I saw a photograph once, but now it only exists in my memory. It was an 8 x 10 glossy of the congregation of the Berryville Church of Christ, the church I attended with my mother when I was a small child on our family farm. The church itself was a one-room affair with a brick chimney and white-washed clapboards. It sat a little ways south of Berryville proper, which is to say it was just a bit south of the Berryville General Store. My grandparents at one time managed that store. They lived cattycornered from it in a modest frame house. In March, 1956, my grandfather came home from church on a Sunday evening, had a heart attack, and died. I was five months old, and I would know him only through the things he left behind, the things I found later when I spent my pre-school days in my grandmother’s care—the cigarette lighters and pipe cleaners; the glass paperweights and the Bicycle playing cards; the Zane Grey novels and the concrete wishing well he built in the yard.
I wish I could see that photograph again. I wish I’d known my grandfather. I wish I could call back all the people who stood in front of that small church on what must have been a cold day, given the coats and head scarves the women wore—the long coats with their fake fur collars, the scarves with their floral prints. Some of the women wore snow boots, the kind they slipped on over their regular shoes. The men wore overcoats and fedoras. I can smell the damp wool and the scents of tobacco and coal smoke. My grandmother wore a hair net. Her black pocketbook dangled from her wrist. She crossed her hands over her ample stomach. The women smelled of talcum powder and Aqua Net hairspray. They wore rimless spectacles or cat eye glasses. I clung to the folds of my mother’s coat. I had on a light gray jacket that zipped up the front, a gray cap with ear flaps turned down and a strap fastened beneath my chin.
Forced to remember these details, I quickly begin to remember others. Delbar Tarpley sang hymns in a loud voice. He never sat with his wife, Ruth, who was my Sunday School teacher. The communion bread was a round of pie crust, from which everyone broke a small piece. After the service, the children got whatever was left. The “wine” was Welch’s grape juice served in a single glass goblet from which everyone sipped. When the offering was made, we all marched to the front of the church while singing a hymn and placed a few coins in a basket. An out of town relative might actually put in a bill or two. For the most part, we were farming families who didn’t have much to spare. I remember the names: Tarpley, Treece, McVeigh, Sanders, Read, Martin. Here we all are, forever caught in memory.
For the memoirist, the past exists in what’s often a haze, but it’s our job to make something specific and vivid from the fog of our memories. Sometimes we have the benefit of documents or photographs to help us, but sometimes we don’t. Sometimes we only have the memory of something seen or experienced. When that memory is vague, or when we’re not sure we can trust it, we should start with one detail—long coats with fake fur collars, a deck of Bicycle playing cards—and let that detail conjure others until we’re daydreaming ourselves back into the world of memory, or feeling ourselves become a part of times and places we never knew.
So often I hear my student writers say they don’t have good memories and they can’t recall the things they wish they could when they write memoir. Somehow I always doubt that. I wonder whether they’re trying too hard to remember. Relax, I want to tell them. All you have to do is daydream. Go back in time, remember one object, one scent, one taste, one sound. Every scene begins with one something that begets another something and another and another until finally the fabric of the memory has become whole and achingly real on the page. Memoirists reconstruct their lives one detail at a time. The people in the photograph I’ll probably never again see? They’re not going anywhere. They’re frozen in time. With all patience, they wait for me to remember them.