Friday, September 09, 2016

Where do you begin a memoir?

I’ve been thinking about this memoir thing all week, but not written a word. I don’t think that’s all bad. I’m a big believer that ideas rattle around in the back of your mind while you don’t think you’re actively working on them. And in fact I may have been actively procrastinating—I’ve started a memoir before, in fact I’ll have to resurrect that effort. But it was focused on how I’ve lived a full and active life while coping with an anxiety disorder. I never went far with it because I don’t want my life to be defined by anxiety and because I feared prowling around in that portion of my life might awaken memories and feelings best left undisturbed. But this time I feel like the memoir is the real McGillah—where did that phrase come from?

I’ve been reading posts on Telling Her Stories on The Tao of Memoir. One suggested making lists of people and places that have shaped your life, and I think I’ll do that, though I rarely follow such writing exercises. Tonight I read about starting your memoir. Do you begin it at the gate or in the middle of the garden?

If I were to begin in the middle of the garden it would be with the current changes in my life as I emerge from a period of health problems and also settle into my cottage. I’ve blogged about that a bit but I haven’t really crafted it as the impetus that set me on this new journey.

If I began at the gate, which makes eminent sense to me, I would begin in Chicago, where I began my life journey. My father was a Scots-Canadian osteopathic physician, president of an osteopathic college and administrator of the associated hospital. A preacher’s kid, he was one of the most moral and upright men I’ve ever met. Some PKs as they’re called, rebel against the physical poverty and spiritual strictness of their childhood. I can still hear one of Dad’s sisters giving a sarcastic twist to the words of “Work, for the Night is Coming.” Not Dad—son of an Anglican in Canada, in the U.S. he hewed strictly to the Methodist order of things (except for the abstinence pledge—he always just passed it by, but he never would sign it without meaning it and he enjoyed his Scotch too much).

Mom was a ‘50s stay-at-home housewife with a much better mind than that implies. She had been secretary to Robert Maynard Hutchins, chancellor of the University of Chicago and founder of the Great Books program. Whether she recognized it or not, I think Mom longed for a career but knew that it would embarrass her husband if she worked. And so she did the things a doctor’s wife was expected to do in those days—joined the auxiliary, entertained, read a lot, and managed the hospital gift shop. Betty Freidan’s The Feminine Mystique was written for women like my mother. I loved her laughter, her enjoyment of life, and her patience in teaching me to cook. She was a wise woman—but sometimes I wanted to shake her.

Mom’s German heritage—her parents were first generation—never had much influence on me, though I was grown before I tasted sauerkraut because she hated it. But Dad’s Scottish ancestry was and is a big factor in who I am. So was the osteopathic background that both gave me, the grounding in faith, the love of food and wine. The city of Chicago also shaped me, for better or worse. Those are factors I’ll explore.

Mom had a son by her first husband, who died of a WWI wound. To this day I proudly claim John Peckham as my brother—he enriches my life, looks after me, and, despite our raging political differences, brings a lot of love and a certain balance to my life.

Later on, when I was four, we had a sister. Both of us were excited about that, and I remember, though John doesn’t, quarreling over who would get the head end of the bassinet when she came home from the hospital. I won. I don’t have many memories but I do remember being told to sit back on the couch so I could hold the baby. Isabelle Jean MacBain died suddenly at six months. My parents told me it was a congenital heart defect, but I have always wondered about SIDS. I don’t think they knew much about it in 1942.


Unknown said...

Actually, it is "Magillicuddy" which comes from "Magillicuddy's Reeks which is a range of mountains in Ireland (Kerry). The Reeks is where some "outlaws" would hide and the people would not give them up to the English who ruled Ireland at the time. People there were referred to disparagingly because they refused to cooperate with the authorities. They couldn't be trusted, had a strange way of dressing, and were considered rather dumb because they pretended not to understand when the authorities tired to talk to them. Consequently, "it's a true magillicuddy came down as a reference to downright confusing or questionable things or people.

Marcy said...

I love these beginning thoughts on starting your memoir. This past April as a part of the Blogging from A to Z Challenge I wrote about random childhood memories for each letter of the alphabet. I had a great time doing that, and think that I will use the same method for exploring my teenage years this coming year . . . possibly moving along to young adulthood, etc in subsequent years. Thanks for sharing your memories!

judyalter said...

Neat idea, Marcy. I saw a suggestion somewhere to list people and events that have had a major influence on you. I think it was in "The Tao of Memoir" series on Telling Her Stories. I intend to try it.