Childhood Memories

“Because memories fall apart too. And then you’re left with nothing, left not even with a ghost but with its shadow.” John Green

Part of the rewriting process I’m going through with my manuscript includes writing at least three new chapters, which I must fill with childhood memories of my father, my family and growing up.

The problem is I don’t have very many memories.

Of course, I have a few memories, scattered fragments of childhood, tattered remnants of teenage years. Sometimes they are a sequence of pictures, like a grainy slideshow which jumps about on the screen. More often each memory is a single image without any movement, without a soundtrack. Sometimes I even doubt these memories, thinking that perhaps I have stolen them from someone else. Or maybe my parents gave me these images with their words, handed them to me to tend to as my own. I just don’t know.

My very first memory is of me as a three-year-old, sitting on the floor in front of a black and white television set watching the assassination of John F Kennedy over and over again. In this memory, there is no room around me, although I know I was in my grandparent’s living room as we did not own a television. If you can imagine a black and white photograph of a very young girl sitting cross legged on the floor of a living room in an apartment, on a wooden floor covered by a Persian rug, watching an old black and white television which was in a white walled corner; and you take that photograph and gently tear around the girl and the television, ripping away the rest of the room with its sofa, armchairs, coffee table and bookshelves, you would be left with my memory.

A couple of years ago I returned to another apartment we used to live in. I hoped that standing in the rooms where I spent some of the years of my childhood would bring back a few more memories. But there was nothing. Although it was familiar to me and my bedroom looked much smaller than I thought it would have been.

I’ve heard certain smells can trigger memory but I haven’t had the fortune to experience it. The more I try to remember, the less comes to mind. And it isn’t just childhood. I can’t remember much of my teenage years either, nor can I remember the significant milestones my babies went through, as can most other mothers.

A few people have suggested I see a hypnotist to see if they can uncover my memories for me. It’s something I’m seriously considering. In the meantime, I hope starting to write about the few memories I have will perhaps help me to remember more of them.

Catalyst

For all of you writers out there, what is your catalyst for writing a book, an article, a blog post? Do you know what sparks your yearning to put thoughts on paper? Can you remember the first time you thought you were on the right path?

As mentioned in my last blog post, the catalyst which prompted me to pound furiously at my keyboard was the anger I felt toward my father and, to a lesser degree, my mother. When I walked into my father’s home after his death, I was faced with the enormous task of clearing the house of everything stored in it so that it could be put on the market. I had no option as, despite telling me in previous conversations, that he had left me the house in his will, my father had not. So, our family home had to be sold in order to break up his estate into the different percentages he had designated in his will. I also had limited time in which to complete my task. We had lived on opposite sides of the country, so I did not have the leisure of being able to clear bits and pieces after work or on the weekends. I took a month of leave from work, four weeks in which to sort out a lifetime of hoarding as well as decide what to do with it.

I am an only child. Without my three sons and the generosity of one of my parents’ neighbours, it would have been almost impossible to complete what I had to do in the given timeframe.

Four weeks is not a huge amount of time in which to sort through a lifetime of collecting, organise a funeral, interview real estate agents, oversee the sale of a house while dealing with grief and anger and regret. I’m certain I threw out, gave away or sold items which I should have kept. I know I didn’t spend enough time holding the things my parents found precious enough to keep. Of course, I regret this, but I can’t let myself constantly dwell on it.

I was still angry with my father, who had had nearly thirty years of retirement to sort out his mess, when I discovered letters which had been written to my father during WWII. They were in German so, each night in bed, just before dropping into an exhausted sleep, I used Google translate to interpret their meaning. They were love letters, written by a young girl in what would become the Eastern Zone, to my father, who was at the time a young Lieutenant in the German army. These letters would spur me to continue my writing long after my anger had dissipated. I would spend months and years having them professionally translated, while trying to find out what happened to the young girl. And I still wonder if she kept the letters my father wrote to her.

Later I discovered a notebook in which my father had jotted down a timeline of his life and that began a whole new tangent for my research.

 

In Hindsight

If I had known the effort which is required to rewrite my manuscript, would I have written it in the first place? I don’t know the answer. What I do know is that my initial effort took me four years. I have no doubt it will take me just as long to rewrite.

It isn’t simply a matter of changing the words in a sentence or deleting a paragraph or two. The editor I gave my manuscript to has suggested a total overhaul. I must find new words to fill up at least three chapters. Huge chunks of what I have already written will be torn out and thrown away. If we were talking about a home renovation, it would be the equivalent of gutting the place, taking down walls and redoing the floor plan.

When I began this manuscript, a memoir about my father and our relationship, I was filled with anger at him and at the mess he had left me to clean up when he died. It was so easy to pour my emotions onto the page. Then I started to become curious about documents and letters I found when clearing out his house. But now the anger has dissipated and although I am still trying to satisfy my curiousity, I don’t have the same intensity.

So how do I keep my writing and rewriting on track? I have already changed my weekly routine to free up my weekends for writing. I no longer spend my Sunday shopping and cooking for the week, I now do that in fits and bursts after work. I leave the television off and keep logged out of Facebook and Twitter. I limit Google to research. Despite my efforts I am still only on Chapter two.

But, how do I maintain the enthusiasm I once had for my memoir? This is not easy for me. I already know the ending. But I have found reading books with similar stories helps. And I still get excited if I discover the answer to one of the puzzles my father left behind.

Apparently, Ernest Hemingway once said, “There is no rule on how to write. Sometimes it comes easily and perfectly; sometimes it’s like drilling rock and then blasting it out with charges.” At the moment, I feel as if I’ve been given a mountain of rock to sculpt with nothing but a small chisel to use.