My Novels

Monday, July 27, 2009

Memoir Excerpt

I haven't exactly been idle as a writer. I've been working on my memoir over the past couple years. I did not have a happy childhood (to say the least) which makes it emotionally traumatic to relive; therefore, I can only write the memoir in sessions, experiencing the intense memories, then taking time to recover.

At any rate, I've decided to post the rough draft of my first chapter. I have written five chapters at this point, but hope someday to complete it. I have an outline and plan to have this memoir of my early years cover to the age of 19 when I got married. And future memoirs to develop in 20-year time periods. I guess the ending will write itself, so to speak. (Or I might combine all of these into one work as I rewrite/edit, not sure yet.) I have changed my sisters/family names, although will use real names in the final version.

I spend time reading memoirs these days, learning from others who have traveled this path. I signed up for a memoir course in the fall. Writing is a lifelong learning process, never complete. There will be ten memoir writing exercise tips at the end of the chapter.

{Please do not save/copy/post this, and consider it copyright protected.}

Working title: Backward Mirror

"In early youth, as we contemplate our coming life, we are like children in a theater, before the curtain is raised, sitting there in high spirits and eagerly waiting for the play to begin. It is a blessing that we do not know what is really going to happen." --Schopenhauer

Chapter One

Part I

Memory is often a trick of the mind.

Do I recall what I think I do? Or have the family tales oft told created a false memory?

For the first five years of my life, my mother and father, both nineteen, lived in the house with my paternal grandparents. They had a modest-size farm in the South, a big old frame house, some crops, livestock...but my grandfather still had to work. He was a county bus driver during those five years, a bus that traveled the rural back roads picking up farm wives to do marketing in the small nearby county seat.

I was born in December, 1951. Here is the imagery that lingers from my earliest years -- the happy years, the years before turmoil tainted everything.

A quilt pallet in front of a screen door, cool night wind whispering over me as I lie there looking out at a bright summer moon.

A quilt pallet under a shade tree in the sweltering heat of mid-morning, sitting and playing alone while my mother and grandmother work in the field of cotton.

Playing on the dirt-floor porch, hearing the hiss of doddle bugs circling in the dirt, heat so intense it scorched your skin if you ventured out at noon. A bucket let down into the deep cool darkness of the well, the glug as it hit water, then the clank as it was pulled up for us to drink tin dipper-fulls of sweet, clear well water.

My dog, Nikki, a large black German Shepard that followed me everywhere. Sneaking off into the nearby woods, finding the creek...stopping at the mossy bank, with Nikki yipping and yapping until his excited barks brought my mother and grandmother to our side, scolding and spanking me for venturing away from the house.

My daddy insisting I should sleep in the bedroom with him and mother, when I begged to sleep with my grandmother. [I was already devoted to my grandmother, because often my youthful parents left me in her and my grandfather's care while they went out.] Sometimes during that night, I got out of their bedroom and headed for my grandparent's bedroom -- but a shut door stopped me. As I struggled to open the door, I began to whimper and cry. At last daddy discovered me, and opened the door, spanking my bottom, and making me declare later the words that would be repeated at family gatherings, "Daddy spanked my butt-oh!"

A Christmas filled with all kinds of gifts. I was the first and only grandchild for four years; they all loved lavishing me with presents, and not just at Christmas. I was, in the space of those four years, pampered and spoiled, doted on by my paternal grandparents and my daddy's older brother and sister, my aunt and uncle.

I scarcely recall the birth of my sister, Mary, when I was four. But I do know that when she came along my mother seemed to prefer her to me. Perhaps I was already alienated from my mother, completely bonded emotionally to my grandmother.

It was in this idyllic first five years that I possibly developed the capacity for love, sensitivity, loyalty and devotion. These qualities had serious repercussions later in my life, sometimes even to the detriment of my own happiness.

Part II

By the middle of my fifth year, my daddy and grandfather were working in a local saw mill. My grandfather labored in the mill, while daddy became a log truck driver. Mother stayed at home with my grandmother; they took care of the house, the farm and us girls.

However, soon daddy moved us all, my mother, myself and my baby sister, to a rural area one-hundred miles away from my grandparents' farm. We lived in another large rambling frame house situated on a hilltop, with a barn and some land for a garden. My mother had a big garden that summer, and I remember the ripe tomatoes filling baskets, overflowing onto the cracked linoleum kitchen floor...and Mary, now a toddler, grabbing a tomato, dropping it and the brilliant splash of red juice splattering everywhere when it hit the floor.

I remember the ramshackle barn out back, and the litter of kittens born in a corner of the hay-scattered loft, which began my life-long love of cats. I loved to spy on the mother cat nursing her kittens, though she would move them, hide them, if I came too near.

I remember a girl several years older than me lived nearby, along the country road. She would come to our house, and I'd occasionally go to her home. Her name was Brenda, and she often would lie on the couch in an awkward position: with her torso on the flat seat, head hanging off, her feet up over the back. Her long brown hair would fall straight to the floor, and she'd chew gum and talk to me upside-down.

Oddly, I developed a stutter when we moved there. My mother's name is Bonita, and instead of calling her 'mother' or 'mama' I tried to pronounce her given name, but it came out, "Buuhha..." My parents took to mocking me, perhaps hoping to cure my stutter by embarrassing me.

I missed my grandmother fiercely. I began having nightmares about her dying, and would wake crying. I recall one over-night visit from my grandparents, and how good, how right it felt to have my 'Momma' (as I called her) there with us.

During that visit she and I walked down the country road, and stopped to visit with an elderly black woman who lived in one of the rundown shanty houses. She was very friendly, and I can remember her saying that her grandmother had been a slave; that her grandmother had been treated well by good owners, and that she'd never adapted to freedom. My own grandmother asked her questions about what her grandmother had said about slavery, and though I cannot recall all of it, years later my grandmother would repeat some of this to me and I would find it astonishing and shocking.

Another incident that occurred there was often repeated to relatives. Daddy installed a window fan, and instructed me not to go near it. He took a blade of grass and fed it into the spinning fan-blades as an example of what could happen to me if I touched the fan. Later, while he and mother were in the kitchen, I went outside, got a long blade of grass and proceeded to feed it into the fan...except that I let my fingers get too close to the blades, and got a nasty cut. When daddy heard me crying, he came out and spanked me. This tale was often told as an example of how precocious, and impertinent I was.

We only lived there six months, and then we moved about two-hundred miles south to a small town. The house was a duplex, and my grandparents moved in one side, us in the other, a door connecting the two separate living quarters. My stuttering stopped. Daddy worked as a log truck driver, and my grandfather worked in the saw mill situated near a national forest. By now my grandparents were in their early 60s, as they had their three children in their 30s.

I was happy to have my grandmother practically living with us...but soon after I began my first year of school, a violent event took place which was the beginning of the turmoil and terror that would rule my life for the next thirteen years. I didn't know it then, but those first five years were to be the only peaceful, happy years I'd ever know as a child.

Part III

I can't recall too much about the time prior to starting first grade at the local elementary school, but a few moments do stand out.

I got a gray-striped tabby kitten, and loved it devotedly. I made friends with a girl who lived at the end of our street on a hill. Her name was Sandra, and she lived in a huge old rundown house; in her back yard, she had a pet cemetery. Any time a beloved pet died in the neighborhood, she would insist on giving it a proper burial ceremony.

When school started, although missing my grandmother during the day, I enjoyed making friends and learning. I was quick, smart and had no trouble learning. From the beginning, I was always in the advanced reading group. Soon I was able to escape into books, and this would later prove to be a life-saver for me.

Sometimes during that first four months of school, my grandparents would go back to their farm and stay either a few days or a week. Any time they were gone, I missed them terribly. But also, there was a subtle change taking place within daddy. I don't think I noticed it, but surely my mother and grandparents did. He'd always played guitar, but now he started hanging out with a group of musicians and staying out with them very late -- or even all night. These guys were his age, in their mid-20s, looked disreputable and I'm sure were not a welcome sight to my grandparents. Most of the time daddy would go out for a gig when my grandparents were away. He also continued to work as a log-truck driver, and this kept him away from home too.

I do recall the brick schoolhouse, which was set back off the street in cedars, and had a wide circular drive out front. Each day my mother would drive me to school, let me out in front, and I'd wave goodbye. Toward the end of those four months, I began to dread leaving school at the end of the day.

I don't know how alcoholism begins, and I was really too young to know how it started with daddy, but it must be a slow progression, insidious and deadly as time passes and drinking increases. That's how I remember it taking over daddy's life -- destroying him, and wrecking our lives. But at first, I only remember him coming in from gigs and being 'different'...quick to anger, ill-natured, foul-mouthed. He never said or did anything in front of me or my sister, Mary; but we could hear him yelling from our bedroom. Still, we were basically innocent of his growing problems.

Then all that changed, changed forever.

One Friday afternoon when I'd come in from school, I couldn't find my cat, Tiger. I looked everywhere, and was frantic with worry. Worse, my grandparents were away at the farm; mother never seemed to care for Tiger, so I knew she wouldn't help me hunt him. I had run all over the neighborhood looking for Tiger, but had no luck. Finally I slumped down, defeated, on my grandparents' back doorsteps.

It was getting dark and cold as I sat there, but I was heartsick at not finding Tiger. Then mother yelled that we were going to get groceries, and daddy drove us to the store. Mary and I waited with daddy in the car, and I do remember he seemed preoccupied. When we got back home, daddy began unloading the groceries and mother went to the kitchen, ready to put them up.

Mary and I went into the small living room, but before we could turn the TV on, there was a loud crashing noise from the kitchen. I ran out to see what was wrong, and daddy was yelling, cursing, and swiping the grocery bags off the table. He looked furious, his face twisted and his mouth snarling, his eyes too bright...and oblivious to my presence, he snatched a carton of eggs out of a bag, and opened it, began tossing the eggs against the wall, where they burst and ran slickly down to the floor.

Mother was crying and cringing in a corner, and saying nothing. Daddy just kept tearing up the groceries, cursing and screaming at mother. He was saying something about one of our uncles (mother's brother) who had stayed with us a few days recently, something about long-distance phone bills. Mother stayed silent, just staring...staring...

Finally, I guess daddy ran out of steam, because he started for the door, but said, "I won't be back tonight."

I can't explain the feelings that went through me while experiencing all this. I was scared, upset and yet...worried about mother and daddy. I wondered if he was sick, ill? What had made him act like that, he'd NEVER done anything remotely like that. The violent outburst was a mystery to me, and I just didn't know what to make of it.

I wanted to ask mother what was wrong, but she began cleaning up the mess and ACTED AS IF NOTHING had happened. I was then confused and still upset, but went to sit again on my grandparents' doorsteps. Soon I saw their familiar car turn the corner, and was so relieved! I thought they would know what was wrong with daddy, and make sure it never happened again.

When my grandmother got out of the car, I ran to her and began crying, telling her what had happened. She looked stunned, then angry...and my grandfather urged us inside. My grandmother told me to stay with them that night, and she and my grandfather went next door to talk with mother. I don't know what was said, but they were gone a long time.

When my grandmother came back with Mary, she said we should spend the night with them. And when we all finally went to bed, she told me not to worry, that there would be no more such 'fits.' I felt sure she was right, and that whatever the trouble, my grandparents could take care of it.

Unfortunately, this was only the first in a long line of such incidents when I put my faith in my grandparents to no avail.

The next morning when I got up, Sandra was at the door. She said she'd found Tiger, that he'd gotten run over by a car, and she wanted to give him a burial in her cemetery.

We stood near the small mound of dirt, Sandra and I, and she said a brief prayer. I'd been in church often during those first six years; my grandmother and mother were devoutly religious. And growing up in the South, the Christian religion was hammered into all young kids. But as Sandra closed her eyes and chanted a prayer for Tiger, I felt so empty and lost, so guilty about letting Tiger get hit by a car, that I couldn't say a word.

I'm sure I was too young to really understand the concept of 'God' but somehow it all seemed unfair -- that a God would allow people and animals to die. I think that was the first of my doubts, and as time passed, and as family life became more and more of a horror, I decided there was no God, no such Being that could allow such abject misery and suffering for innocent, good children. If there were a God, He'd answer prayers...and over time, my prayers for peace and a change for daddy went unanswered.

But on that long-past morning, I only knew that my beloved Tiger was gone, and I felt it was all my fault. Mother and daddy wouldn't let me keep him in the house though, so what could I have done? After Sandra and I turned away from the grave, she told me that she had chores to do, and left me.

I wandered back home, and when I came into our house, mother said my grandmother wanted to see me in her bedroom. Once I got there, she was sitting up in bed, and asked if I'd help her get her bra fastened in back; she was suffering from arthritis, and often became too stiff to reach her arms behind her. As she slipped it on underneath her gown, I hurriedly moved around to fasten the strap. I felt so glad that I could help her, proud to be there for her...and as she thanked me, and gave me a hug, I felt very much loved. Unlike being with my mother who seemed at best indifferent and at worst, uncaring toward me, I could always FEEL the power of my grandmother's love. This was a saving grace for me, and though she and my grandfather often let me down so far as changing our living circumstances, they DID try...and I knew without doubt that I was loved by them both.

Later that week daddy returned to work driving the log truck, and I hoped that the awful experience in the kitchen with him was something that would never happen again. Life returned to normal, and for awhile, everything seemed fine. I went to school, came home and did homework, helped around the house, played with Mary, and spent time with my grandmother. I was not allowed to have another cat, and in fact, Tiger and Nikki were to be the only pets I ever had as a child.

After a couple weeks, one of my aunts, my mother's sister June, came to visit. She stayed and stayed, and when daddy came in from his job, he was irritable and hateful around June. Finally I overheard my parents having a bad argument one night, more about long-distance phone bills, and then he stormed out of the house. That was on a weekend, and he didn't come back until time to report for work again. My grandparents simply stayed out of the situation, perhaps thinking it was none of their business.

However, even after June left, daddy was sullen and withdrawn. He would have quiet spells, when he seemed to be a million miles away, in deep thought. Or he'd strum his guitar, and stare off into the middle-distance, as if in a trance. He was tall, blond-haired, fairly nice-looking, and my mother was also blond, but short, petite. She had a nice figure, and was attractive. Yet even at that young age, I could sense a deep dissatisfaction in daddy, and because I didn't understand about their marriage, I began to think that daddy's brooding and silent withdrawals were somehow due to Mary and myself. That we were not wanted, were a burden to him. To this day, I still bear that scar, the deep emotional wound of always feeling unwanted and a burden to others, no matter how little they do for me, or how independent I am.

Within a month, there was another violent outburst by daddy. I woke late in the night once when he'd come in from a gig drunk, and raving. I heard him crashing things, cursing, and yelling at mother.

Mary and I shared a bedroom, and soon she came over to my bed, scared. I pulled her under the covers, and we huddled together, afraid and hiding. I kept thinking if only my grandparents would come over, and I just knew at any time they would. Sure enough, soon we heard my grandfather's voice, reasoning, cajoling with daddy. There was a tense quiet. Then I heard my grandmother's voice and she was furious, chiding daddy for his behavior. That seemed to end the confrontation, and soon all was peaceful, quiet.

I thought that would always be the case, that daddy would be controlled by my grandparents, his parents preventing him doing any real harm. But I was wrong, because a week before Christmas, daddy announced that we were moving back to the area where my grandparents' farm was located. He was going to take a job as a long-distance truck driver, and would be making trips to the distant northern states. Mother explained it was a better job, that he'd make more money. And he said that someday he wanted to own his own rig, be an independent trucker.

I was happy at first, but then he said we'd be living in a small town about twenty miles from the farm. I would again be separated from my beloved grandparents! Worse, there were not even telephones in the rural community where my grandparents lived, so we could not even communicate unless visiting. Twenty miles seemed a tremendous distance to me, and I dreaded the thought of being out-of-touch with my grandparents. I would lose my few friends at the school, lose touch with Sandra...

I'll never forget that move: it was bitterly cold for the South, and as we packed things that weekend, the weather forecast said there was a snowfall in the northern part of the state, where we were going. By the time we arrived in Smallwood, the town was buried knee-high in snow. When we drove up to the renter house, the snow was so deep it had buried the front yard, and was piled up to the waist-high porch.

The house was a white-shingle box-like shape, with two-bedrooms, living-room, kitchen, and small bathroom. It looked similar to the other houses around the one square block of renter houses, large old oaks in the neat yards, sidewalks lining the street. As we stared at the seemingly ordinary house, I had no way of knowing when we walked through the door I'd be entering a hell that would last until I graduated from high school, and left home.

End Chapter One

Here are some tips from a memoir course you can try as writing exercises, should you be interested in writing your own memoir:

Memoir Writing Exercises

10 exercises to get you started

* Write two pages of something you can't deny.

* Write two pages of what got left behind.

* Write two pages of something you wrote or did that you no longer understand.

* Write two pages of apologizing for something you didn't do.

* Write two pages about a physical characteristic you are proud to have inherited or passed on.

* Write two pages of what you had to have.

* Write two pages of humiliating exposure.

* Write two pages about a time when you felt compassion unexpectedly.

* Write two pages of what you have too much of

* Write two pages of when you knew you were in trouble.

1 comment:

janet said...

Thankyou for the kind words on my blog,I really appreciate that.
The excerpt from your memoir was very touching and must have been difficult to write. It sounds like your grandmother was a wonderful person.