Adoption, Crenshaw Slave House, Doc's Place, Gerry Wilson, Jane Ann McLachlan, Kentucky Lake, Memoir, Memory, Murphysboro, October Memoir & Backstory Blog Challenge, OM &BCC, Paducah, Southernmost Illinois, The Writerly Life, Vienna, Viet Nam
For the month of October, Writing Space is participating in several challenges. One of them is Jane Ann McLachlan’s (OM & BBC) October Memoir & Backstory Blog Challenge hosted at Join the Conversation. While I juggle the challenges, I will also attempt to keep to my established editorial calendar. If you are particularly curious about my memoir work, check out my earlier entries under the Memoir Monday category. I hope you are enjoying October as much as I am. Remember the best bits of my blog are found in the generous comments. As Jane Ann would say, “join the conversation.”
I search back over the debris and midden of my memories, pictures and physical scars with an archaeologist’s eye. I comb the evidence and reconstruct my past not as I experienced it in real time with a severely limited point of view, little backstory, and even less of cultural and historical context, but from the vantage of a middle-aged woman close to my grandmother’s then age.
I am not alone.
One of the best parts about Jane Ann’s memoir challenge is that a group of us are grappling with these issues simultaneously. We are all writerly types and no stranger to act of blogging. We have lived very different lives and yet the same. I do hope that for the remainder of Jane Ann’s challenge that they leave a link to their most recent post in the comments so the rest of us can jump over for easy comparison. Within the next month, I intend to be moving this WordPress blog to a self-hosted site and installing a plug-in automated to link to the commentator’s last post. Until then, please leave us the bread crumbs back to your own roost.
Living in Hawaii has many advantages. This week an added bonus has been gifted to me due to the time differences in postings. I’m often the last to post for the day. Not only do I benefit from seeing the original posts but often from the discussions. Frequent readers know how much I value the comment sections.
Here is an excerpt from Gerry Wilson’s comments: “I’ve heard it said that the trick is to capture the emotion, not necessarily the specific event. If you can write with that much feeling, it’ll work every time. Not melodrama or sentimentality, just that honest, raw feeling.” She’s referring to turning a memory into fiction. Please head over to The Writerly Life for the full story. It is worth it.
My cast of characters
Some of the comments I have received this week told of needing a score sheet to keep the characters straight. I have consciously done something in these pieces that is out of character. (Pardon the pun) Most of my work is character driven. Action comes naturally from who the characters are, what motivates them, and how they habitually behave. Once I know my characters all that is needed is a “what if” for the action to unfold.
One would think that my first six years of life growing up on a remote, rural farm in Southernmost Illinois in the early 1960′s would be a tale of predictability and nostalgia similar to Opie Taylor’s life in Mayberry. The other misconception that I am trying not to promote is that my hillbilly relations are low-class and ignorant. It was a common trope of the day, and I find it echoed in the white trash memes of today. Quite the contrary. My world was populated by complex individuals who had skills and talents as well as knowledge of their world. They had a code of ethics and sets of beliefs that were uniquely their own even as they were informed by their geography and era.
This story is populated by my grandparents, birth parents, adoptive parents, step-parents, aunts, uncles, great aunts, great uncles, cousins––first and some degree removed, half siblings, step sibling, neighbors, church folk, town folks, staff and students of Vienna High School…and because my grandma is Grams, politicians and governmental types, both local and national.
The Cliff Note Version
Tom and Shirley are my birth parents that due to complications (see Day #1 for more details) did not marry.
Against Shirley’s wishes, Gail, Shirley’s elder sister, takes off on a 6-month, 9-state roadtrip. At some point (Alabama???), Bob, Gail’s husband of a little over a year joins them. They head to Florida and add Sharon to the caravan against the wishes of Bob’s parents who took care and raised her from the infancy to age 11. After a summer on the East Coast where Bob is enrolled in French language training in preparation for his new assignment to Paris, Bob continues to Paris without us. Gail returns to Southernmost Illinois with two newly acquired children whose custody is in dispute. My adoption is formalized in September after Vienna High School starts the 1961 school year with two new teacher. Gail teaches English. Pauline (Tom’s new wife) teaches home economics. I make frequent appearances at school and become a pinata of sorts, dressed up in frills, stuffed with banana taffy and Mary Janes while being passed around by adoring seniors. Gail coaches drama club. Pauline coaches cheerleaders.
Shirley remarries and moves to Chicagoland. Aunt Reta and Uncle Dan sell the farm south of us and move to Carrier Mills long enough for one of my cousins to be born in Marion before Farm Bureau relocates the family to Yorkville, Illinois. Bob is briefly stationed at Fort Leonard Wood Missouri. He rarely visits the farm…long trip that involved hitchhiking in those days. Gail makes occasional trips to Fort Leonard Wood with me but not Sharon. Bob chooses Viet Nam over domestic life…six tours.
P.A. (maternal grandfather) gets very ill. He is transferred from Harrisburg to a hospital in Chicago. Gail sells both farms and uses the money to build a house next door to the new construction of Reta and Dan’s in Yorkville. Shirley and family move to nearby Oswego. Shortly after the house is completed, P.A. is released from the hospital just when his recovery is assured, Grams dies. She had turned 52, and I had not quite turned 6.
My favorite stories of this whole period have little to do with the story arc. I loved following Grams out into the woods. We hiked barefoot in terrain most folks today would need Teva’s if not hikers. Usually we had a peck basket, as in pick a peck of poke or hickory nuts or morels or asparagus or whatever was in season. Something always was in season.
Pair of pearls to string
I have three injuries from my preschool days that still cause me problems. The earliest I explored yesterday in Day #4. Being sensitized to Rh positive blood when Gail had me shot up with a vial full of her blood. Story being that it would give me her antibodies to childhood diseases. Aside from the complicated pregnancies, it gave me grade school trips to allergies specialists one of whom proclaimed I was allergic to my mother, adding who wouldn’t be. Gail and doctors rarely mixed well. Understandable on both sides.
My dislocated shoulder, right side.
Gail blamed Sharon. She told everyone that Sharon had grabbed my by my arms and twirled me around with such force that it dislocated my shoulder. Don’t buy it now. Crappy that Sharon was the fall guy for a game we played for decades. We made our own games back then including turning ourselves into playground equipment.
The original source of the injury is better traced back to a rest area on the way from Fort Leonard Wood. I was afraid of Bob. He was horribly uncomfortable with me. Gail made him take me to the men’s room. He was agitated and humiliated. I was scared and soon terrified. I vividly recall the smell of the urinals and line of men disturbed by my appearance.
I had sudden flashbacks of what I had interpreted as violence and started screaming. Bob yanked me up by my right arm and started whipping me. Pee streamed down my white tights. His whips against my wet skin burned in urine. I sobbed and screamed in total terror. I was the dare-devil child afraid of nothing until Bob came home. I lost consciousness (disassociation?) I remember a man in a grey flannel suit and hat saving me. Not sure how. Just remember how safe I still feel around grey flannel and wool. Gail was in the car pretending to be Jayne Mansfield.
Stigma in my left eye
She was taking me back to Fort Leonard Wood. I didn’t want to go. She stopped at Murphysboro right by the river was a trampoline place. Common to have kiddie golf and other small amusements for travelers to stop and stretch. My tire swing went out over a ravine at the farm. Nobles Park in Paducah was my favorite place. Dare-devil me. But I would have none of it that day. I was beyond mad that I was forced to go back to Missouri. Gail coaxed and pleaded. She thought that as soon as she could get me on the trampoline, I’d forgive her and change my mood.
I had a premonition of sorts. My stomach churned. My moodiness turned to concern that something was going to happen. She somehow pushed me too far and for the first time I felt rage. Not anger, not terror, but pure rage. I remember the sky opening up and lightening striking my head and beams of daggers shooting out of my eyes just like in the cartoons. Blinding rage. Gail took a startled step back from me, the devil child. Got on the trampoline to show me how and the next thing was phone calls to the farm as to who could come get me. The helicopter transport was flying Gail to an Army hospital.
I thought it was my fault. I thought my rage had caused her to break her back again. I brooded over that as Grams folded laundry. I strung the rubber band from a bouncy ball over the wire handle of a bushel basket. My neck held the other side and I strummed and plucked and contemplated by eternal guilt. The rubber band loosed from the basket snapping my left eye. Rendering me blind for ten days or so until the spasms dissipated. I remember them holding me down at the doctors and getting shots in my butt. Tranquilizers more than likely.
Can you doubt that Bob thought Viet Nam easier duty than Fort Leonard Wood?
I have glasses for when my fatigue strains my stigma. Years of yoga have alleviated much of the chronic discomfort from my shoulder, but age is taking back some of those gains. I tend to see them as physical reminders of self-care that needs extra tending.
This is Day #5 of the October Memoir & Backstory Blog Challenge (OM & BBC) being hosted by Jane Ann McLachlan on her blog Join the Conversation. You can track my progress on this and other October Challenges by visiting my Up & Coming page. Leave us your thoughts.