I have a small iron hammer, threaded at its end, that belonged to my father. Someone, although I don’t know who, made this hammer and threaded it to screw into the end of one of the hard plastic holsters where my father’s hooks usually fit. This way, my father, who’d lost both of his hands in a farming accident, could, if he chose, have a hammer to use when working on our farm. I have little memory of him actually using this hammer, but the hammer itself endures, and I often wonder what someone, finding it, will think, once I’m gone from this earth. The story behind it, its purpose, and everything it means to me will most likely be lost forever.
We memoirists traffic in the artifacts of the past. We preserve them in print. We use them to access the lives we once lived. Even if we don’t own them anymore, they exist in our memories. Memoir holds power over time’s unstoppable march. A good memoir protects the past, keeping it safe from all that threatens to encroach upon it.
So this hammer. The black iron of it. Its weight at the end of my father’s arm. It’s easy to see how the hammer represents the burden he carried after his accident, or the force of his determination to go on with the life of a farmer, a life he’d always loved, or his unyielding will, or the coldness that was often the underside of his strength, or the oddity—part man, part machine—people may have thought him to be. In short, this hammer represents my father in the years after his accident, and it represents the often difficult relationship I had with him, particularly in my teenage years when he often tried to impose his will on me with force. Its presence in my home now is a reminder of the life I lived with him on that farm, a life that in some ways seems so far away and in other ways so close at hand.
What artifact lingers from your own past life? Maybe it’s an object, like my father’s hammer, that you still own, or maybe it’s something you haven’t seen in years but is still vivid in your memory. What are the facts of it? What do you associate with it? What memories do you have?
When writing memoir, we can use objects to create scenes from our pasts. People in memoirs have to have something to do, and that’s where objects come into play. Maybe my mother was sitting at her Singer sewing machine rocking the treadle with her foot, guiding the material over the feed dogs, being careful not to let the needle catch her fingers, when she saw a car coming down our lane—or maybe she heard our telephone ring and went to answer it—and the news came about my father’s accident, and our farmhouse, and our lives changed forever. You get the idea. Find the objects—the artifacts of a life—and put them to use in a scene.
We can also use objects as metaphors. In many ways, my life with my father seemed like an encounter with a hammer. Likewise, he must have met my rebellious teen years the only way he knew how—with force. He must have seen me as someone he had to hammer into place, someone he had to attach to a right-thinking, upright way of life. Objects are always more than their physical appearance. A good memoirist can always fashion an object into a representation of the lived life it happened to be a part of. When you think of a certain object, what do you think or feel about the people who used it? In my case, I think of the burden my father carried with him as a result of his accident, but I also think of the difficulty of love—the desire for it, the fear of it, the hard ways we often make for ourselves.
The artifacts of past lives are there for the using when it comes to writing memoir. All we have to do is recall them.