Last week, I wrote about using sensory details to take us to material from our lives that might merit examination in a piece of memoir. This morning, I woke up thinking about sounds from my childhood. It seems to me that we all have a few sounds that take us back into the past—sounds that carry us to some sort of emotional resonance. One of mine is the sound of a wringer washing machine.
My mother was a grade school teacher. My father was a farmer. Before I started school, I spent the weekdays in my grandmother’s house. On Saturday mornings, I would wake in my own bed to the sound of my mother’s wringer washer running on our wash porch. That sound—the hum of the motor as it turned the agitator, the water splashing against the sides of the drum—told me my mother was home. Knowing that gave me such a feeling of comfort because my mother’s steadfast love was the one constant in what was otherwise, thanks to my father’s anger, a turbulent childhood. Those Saturday morning, I lay in bed dozing to the sound of that washing machine, luxuriating in the feeling of safety and calm that it gave me.
If I examine that memory, sound connects me to an object, and that object connects me to my mother. She was a woman of devotion, a meek woman who wasn’t always able to say what she felt inside. Instead, she showed her love through her actions. She was kind and compassionate and unassuming. She was the kind of person you’d barely notice in a group of people. But she was also a woman of devotion, the oldest of six children who grew up taking care of her younger siblings. She married my father when she was 41, and four years later I came along, a surprise pregnancy. When I was barely a year old, my father lost his hands in a farming accident. My mother was his faithful companion, no matter the turmoil he brought into her life, the rest of their time together.
She was, then, like that wringer washing machine: steady, sturdy, practical, constant. She was a quiet woman, yes, but she also had a strength that others—my father and I chief among them—came to count on.
So, you see, when I recall the sound of that washing machine, I can’t help but feel an emotional resonance. The washing machine becomes a metaphor, containing, as it does, all the qualities of my mother that I admired and that I miss to this day. She was a woman who endured.
I don’t want to write a simile. I don’t want to say, “My mother was like her wringer washing machine.” Instead, I want to put her into a scene. I want to go back in time to the moment I wake on a Saturday morning and hear the motor churning. I want to get out of bed and go to the wash porch and see her there, putting clothes into the drum. I want to see her turn to me, her lips upturned ever so slightly into the beginnings of a grin. I want to go to her and hold to her leg and press my face into the soft cotton of her apron and smell the bleach and the powder of the Oxydol and the wooden clothespins in her apron pockets, and to know that I’m wanted and loved.
Then memory takes me to a single moment, the one in which my mother lets me run the clean clothes through the automatic wringer to squeeze the excess water out of them before she hangs them on the line to dry. I love to do this, and she always cautions me to be careful not to get my finger between the rollers of the wringer, but on this day, she’s looking away for just an instant, and my finger gets too close, and much to my dismay, the rollers are pinching it, and I’m howling, and my mother is hurrying to reverse the wringers and free me.
My father lost his hands when he got them caught between the snapping rollers of the shucking box on his corn picker, and because of that, my memory of the wringer pinching my finger takes on another layer of resonance.
It’s all metaphor, all our memories of objects and sights and tastes and textures and sounds. If I write this scene, I don’t want to call attention to that fact. I just want the details to do the work. At some point, though, I want to know, as the writer, that those details are connecting to my parents and our circumstances. I want to use the scene I write as a way of thinking about what it was to have our life.
I remember the shock of the pain I felt. I remember how, once my mother freed me, I unfairly blamed her, how for at least a while I believed that she didn’t love me at all, and yet I wanted and needed her to wrap an ice cube in a wash cloth and hold it to my bruised finger, to tell me I was all right, to hold me on her lap and to rock me.
In memoir, scenes are never there merely for the sake of nostalgia. The details have to be doing the work of helping the writer think more fully about experience.
So what are your sounds? To whom do they connect you? What specific memories do they invite onto the page? Construct a scene. Don’t write a simile. Don’t call attention to the metaphor. Just let the characters interact with the object that brings the sound to life. If that sound has taken you to an experience that’s rich and complicated, you’ll see how dramatization can become a means of thinking and feeling more deeply than nostalgia ever allows.