As a birthday present, I’d love you to read about my dad for just a minute…
He was pretty crazy, was a wonderful wood-carver, ordered his evening beer and cigarettes from us in Spanish only, danced when he needed to fart, kicked some guy in the face while serving on a submarine in the Navy because he was sometimes mean like that, especially if he thought a guy was in need of a kick in the face, was aboard the USS Waller during the Cuban Blockade, where he wrote a letter home referring to it as “Blockade Schmockade”, taught me how to ride a crazy Appaloosa named Jumper during summers in Utah, and wrote a lot of cool, folksy poetry.
This link will take you to the tribute I wrote to my dad on his 70th birthday. I’d love you to get to know him a little better.
I was going to share this poem with you for Memorial Day. I hadn’t remembered the name correctly and kept Googling On Flanders Field. Thankfully I found this article with the poem (In Flanders Fields is the correct title) and this writer shares it better than I would have:
Yes, Stephen Foster Memorial Day is really a thing…at least in some parts of the world. 150 years ago today, 13 January, 1864, American composer Stephen Collins Foster died.
I hope you know him. If not, I’m grateful to be the first to introduce you.
Today is Manuscript Monday, and Stephen Foster created one of the songs of my childhood, S’wanee River (Old Folks at Home), and subsequently influenced a section of my manuscript in which my family moves from Pennsylvania to Florida, with an iconic stop at the Suwannee River.
Here is a version pretty close to the original song as I remember singing it as a child:
That will be the only traditional version of any of Foster’s songs that I give you today, because Foster’s works have become something more than his original compositions, and I think it’s fitting that since I will be talking about truth in a subjective way, sharing various artists’ interpretations of Foster’s original work is appropriate to today’s post.
As to the Suwannee River trip my family took, I was too young to actually remember it. But through photographs and stories told by my family, I would learn to intertwine my own memories of childhood with a fictitious, “perfect” memory of my family at the Suwannee River, together and happy.
Memory is the ultimate trickster, and when writing memoir, it’s important to honor truth in a way that doesn’t mislead your readers. In this case, I had a factual childhood that included divorce and trauma. But as with many children in less than stable homes, I developed a second part of myself who learned to cope with the bad by creating an imaginary ideal. In my case it was “remembering” past events through photographs of happy moments, burying the true negatives beneath.
While counseling helped me uncover those hard facts I was hiding under a lot of happy, fat, grinning, I cannot “un-remember” a memory, however false it was. But I have learned to see those false memories for what they represented in my life, and for how it helped shape me and provided escape from fear and trauma.
But in writing, why include a false memory once you know it’s false? Isn’t that lying to the reader?
Here’s a version of Old Kentucky Home by Johnny Cash, in which he only retains part of the original song, in the chorus:
The truth of any person’s life includes both our facts and our delusions, and the entirety of a person is not comprised of only the factual truth, or only the emotional truth. We are shaped by both what occurred, and how we remember it occurring, even if those memories are skewed.
The difference, though, in writing essay or memoir, is honesty to the reader.
For my section on Stephen Foster’s song and our trip to Suwannee River, I set up the section, a fictitious memory, with the following phrase: “My first memory is a lie I tell myself repeatedly:” The false memory, then, is inset, and in italics, to remind readers that the section is to be considered separately.
It’s too important to leave out, because creating a false first memory began a path of escape for me that, while keeping me “happy”, was a means of avoidance that stayed with me far into adulthood. And while in some ways it kept me from a lot of pain, it also delayed the healing process that comes from staying grounded, going through a painful event and then moving forward.
I think readers will understand the section when they read it, and appreciate the honesty that comes from recognizing both the good and bad of alternative memories. Thanks, Stephen Foster, for creating a song that accompanied my first “memory” as well as many others we sang around the piano (for real) during happy times.
What do you think about how a writer deals with both facts and emotional truth? Is your preference for straightforward autobiography or do you like the conflict that comes with the gray areas of emotional truth?
And, did you know Stephen Foster’s music before today? What’s your favorite of his work?
Happy Manuscript Monday, readers, and happy Stephen Foster Day. May your work week be easy and fast- paced to reach the weekend.
P.S. I couldn’t pass up leaving you with an upbeat, jazzed up version of S’wanee River by actor Hugh Laurie:
Feel free to skip all the words and just watch the worst and best videos at the end, or enjoy the build-up…
Per special request I’m sharing (ad nauseum, for some of you) our holiday video card from 2009 when Kurt and I were living in Southern California. We didn’t rehearse much, and it’s difficult to understand all the lyrics, so I was asked to give the background as well, so you might catch pieces of the highlights in the song.
It’s kind of weird talking about 2009 four years later from our current home in South Africa, but I suppose since I didn’t have a website then, and didn’t share those adventures, maybe it doesn’t matter. Maybe I should have called today’s post Christmas Past or something equally cheesy.
’09 was a year of moves for us. Due to Kurt’s work that year we moved from our home in Lover, Pennsylvania to a jobsite in Point Pleasant, West Virginia, where the Mothman and an air of impending doom still linger, but where Baxter and I had some of our best country hikes. “West-by-God!-Virginia” is how the locals say it, and that countryside is strikingly beautiful.
Although seven American presidents have taken the oath of office since I was born, Obama’s inauguration in January, 2009 was the first I actually sat and watched the entire way through.
We then moved to Hastings, Nebraska, where it was always windy…
and the air alternately smelled of pig shit, cow shit or the corn ethanol plant, but where we also had fun exploring the Kool-Aid Museum, and the Stuhr Museum of the Prairie Pioneer. And Baxter and I watched wood ducks in the local park. My biggest regret in leaving Nebraska was that I never got to see the Great Sandhill Crane migration on the Platte River.
2009 saw our amazing Pittsburgh Steelers (American football) become the first team to win their SIXTH super bowl. We would never forget Harrison running that ball! We went home to watch that game on our brother-in-law’s new projection screen television.
The Pittsburgh Penguins (ice hockey) also won the Stanley Cup that year, and we convinced our favorite eatery, The Garden Cafe, in Hastings, Nebraska, to forgo their beloved basketball game to let us have the finals on the big screen. They even made a special “Pittsburgh Salad” to my specifications, and offered it for the special in the bar that night.
We moved to Southern California that June, but not before my brother asked me not to become a “bleeding-heart, liberal, hippie tree hugger.” That, of course, set in motion my crushing need to hug any and every tree we could find while there, and send him photos. 😉
I unwittingly walked past St. John’s Hospital just after Farrah Fawcett died, and was on a Santa Monica Big Blue Bus that pulled over to have a moment of silence upon learning that Michael Jackson died. The two incidents happened on the same day, and cemented for me the surreality that is Los Angeles.
We went to the X-Games, where we saw Shaun White just hanging with friends a few bleacher seats below us. I had a Garth Algar-like encounter with Rutger Hauer in a convenience store in Marina del Rey, and Baxter humped a large, German Shepherd named Stephen, who happened to belong to Nicholas Brendon (one of my favorite television actors) at a nearby dog park in Venice.
Whiskey a Go Go, the famous nightclub on the Sunset Strip (where The Doors were once a house band) is where we went to watch my friend Randy perform with his heavy metal band, Flatline. (Randy now kicks ass playing with the hit group, In This Moment.) Kurt would not let me mosh. Kurt never lets me mosh. This is probably a good thing.
We took in a skateboard competition at famous Huntington Beach, and nabbed VIP passes to the Miramar Air Show.
I also went to the Jay Leno show, courtesy of a neighbor who worked there. I had a backstage tour and thereafter tried talking Kurt into moving his safety career to Hollywood just so I could watch the backstage action at the studios. Kurt said no. This is probably a good thing.
We had a steady flow of visitors, walked to the Pacific Ocean most days, to watch the sunset, and we participated in a Los Angeles charity walk for pancreatic cancer, in honor of my mom who had passed the year before.
We drove up Highway One to the Redwood Forest.
Kurt swore I would never be able to get him to do another holiday video card unless we ever moved out of the country. Now that we’ve moved out of the country, he is still saying no to a video card. This is probably a good thing, but I’m still trying to convince him.
In the meantime, here are the worst and best. First, an encore of our 2009 awkward, dorky, holiday video card. Second, the best: a viral hit (not ours 🙂 ) that’s been seeing make the rounds on social media this year. Other than being such an annoyingly attractive family that they made me puke in my coffee a little bit this morning, it’s kind of awesome. They are pretty stinking adorable, and they had me at “vasectomy.”
I was born in Autumn in North America, September 25, 1856.
Oh, wait… no. That was my great-great-grandfather’s birthday, as witnessed by this baby announcement card to my mom from her Gram Shorts. Let’s just say I was born sometime in the 1970’s. 😉
Before I get on with today’s post, I would like to take a moment to note that I was apparently a brilliant and physically exemplary child (as I’m sure my brother and sister will attest ;-). I was a good little narcissist this morning and looked at old photos and making myself boo-hoo and pout and miss my mom, because how can you have a birthday and not want to celebrate the person who gave birth to you? And I miss my family, who are the only ones to still call me “Marla Jane” and rhyme it with “pain…in the neck”.
Especially when, browsing through the scanned pages of my baby book, I find all these amazing accolades from her. Apparently (and really, I don’t know what happened…or maybe I do) I was quite ahead of schedule as a baby:
And, I was a writer from a very young age, and also, apparently, a traveler. I don’t know about that musical pitch part. It depends on who you ask. If you ask Mr. Cribbs, our Junior High Musical Band Director, I really flubbed my dubb on a French Horn solo at regionals (although I suppose that was more to performance anxiety than pitch.)
It was strange this morning to wake up having a birthday in a different season; my first birthday in South Africa. I excitedly checked my Facebook page. No matter how far from home, I always know that crazy Facebook world will be there to greet me.
Facebook was silent. No birthday wishes except the one early birthday wish I received from a friend yesterday. Then I remembered it was not yet my birthday in the states, and my South African friends were not yet awake (I’m up before 5 with Kurt).
I didn’t know how to get my bearings: both my hours and my seasons are off.
Depending on who you ask, it’s now Spring here, or it’s Summer.
But the astronomical (yes, “astronomical” because let’s leave “astrological” completely out of this) terminology isn’t really relevant to casual conversations in South Africa. It reminds me of the way seasons are discussed in North Dakota, where all the residents say there are only two seasons: “winter, and preparing for winter.”
In South Africa, many of the residents I’ve met explain that they consider their seasons as a few months of winter, a couple weeks (some even exaggerate to “days”) each for spring and autumn, and a long, lonnnnnng summer.
That’s relativity, and I like it.
As for my birthday, I used to think of it like the mixmatched crayons in a handmade box my dad made; every year the world I knew turned to burnt sienna, goldenrod, burnt orange and mahogany. It was time to look for pumpkins and plan our Halloween costumes. In school I was immersed in swimming and running, and when I hit the dirt roads near Marion Center I would lose myself in the sound of only my crunching feet, the smell of leaves and earth, and well, also manure.
Instead I am looking at the first roses blooming on our bushes, and inhaling the heady scent and irony of our Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow plant wafting in through our windows. Instead of running, I strength train and do my best on the elliptical, and consider whether or not to have arthroscopic surgery, knowing this bone-on-bone arthritis and this put-away-wet body will never run again the way I once did, anyway.
It was hard to watch Kurt leave for work today. I wrapped my arms around him tightly when his alarm went off. I followed him like a puppy as he got ready for work. I followed him to the gate and even clung to that when it was closed. I was afraid to be alone on my birthday. I never know if it’s going to be a day that I can’t let go of the past, or a day I’ll embrace the future.
I could have asked him to take the day off and he would have, but every day he gets off work is precious, priceless even, and I want each one to take him someplace new and different. There will be plenty of time to celebrate a birthday on a weekend.
He placed something on the table before he left, and told me I couldn’t look at it until after he was gone. It was an easy wait, since all I wanted to do until he left was just hold onto him. When his carpool picked him up, I walked back in the house, past the table. I looked at the piece of paper covering whatever was underneath. It was lumpy and no larger than the paper itself, so I wasn’t sure what to expect.
I decided to tease myself a little. I prepared my morning cup of jasmine green tea, and just sat looking at the blank piece of paper.
I debated waiting until after I returned from the gym (if I went), maybe even until lunch, or for the last thing before I went to bed. I love the anticipation of a gift, but always fret the post-gift emptiness of not having the person here to hug or thank, or just be with me. Having a gift sit there, unopened, gives me the fullness of expectation and holds the person with me all day.
I know…I’m weird!
But I decided to open it, mainly because I knew he would want me to, and because I was sure that whatever else was there, words from my husband would be in there as well, and nothing can move me like the simple strength of the way he loves me.
It is the most perfect present he could have ever given me, especially for my first birthday in South Africa. He took a piece of paper around the construction site he’s working on, and asked people of different nationalities to write Happy Birthday. He labeled each one with the language. The only ones he didn’t label were the languages he knew I would recognize.
And he made me a card, with cherry blossoms on the cover, and my two favorite guys inside.
I smiled and made myself to go the gym, where as soon as he swiped my membership card, the worker greeted me with a loud, cheery, “Happy Birthday, Marla!” I said “What does it say on that screen, anyway?” He smiled and said “It’s a picture of a big cake.”
I did 45 minutes of HIIT-HARD cardio, got my first birthday message on my phone, and returned home to find nearly a dozen posts on my timeline welcoming me to this…my, uh, er…30th? year of life. (And if you believe that age, I’ve got a bridge in Brooklyn to sell you as well.)
Thank you, friends, for the Facebook, email, phone and in person wishes. Happy Birthday, indeed. Definitely one to embrace the future.
Okay, so you know I can’t completely let this pass without the opportunity to tell you about a few of my favorite organizations. A truly special birthday gift for me would be if you would consider raising awareness for, or donating to one of these organizations related to writing/arts and travel/wildlife:
(Don’t worry, dear reader. Today’s post is short, optimistic, and will end with a “cuddly wuddly” lion cub photo from here in South Africa.)
I am one strong, strong, STRONG mother fluffer.
And I don’t just mean that I can now bench press 99 pounds (45kg for my new African friends), or that I still refuse to wear deodorant unless I’m getting gussied up (and I rarely gussy).
It’s because of who I’ve become.
I’ve been dreading this July 19th. It has always been a rough day for me. 26 years ago today, my dad dropped dead on a Las Vegas sidewalk of a coronary. I was sixteen and living with him that summer. I was supposed to go jogging with him that morning and, like a typical teenager, blew it off in favor of sleep.
19 years ago today, my second pregnancy was confirmed at the doctor’s office. We celebrated like crazy, believing that finding out on the anniversary of Dad’s death was fate. It was not. None of my pregnancies would end up going to term.
More than usual I worried about today, because I’m working on this manuscript, revising specifically these sections on loss and formative events.
But you know what? I wouldn’t change one traumatic, terrifying, defining moment of my life, because it has made me unique (or, “strange,” depending on who you ask, but I’m okay with that), independent, adventurous, insightful, and (did I mention?)…a very strong woman!
Here’s to the hard memories, and especially for my readers who have been through the worst of it. Because once you make it through the grief which feels like it will have no end, you will arrive at a day you realize you have survived, and that you are immeasurably stronger than the person you were.
May your heartbreaks and hardship make you one strong, strong, STRONG mother fluffer!
P.S. Here’s that lion cub, as promised. This photo was taken at the Lion and Rhino Reserve in Krugersdorp, South Africa. We are finally going to Kruger National Park this August (TENTING, even!) and I can’t wait to bring you back photos and stories of our trip. (Don’t worry, I will not be cuddling anything wilder than Kurt in that South African wonderland!)
The most difficult part of living in a different country is missing family. We knew it would be, but I thought that with both my parents gone and not seeing the rest of my family frequently anyway, I would be a lot better equipped to handle it.
I miss my siblings, my nieces and nephews, my new grand-nieces, and of course, I miss Baxter. A good dog takes the edge off of loneliness.
When we were assigned to the other side of America, I knew that when I missed family, I took comfort in knowing that we could visit “any time.” No passports or customs. A weekend visit by plane or long road-trip and we were reunited.
And even when nobody would have time for trips, we could easily manage the three-hour time difference for phone calls, and it wouldn’t break the bank.
I will call my niece today to visit and tell her about the little things I bought for her daughter here. But as I write this post it’s still just the wee hours of the morning. I have to wait, and long, and miss her for half a day until it’s a decent hour to call.
But I know I’m still lucky. I have an amazingly strange and loving family, nieces and nephews, and two, magnetic grand-nieces. Six hours time difference is really not that bad, and they are still, “only” a flight away. And maybe, just maybe, when Kurt’s not paying attention, I can get somebody to smuggle me in a certain large, black labrador retriever.
Happy 71st, Dad! Those of you who have been following me for awhile may remember last year’s memorial tribute to my dad on his 70th birthday. It was planned as a one-time post, but when I came across this letter recently, I knew I had to do something again this year.
This morning I emailed my immediate family a letter recently discovered from my father, mailed shortly after the Cuban Blockade. Dad served on the USS Waller during the Cuban Missile Crisis.What we know of Dad’s involvement in the blockade we thought only survived as anecdotes, and in what is known historically of the USS Waller’s participation in 1962. That, too, is mostly “classified” but thankfully a number of sailors from aboard the Waller and other vessels have recently been sharing information about that time of service. Continue reading “Blockade Schmokade”: A Newly Discovered Letter from Dad
Hello everyone. My name is Jeff, Marla’s older, and only, brother. I wanted to help out with my sister’s dilemma of not having enough hours in her days to get all of the things ready for her move to R.S.A. and still fill some blog spots for those of us who “need to get a life” because we grow too impatient waiting on her next post!
While I don’t presume to be able to fill the need for all, I will at least give her something to post so that all her readers have even more reason to desire her return to the podium!
I really could not think of anything interesting to write about, I’ve always been the type of guy quick with the “snappy comebacks” and the sarcastic remarks, quite a lot of fun in the short term, but irritating to be around for any length of time. My sisters can both attest to this, as I was definitely not one of those “big brother” types. As I remember it, I spent most of my youth making life Hell for both of my younger sisters; probably more so for my sister Wendy than I did Marla, but I did have five more years with Wendy to figure out all of her “buttons”. Continue reading Only “A Few Years”: A Goodbye Post
As my friend and fellow writer, Beth Gilstrap wrote poignantly in her guest post last week, when Cheryl Strayed, at the AWP Writer’s Conference, read aloud a letter to her younger self, we wept. In one moment, Strayed took an auditorium of strangers and bonded us together for a moment of recognition, of empathy, maybe even (if we allowed it) revelation.
This was also how I felt when reading her memoir, wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail. I cannot do this book any more justice than the beautiful reviews already written about it, but I can tell you that this is one of those books that will make you cry, will break your heart, and will make you love (hopefully yourself) a little more.
As a reader, this is my favorite review of the book: http://www.nytimes.com/2012/03/28/books/wild-by-cheryl-strayed-a-walkabout-of-reinvention.html?pagewanted=all&_r=0
As a writer, I love how this review shows what makes wild so effective from a craft perspective: http://billanddavescocktailhour.com/bad-advice-wednesday-what-i-learned-from-wild-guest-post-by-richard-gilbert/
As you can guess, this upcoming move to Africa has me in daily panic mode, wondering if I will get everything done in the remaining eleven weeks before we board that plane. Today I was frantic. Kurt emailed that the company needed copies of our passports immediately to get the VISAs going. I knew where Kurt’s was, but I didn’t put mine back in the “Important Documents” folder after returning from Vietnam last May.
I finally found it buried under some clothes in the bedroom (because that makes the most sense?) but in the process of searching, stumbled across a long-forgotten document given to me by Mom. It’s not exactly a will, per se, but a simple list of policies and contact information. She gave it to me (to each of her children, I think) only a year or two before she was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer and died. The information is no longer relevant, but the note that accompanied it took me out of commission for the afternoon.
I’m telling you this because we always think we’re through things, until something comes up that makes us realize that healing is forever. And that’s okay. I would rather take these moments where I plummet into grief, because they remind me I’m alive, I love, I long, and I’m stronger because of it. Mom was so pragmatic (if somewhat dramatic) in leaving these little notes around. I now do the same thing for Kurt, torturing him with little morbid notes of “just-in-case” practicalities. I wonder how many more he will find someday.
“Understand that what you resolve will need to be resolved again and again…”
When I read wild, it was a couple years after Mom’s death. I opened the book knowing it included Strayed writing about the death of her own mother. (Strayed was only 22 when she lost her mother.) I worried I wouldn’t make it through the book, but faced down the fear. I’m so grateful I did. But this book is about so much more than losing a parent, something we all have gone through, or will. The memoir is about so much more: discovery, courage, reinvention… The fact that the entire memoir follows her solo hike on the Pacific Crest Trail (having little experience even hiking at all) frames the work, as the New York Times writer suggests in his review (see link above) as an epic “walkabout.”
Meeting Strayed after her beautiful reading and discussion was the highlight of the conference for me. I have loved this woman since I first read her work and taken strength from her words in both wildand her advice book, Tiny Beautiful Things.
I am so excited to give this book to one of you, and I hope you take from it all the love and beauty, heartbreak and inspiration that it gives.
HOW TO WIN THIS SIGNED COPY OF WILD BY CHERYL STRAYED:
I’m going to make this very easy to enter. Comment below on one beautiful thing about one or both of your parents (whether they are living or not). Make it uplifting, and happy. What is your one favorite memory? What quirk do you love/hate? (That morbid practicality was my love/hate.) Does a certain food, place, person or event remind you of your mother or father (in a good way)? Each person who comments is entered once into the drawing for this book. Good luck, friends!
(You’re always reading about me and my life. I’d love this little insight on you!)
Bonus entries.Donate to vida between now and next Tuesday. VIDA is a grass-roots organization which “seeks to explore critical and cultural perceptions of writing by women through meaningful conversation and the exchange of ideas among existing and emerging literary communities.” Donate to VIDA and you will get 3 additional entries for the book. Make sure you email me proof of your donation ( marla at marlasinkdruzgal dot com ) and comment below after you’ve donated.