While researching my mother’s letters and journals for my upcoming memoir, A Mother Like Mine, I came upon the following entry, revealing one of the reasons for her incessant letter writing:
Another fear had to do with my defective memory, fear of the darkness in the cave where my own experiences were buried. I owned very little of my life. My life happened to me and the events recorded on film had run off the reel. I couldn’t rerun the film because it melted in the heat and speed of living.
The passage strikes me, not only because my own mother wrote it, but because she portrayed her reasons for writing in such a lyrical, heartfelt way. Her use of film as a metaphor for memory is powerful—and accurate—because memory is nothing if not image-rich. In her case, the premonitory passage (she was just 42 when she penned it) is particularly poignant because she died from complications due to Alzheimer’s. The film of memory literally ran off the wheel of her mind.
But her memories were not lost, because she wrote them. And through writing, she transformed the intangible of personal experience into the tangible—words and sentences and paragraphs that we can hold in our hands. She wrote life as it happened and as she saw it; she expressed her perceptions in her letters, and refused to accept the notion that we should keep some things secret. And though I always wished—and still do—that she hadn’t been so willing to “hang our dirty laundry out in public” (another metaphor: dirty laundry = those things we want to keep secret), I’m glad she preserved her life on paper.
She wrote on scraps, in notebooks, and on the typewriter, keeping carbon copies—and later, photocopies—of everything. I can’t say that sifting through 70 years’ worth of writing is an easy task. It isn’t. But in preserving her memories on the page, she gave me the gift of seeing life through her eyes, the opportunity to forgive her for who she was (not who I wanted her to be), and left an enduring imprint on the pages of history.
When we talk about leaving legacies for our children, we usually think in terms of property and money. Rarely do we think in terms of leaving a legacy of memory. In my mind, the latter is by far the more valuable of the two.
I’d like to know what you think: Is it important to leave a legacy of memory through writing? Why or why not?