Why Write? Holding Onto Memories 18

Jackie CarrWhile 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?


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18 thoughts on “Why Write? Holding Onto Memories

  • Gloria Oren

    Hi Amber
    I too am working on a memoir, and researching items for my proposal which I have to submit to two agents. What a surprise to come across your blog. I will definitely contact you later on when I plan my VBT. In answer to your question I agree it is very important to leave a written legacy. After reuniting with my birthmother and with the help of genealogy research I was able to find lots of written documentations on members of my paternal ancestry. I see the other side as well, I can’t find anything on my husband’s ancestral roots. Nothing written remains and all those who possibly knew something are no longer with us.

    • Amber Lea Starfire

      Hi Gloria. How nice to hear from you, and congratulations on writing your memoir!

      When we don’t leave a record of our lives, your last line says it all: “and those who possibly knew something are no longer with us.”

      P.S. What’s a “VBT”?

  • Lynette Stow

    Hi Amber.
    I have no memories of my great grandmother(she died when I was a baby), but I do have a copy of a letter she wrote to my grandmother. My aunt says she wrote the way she spoke–without punctuation or pause, the lines crammed onto the page. The letter is a mere glimpse of a woman long gone, but her personality comes through with such clarity that I feel I know her. And like her. If a single letter can meaningfully connect two people 3 generations apart, what a treasure a journal could be! I occasionally have nightmares that someone will read my journals, but I also know that my written thoughts may matter to someone years from now. How we live and think and express ourselves is unique to each of us and dies with us. The beauty and power of writing is that our uniqueness, a fleeting thing, can become part of the common human experience.

  • Sherrey Meyer

    I’m currently working on a memoir relative to the explosive relationship with my mother who was verbally and emotionally abusive. I struggle with wanting to know why she treated me the way she did, leaving me in doubt of her love for me. I used to tell people that I loved her because she was my mother, but I definitely did not like her. Similar to your reference that your mother wasn’t the person you wanted her to be. So, first of all, I’m writing to heal. If you visit my website, Letters to Mama, you’ll find not only drafts of excerpts from my work but also letters giving voice to the child who couldn’t speak for fear of greater punishment.

    As to your question, should we leave such a legacy, I believe the answer is yes, we must. There are so many unanswered questions in my own life, not just from my mother’s side but also my orphaned father (at age 4), that I somehow feel disconnected. If in writing this memoir I can give a greater sense of connectedness to my son and any of his grandchildren, I will have received the greatest gift possible.

    Thanks so much for your post!

    • Amber Lea Starfire

      Sherrey, thank you for sharing your experience. Like you, I loved my mother but didn’t like her much as a person. She was an incredible woman—a role model in many ways for independence and cutting edge thinking. However, emotionally, she left her children behind. My journey through her journals and letters is helping me to discover what was going on beneath the surface, to understand her better.

      I love that you are blogging your letters to your mother as part of your memoir, your search for understanding, and leaving the legacy of healing and connectedness for your children.

  • Barbara Toboni

    Great post, Amber: A legacy of memory, yes, it is important. In the writing of my little chapbook of poetry, “Undertow”, I feel that this is my legacy for my two sons. Many of my poems are related to the strong emotions associated with mothering. With both sons, now grown, I might not have been able to communicate these emotions otherwise.

  • MaryM.McCarthy

    Right off I am saying how much I like this site! I was born in 1955 and I remember quite a bit about small mill town 60’s.Everyone could find and hold a job.It might not be glamorous,although it would pay the bills. I saw my first Hippie on a vacation trip to NH.near Hampton Beach,as a Thirteen year old.My friend and family graciously invited me and she and I were walking just onto the beach.This man with below shoulder length hair was sitting in a folding chair with a crutch by his side and an open tin on the ground.He had a bandage of sorts around a bent leg.He played an acoustic guitar,and passers by would drop in coins or bills.Nearby was a parked Volkswagen Beetle that might have been”Herbie” from the movies.My pal and I went swimming and said”yuck” to sea weed,and used our “Sea and Ski” lotion to tan on towels flung down on hot sand.After a few hours when we decided we were hot and hungry,we trugged back toward the Man with the hair and the crossing area to where we were staying.Just as we got to him,another youngman came along,they counted the money,picked up the crutch and chair and walked to the Volkswagen,put the chair,guitar,crutch,tin and themselves inside and drove merrily away.NH.Hampton Beach was not far from Maine and yet a world away from our small mill town,ME.

  • Linda Austin

    Well, regarding legacy I can say money comes and money goes. My mother is now in the depths of Alzheimers and all the money she scrimped and saved intending to leave it for her children has gone to the nursing home. But, we have her stories! I wrote her memoir of growing up in Japan around WWII and indie published it just before the Alzheimers really took hold. Sadly her childhood journal was lost in a fire during a bombing raid on Tokyo – we all wish it had survived because it would have made her memoir even richer. If someone has meaning in your life, her written memories are a greater treasure than a money inheritance you’ll only spend and forget. On the other hand, my American grandmother’s pretty teacup holds memories worth a fortune to me, too!

    • Amber Lea Starfire

      Linda, my heart goes out to you in this difficult time. I remember how hard it was to watch my mother disappear into the disease and become a stranger. But how wonderful that you had the opportunity and desire to write your mother’s memoir. What a treasure—not only for you, but for your children and grandchildren and really, the world in general. Your mother’s story is history.

      And yes, objects can hold memories as well. I hope you’re writing about them. 🙂

  • Mary McCarthy

    Hello Amber, I enjoy your writing and the comments from others. I only knew one grandparent,my Mom’s dad. Grandpa. Mom was born the baby of four in 1925. She died from cancer at age 53 in 1979. I was 24 with three children. When Mom was 7 yrs. old her Mom (who was bedridden at age 44 from heart disease way out in the country) died while she was at home waiting for her aunt to come. She wanted her Dad as she didn’t know what to do,so she took a canteen of water and walked six miles through a woods trail to where her Dad was. She could have met any number of wild animals,as it was dense forest back then. I try to imagine her as that child. I also know that being the baby,and “spoiled” as my Aunts said,made a difference in her raising me alone. She hadn’t had the nurturing from her own Mother and only some from her older sisters. She had penpals all over the country and a few from other countries.I got that from her. Letter writers!! She and My Grandpa were very close mouthed about life in rural Maine. I heard of a few major tragedies,and not much else. I wish my Mom had kept a journal or diary or notes other than Shorthand ones on scrap paper bags of Church and talk shows on the old AM radio. I Miss her,I love her memory. We had some rough times,but she’s my Mom and I feel she resides in Heaven with her Mother and Father,Brother and Sisters. I want to write a memoir for my family.Thank you Amber,I enjoy and appreciate what you do. Hugs,Mary McCarthy

    • Amber Lea Starfire

      Thank you, Mary, for sharing your stories about your family. Your mother sounds like a courageous girl and woman — and I’m sure you inherited or internalized some of that courage. Write that memoir, Mary. It takes courage to write your stories. Your family and the world will appreciate it!

  • Michele Miles Gardiner

    I just began and am enjoying your book. What a wonderful idea, to write two perspectives of shared experiences. Yes, it’s so important to leave a legacy in writing. If not, others will tell our stories through their eyes. OR, even worse, know nothing of our experiences at all.

    As a child, I devoured biographies and autobiographies. They taught me so much, how experiences–no matter where or when–can be relatable or eye-opening or beyond anything I could imagine. Recently, I was fortunate to learn my great grandmother’s family was written about, for surviving nearly inhabitable conditions, as new US immigrants. What a treasure! The reason I exist is due to their struggles and thriving. I had no idea. But their daily, weekly, and yearly lives were written about. Generations later, I found it.

    Yes, writing our stories is so important.

    I’m finishing my memoir-ish story collection now. One of my driving reasons for writing down my stories is to have my own perspective heard. I would love to think my daughter will have some new insight about my life. We all have our own perspectives and stories.

    The opening of your book, on its own, is insightful and enlightening. Thank you for giving me a lot to think about.

    • Amber Lea Starfire Post author

      Thank you, Michele. Your great grandmother’s story is evidence of why life stories are so important. How would you have known what your immigrant family’s life was like had someone not written it down? At a workshop I attended, a speaker said, “If you don’t write it down, it didn’t happen.” And while that may not be technically true, it’s true enough for historical purposes. Let us know when you’ve completed your collection. Are you planning to publish or just keep it in the family?