Riding The Memory Train To Destinations You Can’t Forget

I am ten and sitting quietly having learned the reality of the physical threat implied in my stepfather’s words that, ” Children should be seen and not heard. ” Safe for the moment and out of reach of the driver, I choose my side of the car because I have learned that although my mother’s hands are capable of causing physical pain, they are attached to arms too short to reach me if I stay pressed close to the door.

My sister claims her regular space on the right side of the backseat in the only car we own and I am surprised when my mother turns slightly and reaches back from the passenger seat to give me a paperback copy of a book I will come to treasure. Setting out on a long car trip once again, moving as we have so many times before, it doesn’t take more than a page or two for me to disappear into Judy’s Journey, a story published in 1947 that reveals what it’s like to be ten year-old Judy, the daughter of a migrant farm worker.

Some books stay with you all your life and even if you no longer have the book in your hand, the story never leaves you. I saved my copy of Judy’s Journey after our move from California when I was partway through my fifth year of school. Back home again in Georgia where I’d been born, I found myself confused by many of my subjects as the American school curriculum varied from the east to west coast.

While I may have struggled through some of my classes, I excelled at reading and lost myself in the school library and books wherever I could find them. Beaten into silent submission at home through both psychological and physical blows, I longed for the safety of someone else’s life and found them in books about other children.

My mother came from a family of readers and writers, and books were always among the gifts I received from my extended family on birthdays and at Christmas. I had acquired a good number of them by the time I was able to escape from my mother’s house at fourteen when I made my last childhood move into safety of my dad and stepmother’s home.

My mother would not allow me to take my books and they were left behind with my childhood things after she decided that I could only take my clothing and gifts that my father had given me.

I remember how sad I felt seeing my fourteen years of living packed into only two or three boxes when they arrived by bus a few weeks later.

My books from childhood were marked as mine by my name written in varying degrees of penmanship. Some had Elizabeth in the adult script of my grandparents and great-aunt, while others were identified by a more childish scrawl and dated from when I first began to write my name.

With two sisters still with my mother, my books bypassed my sister Margaret who at twelve was too old to be interested in many of them and went straight into the hands of my four-year old sister Pam who later claimed them completely by scratching through my name and adding her own. It would be many years before I saw my mother, my sisters, or my books again.

Judy’s Journey disappeared somewhere along the way like many other things from my past, but the memory of the story made me talk about it at times and one Christmas, I found a used copy under the tree, a gift from a friend who understood its significance.

I didn’t begin this post to write about this topic. I’d intended to carry on from yesterday’s post about books and libraries before it took off in its own direction. Memories are like a train with multiple destinations and today’s post is an example of all the directions one story can go especially when writing about it.

John came into my studio space about a week ago and said that he thought I needed to write my story. I told him that memoirs were filling the shelves of bookstores everywhere and people were beginning to write disparaging reviews about those who spilled their secrets in a book for all to see. I added that there were many stories out there like mine and why add one more to the mix. I said I was bored with it most days and imagined others might be as well.

I went on to say that there were parts he did not know and more still that the people involved might not want shared, but he reminded me that it is my story and said quietly that he thought it would be good for me, and to think first about myself in the writing process and not worry about the rest.

Yesterday, I was reading what this gifted writer said here about how writing heals and intellectually I know she’s right. I’m sure John is on to something as well, knowing me as he does.

It’s always bothered me seeing my name replaced in books that had been mine, so much so that I don’t have those books with me anymore. I offered them to my daughter in case she has children one day, although she might rather have new books than those with such a sad history. I mean really, how would she explain that to her children …

I wondered what my sister Pam thought as she was too young to remember me when I left. Did they bother to explain the name already in the books or did they say, ” Just scratch it out and put your own in there.”

I thought about what my sister Margaret said about how they never said my name in the house after I left, how my mother and stepfather if pressed by situation would only refer to me as, ” The one who left,” which made me sad on earlier reflection, but now feels more like the name you might give warrior who was brave enough to leave on a vision quest.

As to healing through writing my story, I thought I had done most of that by talking with two remarkable women I’ve mentioned before, but perhaps writing my story rather than telling it might be a good next step whether anyone ever reads it but me.

Time now for she who has been called, ” The One Who Left ” to go out for some sunshine and exercise. Having worked on the past a good bit today, it’s time now to work on my body.

What You Don’t See

As open I have been in revealing my new space over the last few days, there is a still a lot that you don’t see. Carolyn commented that my post yesterday was one of my most intimate and she was right. The books we choose say a great deal about who we are or sometimes, who we wish to be.

Patrice shared in a comment how she was one of the friends I invited to come see if there were any books that she wanted when I was trying to cull them before my move from America. Along with books on art and decorating, she took away some of my self-help books. I have read quite a few over the years as I tried to deal with the repercussions of a traumatic early life, but as Mariellen mentioned with her nod to my Jon Kabat-Zinn still on the shelf, you can see I kept a few that were more helpful than others. Some of those that remain have become ongoing resources for me on the path to reclaiming myself.

John will probably blanch several shades of red or white (funny how I make him sound like a wine) when he reads this post as his first instinct is to revisit his belief that Americans spend excessive amounts of time and money on therapy and engage in far too much self-help speak. Even with all of the conversations we’ve had about this topic, he still shows an innate sense of compassion and understanding when it comes to people and my needs in particular.

If you feel as if you’ve had a deep enough look into my ‘ personal ‘ space then you might want to stop now and come back next week when I will be showing some pretty pictures of our recent trip to Wales, but if you want to hang around for a bit more ‘ Show & Tell ‘ I am quite happy to share more of the stories that go with the photographs I posted yesterday.

This shelf holds several things which work together for me. You can see the well read collection of some of my great aunt, Wylly Folk St. John’s books that she wrote for children. They are temporarily held in place by some of my old family cameras, but there are some extra special bookends coming in the mail that will add a new element to the story. The painting was a gift from two special people who I’ve talked about here. It always makes me think of them as well as reminding me of Savannah, Georgia where Aunt Wylly grew up with her brother Walton, who was my grandfather.

The typewriter is an old portable that sits next to a photograph of my Aunt Wylly, with her brothers Walton and Johnny, who worked as a cartoonist for Walt Disney. My grandfather co-owned a book business with my grandmother Elizabeth and a few of those books made their way here too. My sister Margaret gave me this photograph as a gift a few years ago and it remains very special to me.

One of my favorite pieces of art that I own is a sculpture by Atlanta artist, Debra Fritts whose work has changed a bit since I bought this piece at The Dogwood Festival in the early 90’s. When I bought it, she saw me deliberating before my purchase and said, ” You must be a mother? ” To which I said, ” Yes, I am, but that’s not why I’m drawn to this. It has to do with reclaiming a piece of myself.” Over the years it has come to represent different things to me, but I still feel a little heart twinge when I think about what my life was like back then versus now. It’s no accident that it shares a space with some of my books on writing.

Gene Stratton-Porter is an author I collected until a few years ago. Her most popular young adult novel was Freckles, but Girl of the Limberlost remains my favorite and the closest to my heart. The mother-daughter story resonates with my own story and my relationship with my missing mother. The irony is not lost on me that she gave me my first GSP book, Girl of the Limberlost as well as Her Father’s Daughter, handing it to me as she was putting me on a plane to him at fourteen.

In addition to one of my favorite photographs of my daughter during her teen years taken after she and some of her friends had been playing with face paint, you can see a special ornament that I wrote about here. In the book stack are some that are significant for a number of reasons, but the ones I remember most from childhood are the Lois Lenski books with my favorite being Judy’s Journey. My mother gave it me to read during a cross country road trip that accompanied one of our many moves during my childhood. By the time I was fourteen, I had been to ten different schools with four transfers during one school year. Written in 1947, Judy’s Journey was about a poor child who worked in farmers fields with her migrant family and while I never picked cotton to earn my next meal, there was much I identified with in the children’s lives that Lenski  portrayed in her stories.

This wooden box is made from a tree that was my father’s favorite which he called Socrates. When he died and the family home was sold, my step-mom had the tree cut down (it would have been taken down anyway) and had a box made for each of my father’s three daughters. The folding yardstick was his and there is a small picture of him as a teenage boy holding a hammer after finishing a sign for the mailbox for a 4-H project. Notice he is wearing the hat that you can see hanging here on our wall in Cornwall. The travel frame is waiting for a picture of me with Miranda and the other two small pictures are of my great-grandfather as a young man and as an older one eating homemade ice cream in the overalls he always wore.

I have quite a few books on writing on other shelves along with more of my favorite authors, but I’ll make this my last revealing photo for the day. Here you see a mix of books that I know some of you will recognize such as The Artist’s Way At Work and The Creative License along with How to Think like Leonardo da Vinci.

My really special books here are the ones that speak to the mother in me. My old copy of The Mother’s Almanac which I’ve had since my daughter was three months old and The Penny Whistle Party Planner were great resources for a number of years and were two books I just could not part with even though at 22 my daughter is far from needing anything I might find in them now. Finally, the little fish is one of the very first mother’s day gifts that my daughter picked out herself when she was very young so of course it had to come Cornwall. It makes me smile to remember her face when I opened it.