Memory as Resurrection: A Writing Activity

Cathy and I have had an odd feeling after selling her family home. She still tears up from time to time when she realizes our attachment to our native land has just become a bit less firm. For the past nine years, she’s been in that home four days out of each month, as she traveled to be on-site at the hospital where she worked remotely as the risk management and corporate compliance director. I went with her in the summers and over the holidays. We had dinner with our close friends and Cathy’s ever-expanding family. We placed flowers on the family graves. We drove past my family’s home in a neighboring town and on into the country to go down the gravel road past the farm I sold in 1996. A giant oak tree still stands along the mouth of the lane, but the house has long ago gone to ruin. The lives we lived there have been reduced to a pile of rubble, but in my memory the house still stands. I’m once again the little boy who loved his beagle hound, Music, and had a patch on the knee of his overalls—“Just like Dad’s!”—and hid behind my mother’s skirts when strangers came to call. In my reveries, my father still listens to St. Louis Cardinals baseball games on the radio—the play-by-play announcer, Harry Caray, still shouts his catchphrase, “Holy Cow!”—and my mother sits on the side of my bed and tells me to count my blessings before I fall asleep. Her voice is so soft, but I can still hear it. My memories preserve everything time took from us.

Memory can resurrect the dead—loved ones now gone and even former versions of ourselves. When we write memoir, we stand with one foot in the past and one foot in the present. We are both participants (actors in the stories of our experiences) and spectators, reflecting on those experiences. Here’s a writing activity to help us think about the texture we can achieve in a piece of memoir when we overlay the past with the present and bring our current perspectives to something we couldn’t fully understand at the time it was happening.

 

Step 1:  Choose a place that mattered to you sometime in the past, a place that has been forever altered by the passing of time.

Step 2:  Give us a sense of who you used to be in that place.

Step 3:  Tell us what you didn’t know then.

Step 4:  Let us know who you are now.

Step 5:   From your current position, what do you wish you could tell the person you used to be?

 

When I was a boy on our farm, I was often anxious and fearful. Even though I was barely a year old when my father had the accident that cost him both of his hands, I internalized how quickly our lives could change. As I grew and became aware of how much older my parents were than those of my friends, I feared that they would die while I was still young. My father died when I was twenty-six, and six years later my mother joined him. I wish I could tell the boy I was that change comes to us all, and there’s nothing we can do to stop that from happening. Still, certain things persist. An oak tree stretches its limbs to the sky, and in my memory, the boy I was still walks through its shade to retrieve the mail the rural carrier has left in the box at the end of the lane. When I retrace my steps, I see our house atop the slight rise at the other end of the lane. The maple tree in the front yard will one day fall on that house, and the new owners of the farm will let the debris lie there, but that hasn’t happened yet. As long as I have my memory, it will never happen. The house won’t fall, and my parents won’t die, and we’ll live in an eternal present in this place we’ll always call home.

 

 

 

 

4 Comments

  1. Chelsea Covington Maass on March 25, 2024 at 4:00 pm

    Thank you for this exercise, Lee. I am reading “Why We Remember” by Charan Ranganath right now. It’s all about how memory works. I am finding it very useful, not only for thinking about my own life, but for considering my characters’ lives…what do they remember? What have they forgotten? Why?

    • Lee Martin on March 25, 2024 at 5:55 pm

      Chelsea, you’re right. This can be just as useful for the fiction writers trying to deepen their understanding of characters.

  2. Tina Barnt on March 25, 2024 at 4:52 pm

    I love this. “Place” is so significant for me!

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