Showboat Pork and Beans, Chef Boyardee Ravioli, Campbell’s Tomato Soup, SpaghettiOs, Dinty Moore Beef Stew. When I was a teenager in the seventies, all I needed was one of these, a can opener, a stove, and I had myself a meal. In those days, my mother worked. She worked in the laundry or on the housecleaning crew at the local nursing home. This was after she’d retired from a thirty-eight-year teaching career. Sometimes she had to be at work at five in the morning; other times, she didn’t go in until seven. On occasion, she had to work on Sunday, so she couldn’t go to church until evening services. I usually went with her. It was only a couple of blocks from our house to the church, so we walked. I remember walking home with her in the early summer dusk, her soft voice beside me. What did we talk about? I wish I could remember, but I can only guess. After the singing of hymns, after the sermon and the prayers, my mother’s leisurely gait and the ease of her voice gave me a feeling of peace that was often lacking in my turbulent teenage years. It seemed that my father and I were always at odds. I loved those Sunday evening walks with my mother because it was just the two of us, away from the anger my father and I often brought into our home. Maybe she told me he loved me—she was always telling me that, unwilling to surrender to our chaotic come-and-go, ever insistent that we could be better, that our family could be better, that we could live a kind and happy life.
She would have been sixty when I was fifteen. I was her only child, and in spite of all the ways I found to disappoint her, she loved me.
In Ernest Hemingway’s A Moveable Feast, he talks about overcoming the difficulty of beginning a story. “All you have to do,” he said, “is write one true sentence. Write the truest sentence that you know.”
True sentences come in many forms. Sometimes they feature concrete details. This morning, for whatever reason, I woke up thinking about pork and beans. What brand did we keep on hand when I was a teenager? My wife Cathy jostled my memory. Showboat, of course. As soon as she said it, I visualized the empty cans in our burn barrel or later dumped into a gully on our farm, our own personal landfill. What other brands of canned goods did we have? The associations came quickly—Chef Boyardee, Campbell’s, Dinty Moore—and the next thing I knew I was writing other true sentences. Facts about my mother’s job, facts about our walks to church, facts about my father and the relationship I had with him. Finally, I came to one of the truest sentences I know: “I was her only child, and in spite of all the ways I found to disappoint her, she loved me.” It’s been thirty-four years since my mother died, and nothing has ever shaken my faith in the absolute truth of her love for me. Other things I thought were true have crumbled—some of them because of my own choices and some of them because of the choices of others—but nothing has ever threatened the knowledge that my mother loved me unconditionally.
The point for those of us who write memoir is the smallest concrete detail can allow us to indirectly approach the aspects of our experience that may be too daunting for us to see head-on. A can of Showboat Pork and Beans can take us to the truest sentence we can write. I had no idea when I opened memory’s cupboard that the canned goods inside would take me to my remembrance of those Sunday evening walks with my mother. Sometimes, to begin, we just have to latch onto a concrete detail. If we keep writing true sentences, we’ll be amazed by where we finally arrive.