall and into her lap. “Thank you,” she muttered, “that’s so good of you. Yes, please call right away if you see him.” She looked up eyes wide and chewing her lips. “That was Louisa McPharlin.”
I nodded. It made sense to check with Louisa. Hers was the last house before the “L” tracks.
a false sense of security
Our home was part of a community enclosed by wrought-iron fencing with several heavy iron gates at various entrances. If Johnny’s wandering kept him within the borders of those fences, someone who knew him would spot him. The gates, however, were never locked or even closed.
Although ten years old, Johnny processed the world like a two-year-old. Outside the gates he would encounter busy city streets, dozens of strangers, coming and going from the elevated train station and from buys commercial Lincoln Avenue. Crowds of DePaul University students also hustled along those sidewalks on their way to class. In the midst of so many people, Johnny could disappear, or even more horrifying a predator might spot him. Like every mom, I read the stories of children disappearingand then put them quickly out of my mind. Now they all came rushing back at me.
holding on to hope
Carrie didn’t find a single person who had seen him. Betsy hadn’t returned yet. I let myself hope that she’d found him. Johnny’s gait was at best a slow shamble. Bringing him home could take her a while. As frightened as I was, I knew that wherever Johnny was he wouldn’t be afraid. Nothing had ever scared him. He often laughed loudly and long while sleeping. I claimed that he was dreaming of monsters and found them hysterically funny. But laughter couldn’t protect him now.
Bringgg! The front doorbell! Carrie and I tripped over each other as we ran for the front door. Quicker than me, she flung open the heavy wooden door. There stood a huge, uniformed policeman with a grin on his face and his hand on Johnny’s shoulder. When I lurched forward, he held up a restraining brown hand. He looked down at Johnny and gestured toward me, “Who is this?”
“Mommy,” Johnny grinned. Then added, “Bathroom.” That galvanized me into action when I might have otherwise been too stunned to even speak.
“Carrie, take your brother to the powder room,” I directed her and then stammered, “Where did you find him? How did you know where to bring him?”
saints and good samaritans
“A kind woman noticed him lingering outside the De Paul Bookstore. She signaled me in my car. Then she pointed him out and said, “He looks big enough to be on his own, but something’s not quite right.”
“But the bookstore is across Fullerton Boulevard,” I exclaimed. “How could he cross that busy street on his own?”
“Well, we don’t know, but he did. The lady spotted him trying to get into the bookstore, but he couldn’t figure out where the door was.”
I breathed a quick thank you prayer to St. George, the patron saint of books. Johnny, like the saint, was crazy for books. George, it seemed had spread his wings over my son. “Johnny can’t pass up a book. Otherwise, he might have wandered on,” I told the officer.
His big head nodded. “So, my partner and me tried to talk to him. He just smiled a sloppy grin. Saw the lady was right. So, we were going to take him the station when he pops up, ‘832 Belden.’”
I says, “That where you live? He says ‘My house.’ So, here we are.”
“We worked hard to teach him that but weren’t sure he’d really understood. He lives in his own world most of the time.”
“Yeah, I see that. He’s been talking about Grover Monster most of the time.”
My fear had left me weak. Now relief drained what was left of my energy. “Thank you so much. I wish I could thank the woman who found him.”
“She didn’t want to give us her name, just seemed relieved to hand over the problem.”
and the day goes on
Made sense to me. Sometimes, I wished I could just “hand over the problem.”
“Sorry to say this, ma’m,” the officer said, “But you need to keep a closer eye on your son. Maybe you should think about installing alarms on the doors.”
He had a point, but I didn’t want to turn my home into a prison. I looked straight into his deep brown eyes, “I’ll talk that over with my husband. Right now, I’d better get Johnny some lunch.”
In unpacking Tracy Seeley’s quote about the memoirist’s agreement with her reader, my September 20 blog post opened a discussion on what writers owe their audience. That essay, however, focused mostly on my promise to tell an emotionally true story and didn’t ponder Seeley’s warning that “other people in my book would tell the story differently.”My Ruby Slippers.
This week I’ll first address the issue of other people’s take on the same experience. I then tackle another obligation memoirists have to their readers — something has to happen in the narrative.
You Lived It Differently
But that’s not what happened. Don’t you remember? It went like this.
These are the responses that I must brace myself to face if I go forth with this project of writing a memoir. I didn’t live my story alone. Dozens of persons accompanied me along the way from birth until I woke this morning. None of them, other memoirists have warned me, will remember the events and situations we shared in exactly the same way I do. In fact, their memories may be diametrically opposed to mine.
Because time travel is science fiction, we cannot revisit the moment in time of the remembered incident. Wrangling over who remembers more correctly is useless and can be harmful to an otherwise solid relationship. The better response writes, Marian Roach Smith, the author of several memoirs, is to keep this phrase handy, “I realize that’s not the way it happened to you. It is, however, the way it happened to me.”
Memoir’s deep subjectivity
Saying this will help me and relatives or old friends who challenge my recollection to acknowledge the deep subjectivity of memoir. I invite others to tell the same story in their own way. Doing so lets them know I will honor their truth just as I hope they will honor mine. Wow! That’s an overwhelming declaration. If it is only my truth, my version of the story, who else is going to care? That’s a valid question. Yet, subjectivity won’t invalidate the story. Rather, only my deepest personal understanding of what I experienced and what I witnessed can possibly attract an audience.
If you read my words and you don’t find me there, you will stop reading. You are, after all, reading that book, that essay, or that blog post because you care about my point of view, about my take on things. Perhaps, you have known me for all the years I mothered Kristy and Johnny. Maybe you wondered, “How does she do it?”
Now, I’ve written a memoir. Readers expect an honest account – not some Pollyanna perspective on parenting a child with special needs. They don’t want hocus-pocus. Nitty-gritty holds their attention. If the real Jule is missing in action, if it sounds like someone else’s story, you won’t finish. You are expecting to hear my voice. I can only tell you what I remember about how it happened and how it felt. If one of Kristy or Johnny’s sisters wants to say, “But, Mom, I remember…,” I’m happy for you to hear her tale. She was there too. She will bring her own brand to the narrative just I’m trying to bring mine.
Bringing my brand to the memoir is one primary responsibility I commit to. Another is telling a story in which something happens.
Something Has to Happen
It might seem obvious that readers expect something to happen in a story. That’s the nature of the story, isn’t it? It also is true that if a child is born, grows, becomes ill, becomes even more ill, and dies, “something” has happened. But that’s a biography, not a memoir. Poignant as such a story might be, it shouldn’t be published – at least, not in such a bare-bones fashion.
“Something has to happen” in the narrative means significant change takes place within the writer’s very soul. In an important way, by the end of the tale, the protagonist is not the same person she was when the story began. If she can’t weave a transformation into the fabric of her story, the writer probably shouldn’t be creating a “memoir.”
The elusive “something”
That raises lots of questions for me. What sort of evolution could readers be looking for? How do I show it? I am not Saul, knocked off my horse on the way to Damascus, blinded, and converted to being a follower of a new faith. Fortunately for me and most other memoirists, a transcendent conversion isn’t necessary. Less drama will do. Yet, change must happen.
Sister Rosemary Connely, the director of Misericordia Home, often told the parents of the children in her care, “Not one of you chose to have a child with mental or physical handicaps. But because you have this child, you have accomplished things you never would have thought yourself capable of doing. You are a better person than you would have been.”
not always for the better
She is right even though most of us would have settled for being a somewhat lesser person if it meant our children were more typical. Sister’s faith in us was touching. Simply being the parent of a child with disabilities doesn’t make you a better person. Sometimes the weight of the experience causes you to behave shamefully. Simply giving birth to a child with serious challenges doesn’t automatically turn one into some kind of saint. It can actually turn some people into devils. But, I am convinced it does change parents in some way. There is no remaining the same person you were before this child came into your life.
might i be different?
Thus, in writing a memoir about Kristy, Johnny, and me, I carry the obligation to discover and reveal how being their mother changed me. Who am I today that I never would have been if I hadn’t been Kristy and Johnny’s mother? It’s a question anyone can ask themselves about all their committed relationships. For me, this year, it must be one that my memoir answers.