My father had a penchant for colorful sayings. “Can’t never did nothing,” he often told me when I complained I couldn’t perform a task. “You’re breeding a scab on your ass,” he said when I misbehaved. “You’re just talking to hear yourself roar,” he said when I got too chatty. And, of course, when I whined because I wanted something, he said, “People in hell wanting ice water, too.” Or, “If ‘if’s’ and ‘but’s’ were candies and nuts, we’d all have a merry Christmas.”
My parents have been gone for several years, and though I’ve tried to retain the sounds of their voices, I’m not quite sure I ever manage to hear them. Each time I get close, their voices fade away. What remains, though, are the things they said. My mother’s exclamation of, “My word!” Or the way she answered the telephone—“Yell-o.” Or drew out the word, well,” at the beginning of a sentence. Because I can remember what my parents said, I can come closer to retaining how they sounded.
Our voices from the past—from parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles, friends, etc.—try desperately to converse with us when we write memoir. When we create them as characters on the page, they begin to talk to us. They are in motion. They move through scenes, ironing pillowcases, singing hymns, driving tractors, reading newspapers. We smell their Secret deodorant, their Butch hair crème, their scent of wheat chaff or sweat or fuel oil. We hear the sounds they make—the creaking of bedsprings, the banging of a spatula on the rim of a frying pan, the heavy footsteps on porch floors, the loose dentures clacking in their mouths. We hear the things they say. When we begin a memoir, we enter the dream world of our memories. We have to use our senses to pay attention. People come alive though the sights, sounds, scents, tastes, etc. Their voices tell us much of what we have to remember—the way my mother used my full name when she wanted me to know how much I’d disappointed her; the way my father could sometimes surprise me with a soft-toned word of encouragement. Through the details, we resurrect the people from our past, including our former selves.
A few years ago, a former schoolmate, upon our reunion, asked me to say to him the thing I always used to say.
“What thing is that?” I asked.
“You know. Every day you’d walk into our geometry class and say, ‘It is what it is, man.’”
I have no memory of ever saying that to him or to anyone else for that matter, but who am I to dispute his memory? If I said it, or if I didn’t, it invites me to see myself for what I may have been at that age—a little cocky, a little bit in love with what I mistakenly considered my worldly cool.
Whose voices do you remember? Spend some time daydreaming. What do you hear people from your past say? Use those voices to lead you to actions, reflections, questions, speculations as you begin the process of dramatizing and interpreting your experiences.