We watched “The Help” last night and I saw the women in church fanning their faces with cardboard fans, moving them back and forth in the sluggish hot air of Jackson, Mississippi. I remembered those fans somewhere else, in the same humid heat: those oddly decorated shapes with bearded long-haired Jesus figures on them, browned around the edges with age, their oversized popsicle stick handles shifting the air back and forth, back and forth.
I have so many memories like this. They jumble together into a shared blend of truth and myth in my own mind. It's difficult to remember what happened and what didn’t, what was created within the limitless boundaries of my own gigantic imagination and what actually took place.
I was a premature baby, born in November 1979 when I should have been born in January 1980. I squeaked into the decade of the seventies by a mere six weeks. It was as if I was already saying to the world, “I will always be a little bit ahead of myself, diving into the future full of impatience, yet loving the past until it breaks me.”
And it has.
I grieved over not having been born during the time of the American Revolution, when I was in love with that time in history. This palpable sadness was fresh every time I fell in love with a new, exciting era. Laura Ingalls Wilder’s pioneer world. Harriet Beecher Stowe’s pre-Civil War era. John Bunyan’s English Civil War. Often it was connected to countries. Russia, in the time of the Romanovs. Hudson Taylor’s China. Chopin’s Poland. Refugees, from anywhere forsaken and struggling.
Why? Because I read constantly. My brain absorbed fact after fact, story after story, but did nothing with them. It soaked words up like a greedy sponge and dripped with the excess. I had nothing to do with this excess, no outlet through which to feed it, apart from sewing costumes and dressing up like favorite characters, or writing copycat stories in my own way.
And I’ve never appreciated my own story, always wishing to live the lives of others, always wanting something different.
In my own head, though, I’ve always been telling my story in third person.
She sat, barely breathing, in the darkness of the closet. The clothes hung like a wall in front of her. She knew she was concealed from the seeking eyes of her younger brother and sisters as they searched the house, calling for her. They wanted her to think up the next game, an exciting plan of action for the fun of the day. She had a new book to read,and wanted nothing more than to hide away with it. With a gentle click, her flashlight switched on. Without making another sound, she opened her book and began to read.
Just like that. Or,
She listened to the gentle soothing sound of her grandmother’s voice. Here you are, lovey. Put this on. It was a crisp cotton dress, yellow with red strawberries dotted across the material. The dress went over her head and was buttoned by someone. She was vaguely aware that she was wearing a bulky cloth diaper with uncomfortable rubber pants stretched over it. She liked the beautiful new dress because it covered up the babyish diaper and she felt like a big girl. Sunshine illuminated the window where she stood, and she looked out to see the nearby church parking lot covered with rocking chairs. She had no understanding of the peculiarity of this. People sat in the chairs, rocking, rocking, rocking. A typical 1980’s church fundraising event for adult eyes: just another day for a toddler.
Sunshine and my grandmother’s voice still speaks to me. Here you are, lovey.
Those memories really happened. The ones that haunt me are the memories that didn’t.
She walked through the crowd in the church, steadily moving towards the back. Her goal was the kitchen. It was, quite literally, full of people. She pushed through them until she reached her grandmother, who looked up in the midst of food preparations and exclaimed, Oh, lovey! She hugged her grandmother, her thin grandmother with bones that seemed so poky and fragile, and then woke up. She was at home in her own bed, somehow feeling her own elbow, bony and sharp just like her grandmother’s had been. The dream was an airy nothing, not even a real memory. But she had heard her grandmother’s voice as clear as day, as if she’d really spoken to her.
They sat tying the quilt. Threading the yarn, stitching that one binding stitch, and knotting the ends into a little bump on the quilt top. They were silent, but the sounds of a cassette tape beat out a steady rhythm to their work. In fine Queen’s English, a theatre troupe dramatized Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet aloud. The sewing fled through their fingers as the words flowed through the room, and the quilt was finished before they knew it.
See, there are stories to tell. But I don’t know how to begin telling them, because I am the queen of editing. In my father’s complimentary words, I edit “with a pick-axe.” Though I will adequately go over the work of others and have no problem shaping it grammatically, with my own written work I am never satisfied, combing over and over it until I stop in frustration. My art teacher called me “Erin the eraser” with good cause.
For me, telling my own story would be an exercise in non-editing. I will refrain from going back and forth agonizing over paragraphs that have too many repeated words, or sentences that display dodgy grammatical effects. Grandmother would have enjoyed pointing out the errors to me, and we would have laughed at them together. We cannot do that now so there is no point worrying too much about inevitable mistakes or irregularities or imperfections.
I will write today, and write tomorrow, until there is nothing left to say, a stream of thoughts tumbling out across the whiteness of this page until my fingers are exhausted and my mind is blank and the memories --the dreams and the realities-- are played out. I will write until I fall in love with my own era, and my own story.
I walked through the rooms of my grandparents’ house. It was dark. A nightlight burned in the hallway. I stood in the doorway of their bedroom. My grandma, once so large and strong, was like a shrunken bundle in the middle of the bed. Alone. I turned away and looked at the silent living room. My grandpa’s comfy chair, his immobile throne of watchfulness, was empty. He was gone. I smelled the familiar smells, sorting them out in my head: wood polish on those handcrafted cherrywood floors, stale frying from breakfast, coffee, dusty years heavy on this house so old and loved.
Sometimes the dreams are funny.
I went back for breakfast. They were trying to figure out how to make it for me, arguing and grumbling between themselves. She, trying to help, he wanting her to just sit down and let him do it. The entire time I was thinking: “You two are dead. What am I doing here?”
And so these dreams become tangled in the truth, mired in the myth of my own history. They should be written down before my mind too wanders away like theirs and becomes a thing not to be trusted, a winding river of stories lost in the current of time.