Thursday, January 31, 2013

Vera Bachman's Table

The kitchen table. It’s one of those ordinary items in our homes. Seldom do we appreciate how much of our personal history, our family history, took place around it.

Joy Harjo writes about the humble kitchen table:

“Babies teethe at the corners.…

“It is here that children are given instructions on what it means to be human. We make men at it, we make women.…

“We have … prepared our parents for burial here.

“At this table we sing with joy, with sorrow. We pray for suffering and remorse. We give thanks.…”  (from “Perhaps the World Ends Here,” from The Woman Who Fell From the Sky, by Joy Harjo)

When I ran across Joy’s poem recently, my thoughts flashed to an old piece I wrote, Vera Bachman’s Table. It’s among stories I’ve written for my grandchildren, and a few years ago it was published in an anthology for Women’s History Month at U. of Central Missouri. I’ll share it with you here (and I welcome your critique in the comments section below):

Vera Bachman’s Table

When I was in seventh grade, on the night of May 6, 1960, my mother told my two little brothers and me that the next day our father was moving out and that they would file for a divorce. I was twelve years old, Doug was ten, and little Davey was just six. We felt traumatized to the cores of our young beings. On May 7, our father moved out, and the next day was my mother’s 38th birthday.

My mother had earned her teaching credential in Canada and she was a teacher in every cell of her body. Now, living in Seattle, she turned to teaching to support her three little children.

However, Washington State would not recognize Mom’s Canadian credential so she had to return to college. She turned first to the University of Washington but it would not recognize any of her Canadian college credits. Seattle Pacific College honored half of her Canadian credits so, even though SPC was a lot more expensive than the UW, she enrolled at SPC. I suspect she had to take out a loan to pay for tuition and books. Mom found enormous support from everyone at SPC because they showed their Christianity in tangible ways: they recognized her desperation, her heartache over the divorce, and her need to care for her children. They understood her need for financial aid and to get her degree as soon as possible so she could earn a living. They bent over backward to help her: at times they gave Mom permission to take 24 credits per term in order to push ahead rapidly.

In those days the Visa Card and Master Card had not been invented, however, gas stations had begun issuing credit cards. I remember that our pastor and his wife, themselves living on a tight budget, gave Mom their Chevron credit card to help pay for our family’s gas.

At the same time, the Seattle School District granted Mom an emergency teaching certificate and hired her to work half-time as a Kindergarten teacher at Northgate Elementary School, conveniently located between SPC and our home north of Seattle.

I don’t know how Mom endured her exhausting schedule as a teacher, a more-than-full-time student, and a mother, and I don’t know how we kept putting food on the table. We ate sparsely and we wore hand-me-down clothes and worn shoes. I remember that my saddle shoes had completely worn out: the soles had broken away from the upper leather, and the sole flapped underneath my foot with every step. One day my teacher put a rubber band around the toe of my shoe and under the sole so it wouldn’t flap.

I said I don’t know how Mom did it, but I often spotted her on her knees beside her bed in prayer. God extended His loving provision through Mom’s church friends, SPC friends, and the Seattle School District.

And through people like Vera Bachman.

Mom tells me she was terribly afraid during those years of her life—afraid of constantly living on the edge of financial disaster and physical exhaustion. Surely her faith was stretched. Yet God provided people like Vera Bachman, a teacher at Northgate Elementary School. Recently widowed, she had some understanding of my mother’s heartache and ever-present needs. Vera was the best kind of a friend: she understood and quietly reached out. Sometimes Mom would arrive at her classroom to find a note from Vera asking if Mom needed cash. Another time Vera gave us a sofa and an old dining room table.

Even now, when my mother recalls Vera's friendship, she gets tears in her eyes thinking about Vera’s sensitivity, her generosity, and the way God worked through her to answer Mom’s prayers. The Bible tells us that God will care for us, but it does not tell us He will knock on our door and hand us a check to cover the house payment. He does not place a roasted chicken on the dinner table. No, almost always God uses other people in the process of helping us. He knows how comforting and encouraging it is to look into someone’s eyes and see kindness and concern. He knows how good a hug feels, and how cheering a friendly face can be. So, He gives us each other. God provided Vera for my mother’s encouragement and help in real ways. The old sofa is long gone but that old dining room table is still in the family, a tangible reminder of how God meets our needs.

That old dining room table—ah, if only it could talk! I don’t know what stories that table would tell about living in Vera’s home, but it was already old when she gave it to us, and over several decades that table has made the rounds in our family. For years, Mom and my brothers and I used it in our home. It was delicately designed, with curves and turned legs, in dark-stained wood. It had a number of leaves, and opened up to a grand size for entertaining lots of people.

A few years after Dave and I got married Mom purchased, with enormous delight, a maple dining room table in the American Colonial style—a long-term dream come true for her. Thus, Dave and I became the owners of Vera’s table. It was the first table Matt and Karen sat up to when they were babies—originally in our rental home in north Seattle, when Matt was born, and later on East Sanson in Spokane when Karen was born. We entertained countless friends and relatives around that table over the years.

When Karen was almost a year old, we bought an old house on Thorpe Road southwest of Spokane, and there the kids and I sat around Vera’s table and drew pictures, assembled model airplanes, crafted artificial flowers, and made Christmas decorations. I used it as a place to set up my sewing machine and I sewed clothes for the kids and for myself, and curtains for our windows, and tablecloths and napkins for our dinners around Vera’s table. I sat at that table to write letters to my Grandma Mac and to my mother and to Dave’s parents, and to address our Christmas cards every year. When the kids got older, they sat around that table to do their homework.

Years later, in Port Angeles, when Dave and I could afford to buy our own dining room table, Vera’s table became my desk. The creator of that table brilliantly designed it so that, with several leaves, it became a large dining table, or, with all the leaves removed, it became a small table perfect for a desk. I used that old table as a desk for all the years I served as a BSF Teaching Leader. I spread out all my books and papers on that table, I prayed sitting at that table, I learned to use a computer on that table, and pounded out my 24-page lectures every week for five years.

In 1993, Dave and I moved to Africa and Karen became a first-year teacher in Port Angeles. She bought her little house on Caroline Street and put Vera’s table in her kitchen. Many a morning it served as Karen’s meeting place with God. Friends and Young Life kids ate around that table. Another Young Life leader once got ambitious and sanded the old finish off the top of the table, but never got around to re-finishing it. A good tablecloth took care of that problem.

When Karen moved to California to teach in Pacific Palisades, we loaded the old table into a U-Haul and unloaded it in her newly rented apartment in Brentwood. There it served as her dining room table, and no doubt a place to plan her students’ lessons and grade their papers.

When she and Brian got married, it became their dining room table. A couple of years later, they moved into a 600 square foot guesthouse on Zumirez Drive in Malibu, California, and their little Chase ate his first meals at Vera’s table. Maybe Finn did, too; I’m not sure because at some point, Karen and Brian received a gift from a family friend, a sturdier dining room table that matched their chunky rustic bench and armoire, and they moved Vera’s table to Brian’s classroom in Pacific Palisades. Today, students use that table. Since both Vera and my mother were teachers, I’m sure they’d smile to know where that table is today.

Now Brian, Karen, and the boys are moving to a larger home, and I do hope they have a special little place for Vera’s table. It’s an enduring reminder of God’s provision for our family—several generations of our family.

When Chase, Finn, and Kade are old enough to understand, I hope Karen will tell them the story of Vera’s table. Perhaps it will remind them to do what their great-grandmother did: to pray and trust God to provide for them when they find themselves in desperate need. I hope it will also inspire them to be like Vera Bachman—to notice when others are in need and, with God’s help, lend a hand in tangible ways.

Now it’s your turn. If your kitchen table (or your parents’ or grandparents’ table) could talk, what stories would it tell? Perhaps generations of kids received lessons on how to be men and women of honor. Who sat around that table? What were their hopes and dreams? Did your family welcome the homeless and strangers to your table? Did your family entertain someone famous at your table? Who said prayers to bless food and heal heartache? Maybe at that table, a young woman received—or refused—an engagement ring, and that action set the course for generations to come. Perchance a letter written on the distant war front was read around that table and the news forever changed your family.

Have you written a story about a dinner table for your memoir?

If so, let us know in the comments below.

If not, what stories do you need to write? They don’t have to be about kitchen tables. Maybe you have stories about some other piece of furniture, or a house, a hat, a car, or pet. I have a hunch your kids and grandkids would love to know those stories.

Thursday, January 24, 2013

“You leave little bits of yourself fluttering on the fences”

Continuing with enhancing a sense of place in your memoir:  

Why make a big deal about creating a sense of place?  

Because the landscapes of your stories, the natural settings, influenced who you were becoming in the past and who you are today.

“How hard it is to escape from places! 
However carefully one goes, they hold you—
you leave little bits of yourself fluttering on the fences, 
little rags and shreds of your very life.” 
(Katherine Mansfield, English writer)

Geography played a role in shaping you. It served as a backdrop.

Your environment molded you—maybe it smoothed you, maybe it roughed you up.

Perhaps your place’s weather defined your appearance.

The territory—good or bad—sculpted your identity and your dreams.

Your place whittled you and carved your wings so you could fly into your future and become the person you are today.

Notice how Linda Joy Myers invites you to enter her childhood through setting and place. She writes about: 

 “ in Oklahoma, in the middle of the Great Plains, in a town that literally was in the middle of nothing but land and wheat and sky. The wind molded us, pushed and pulled us, threw red dirt in our faces, lifted our hair straight up. As children, we had to lean into the wind to walk.… The golden wheat throbbed against the deep blue sky, all of it was everywhere, there were no boundaries. The wind stroked the wheat into the amber waves of grain of the song, and at night the moon rose, huge and round and smiling over the tiny specks of people that appeared insignificant in all that magnificence.”

In We are shaped by the sound of wind, the slant of sunlight, Barry Lopez writes that he was “shaped by the exotic nature of water in a dry Southern California valley; by the sound of wind in the crowns of eucalyptus trees; by the tactile sensation of sheened earth, turned in furrows by a gang plow; by banks of saffron, mahogany and scarlet cloud piled above a field of alfalfa at dusk; by encountering the musk from orange blossoms at the edge of an orchard; by the aftermath of a Pacific storm crashing a hot, flat beach.… the height and breadth of the sky, and of the geometry and force of the wind."

“… However we feel about
a particular place in our lives,
or whether the drama that unfolded there
was one of joy or sorrow,
the invitation in writing memoir is this:
explore the personal and other meanings of your place.
Doing so can not only help you locate your story
in a concrete and complex world,
it can help you discover its larger meanings and connections.”
(Tracy Seeley, author of My Ruby Slippers, the Road Back to Kansas)

Your place’s philosophy also persuaded you, for better or worse: 

For example, after living on the equator for 11 years, where blazing heat forces people to move slowly, I’ve concluded that my most significant place, Seattle, and the Pacific Northwest’s cool, clammy climate allows folks to accomplish more than a hot climate does. That geographical factor, in turn, influences philosophies. In Seattle, I rubbed elbows with others that moist, mildewed, high-energy region begat: Microsoft, Starbucks, Amazon, Costco, Boeing (I grew up a five-minute walk from Bill Boeing’s home), Nordstroms (I went to school with one of the Nordstroms). Pacific Rim philosophies. Environmental philosophies. Rainforest-dwellers’ philosophies. Volcano-survivor philosophies. Earthquake-survivor philosophies. (And daily I recognize that the Pacific Northwest’s geography and philosophies have many contrasts to my current place: the heart of the continental U.S.) 

“If the place is important enough in the character’s life;
if on the most basic level he spent enough time in it,
was brought up in it or presided over it, like the Senate,
or exercised power in it, like the White House;
if the place, the setting, played a crucial role
in shaping the character’s feelings,
drives, motivations, insecurities,
then by describing the place well enough,
the author will have succeeded in
bringing the reader closer to an understanding of the character
without giving him a lecture,
will have made the reader therefore not just understand
but empathize with a character,
will have made the readers’ understanding more vivid,
deeper than any lecture could.”

For your memoir, search for “crackly words” (Priscilla Long) to describe your places—specific words, vivid words, words unique to that locale. 

“If we read the Palestinian poet Darwish … we will find ourselves mouthing jasmine, doves, olives, veils, whereas if we read a poet like Marcus Goodyear, we will find ourselves breathing to the staccato of cactus, cattle, tree poker.” (L.L. Barkat)

Examine your manuscript. Look for ways to enhance a sense of geographical place.  

If you’re writing about a time of feeding your soul and spirit, describe your setting.

Are you writing about a time your wellbeing wasted away? Describe the setting.

Did you find healing? Describe that setting.

Are you writing about a summer in Italy? Marching during the civil rights movement? Falling in love? A summer job in Alaska? Watching a loved one die? Walking out on your abusive spouse? Meeting the First Lady? (My mother did.)

Picture those settings as if for the first time. Doing so will help you recapture your sense of place, make revisions, and invite your readers to join you. Be sure to include sensory details (sight, sound, smell, touch, taste). 

Your goal is to help readers experience what you experienced.

Friday, January 18, 2013

Your memoir needs a sense of place

A couple nights ago, after six weeks of illness, I craved something warm and comforting so I sat down with an old Rosamunde Pilcher novel. She did not disappoint me. 

I also noticed how she uses fiction techniques memoirists can employ in writing true stories. 

Let’s look at the way Pilcher develops a sense of place within homes and buildings.

She writes of Virginia approaching a solicitors’ office in England:

“Smart, Chirgwin and Williams … were the names on the brass plate by the door, a plate which had been polished so long and so hard that the letters had lost their sharpness and were quite difficult to read. There was a brass knocker on the door, too, and a brass door knob, as smooth and shining as the plate, and when Virginia turned the knob and opened the door, she stepped onto a narrow hall of polished brown linoleum and shining cream paint and it occurred to her that some hard-working woman was using up an awful lot of elbow grease.” (The Empty House)

With those few words, Pilcher invites readers to enter her story’s setting and place

Pilcher bids readers to stand beside Virginia as she approaches an aged entrance (“polished so long and so hard that the letters had lost their sharpness and were quite difficult to read”), a building owned by people able to afford brass hardware and a cleaning woman that kept the place shiny and smelling like floor polish. Readers envision that down the hall, Smart, Chirgwin and Williams wore black suits, starched white dress shirts, and gray-striped silk ties. We expect they drank morning tea in gold-rimmed china cups. We assume they spoke precise, proper English.

Contrast that with the setting and place of a tough ex-convict, Socrates Fortlow, in an abandoned building in Watts:

“He boiled potatoes and eggs in a saucepan on his single hotplate and then cut them together in the pot with two knives, adding mustard and sweet pickle relish. After the meal he had two shots of whiskey and one Camel cigarette.” (Walter Mosley, Always Outnumbered, Always Outgunned)

Socrates inhabited no well-to-do solicitors’ digs. No Martha Stewart touches adorned his smoky room. Readers suppose Socrates ate right out of the pan and, afterward, wiped his sleeve across his mouth there in his small, dingy room. We wonder if he had tangled hair and stained jeans.

Establishing a setting, a sense of place, is important for your memoir because it draws readers in. It gives them a sense of being there

Notice how Pilcher’s details, in a later scene, carry you alongside Virginia as if you are walking with her:

“She went down the steps and along a dank pathway that led along the side of the house towards the front door. This had once been painted dark red and was scarred with splitting sun blisters. Virginia took out the key and … the door instantly, silently, swung inwards. She saw … a worn rug on bare boards.” 

“A fly droned, blundering against the window-pane.” 

Virginia noticed the stained kitchen sink and “the sitting-room cluttered with ill-matching chairs,” and “looming pieces of furniture.” 

Did you feel you were discovering this place with Virginia?

If readers can enter your places, they will:
get to know you,
feel connected to you,
feel grounded in your story, 
discover the mood, atmosphere and emotions of that place and time, 
and, in the end, take away from your memoir important lessons for their own lives.

Examine your rough drafts. Look for ways to enhance a sense of place, a setting within buildings or homes. Make revisions using sensory details (sight, sound, smell, touch, taste) to make your places tangible for your readers.

Your goal is to help readers experience what you experienced.

C’mon back! Next week we’ll look at a sense of place for outdoor scenes.

You’ll enjoy this additional reading: 

Walk with Ann Kroeker through her grandmother’s home   

Your story is important, but will anyone read it?  

Include the slime and grime in your memoir 

Thursday, January 10, 2013

Duane Scott’s “A Writer’s Prayer”

Let’s begin this new year with focus. Single-mindedness.

Break through the chaos, the clutter, the distractions—and maybe even the flu bugs—of the past holiday season.

Focus. Re-focus. Keep in mind why you are writing your memoir.

It is not a hobby. It is a ministry: Remind yourself of Deuteronomy 4:9 in this blog’s header.

Writing your memoir is a ministry: Your stories can shape lives—including the spiritual lives—of your children, grandchildren, great-grandchildren, nieces, nephews, friends, and other readers.

Because writing your memoir is a ministry, make it a prayer priority.

Lloyd Ogilvie acknowledged that in his ministry he faced “soul-sized issues,” so he prayed,

“Sovereign Father,… You have given me … an imagination able to envision Your plan and purpose for me, and a will ready to do Your will.

“… I know you will go before me to show me the way, behind me to press me forward, beside me to give me courage, above me to protect me, and within me to give me wisdom and discernment.” (Quiet Moments With God; emphasis mine)

Your family has soul-sized issues today and, as new generations join your family, they, too, will have soul-sized issues. God has a plan and purpose for you, a role to play in your family.

As you carry it out, He will go before you, behind you, beside you, above you, and within you. You can count on Him!

You probably have no idea just how much God can use your stories to impact soul-sized issues in your family’s future generations, so today I share with you Duane Scott’s prayer, a humble prayer for himself and all writers:

Dear Author,
Today, the words I use, let them be Your words.
Words of Hope, of Love, of Faith.
Allow me, with trembling hands, to be Your voice.…
Let me never forget, the words I write today,
May change the life of one, maybe two.
But as the Psalmist says, I bring You my sheaves,
They may not be many, but they are Yours.…
(Click here to continue reading Duane’s The Writer’s Prayer)

Focus! Be single-minded! Pray! Write!

Thursday, January 3, 2013

I did it!

I did it!

Well, I somewhat did it. At least I made a start!

I compiled family stories for my grandsons in time for Christmas. WoooHoooo!

You might recall that for a couple of years my oldest grandson, Chase, has been asking me to do so.

Last September when Chase asked again, I knew the time had come, as if God nudged me, “You’ve gotta do this, Linda, as an inheritance. Leave this legacy for your family. Do it. Do it now.”

Since then I’ve been working on God-and-us stories for Chase and his two brothers, Finn and Kade—not because our family is so great, but because God is so great.

I sent the boys a collection of random stories, mostly my own but also a few my mother told—since she’s still alive and the boys know her.

Mom’s stories are about growing up in eastern Ontario, Canada, during the Great Depression, about winter travels in a horse-drawn open sleigh with sleigh bells. It occurred to me that when my grandsons sing Jingle Bells, they might have no idea what an open sleigh is, or sleigh bells, so I rounded up these pictures, one old and one current.

Another of my mom’s stories is about the Christmas during the Depression when she asked her parents for a fountain pen. Since the boys have no clue what a fountain pen is, I included old pictures.

Do you remember the Tom Durr story? And my struggles to write it? I rearranged it and finally finished it—after trying half a century to do so! It, too, has a place in my collection.

I snapped the stories into a three-ring binder for now, will keep sending the boys more stories and, I hope, will put them into book format in coming months or years.

This temporary binder format allows me to play around with the order in which to place the stories, and I’m glad of that since currently they feel helter-skelter.  

Because of that, yesterday I took comfort in stumbling upon an old Mary DeMuth quote:

Try departing from chronology: Most people tell their stories in chronological order. Why not brainstorm new ways to structure your memoir?

Maybe make it present to past.

Or use a memory that weaves its way through various episodes of your life.

Or try a strategic leap from one memory to another.

Or capture a memory related to a period of history.

Answer this: How would trying something other than chronology change the face and feel of your memoir?

What about you? Over the holidays did you give family members your stories? If so, please leave a comment below or on Facebook (click on the word "Facebook" toward the top right in this blog). We’d love to hear from you!