My recent trip to England reminded me again–and I love this–that history really IS about story. Everywhere you go, things are really OLD! From bridges to buildings, paintings and sculpture, castles and country houses. Not “old” the way Americans think of it–ready to be refurbished or torn down–but old as in venerated, full of meaning. The very stones, windows, and railings tell the story of who built the building, when, under what conditions, how it was bombed and then rescued in WWII, or bombed and a ruin, but with a colorful alive garden waving in the breeze.
I listened to Evensong in one of the almost-casualties of WWII–St. Paul’s Cathedral, designed by Sir Christopher Wren. I sat in the choir part of the church–which is at the top end of the cathedral, past the dome. The soprano voices of the boys mingled with the older men, the service ancient and traditional, also incorporated readings that were strikingly relevant to modern times–about how to live, deal with darkness and uncertainty, how to live with oneself in some kind of integrity. That’s how I translated it anyway. People from all over the world were visiting the cathedral, as they do every day, many of them sitting in Evensong under a dome that was bombed, a dome that far above their heads is made of 300 year old wooden struts and supports, where incendiary bombs sizzled until the fire watchers, the priest, and whoever else could get those fires put out were able to save the cathedral.
On one of my London walks, I noticed a lovely garden by some old church walls, another Christopher Wren church, but this one had burned down having been bombed, only a few walls remained. The stone walls were preserved, and a momument erected in honor of the building that had stood for 300 years, a garden set in place.
What does this have to do with our work as memoirists, you might ask. Memoirists are criticized for being stuck in the past, at least I have been–but it is a work of loving preservation to write our stories and capture the history that we have witnessed and lived through. We are planting gardens of memory, just as I saw there with the ruins of the Wren church, and inviting future generations to smell the flowers.
Memoir, Story, and History
When traveling, your senses are aligned to the details, so when you write your memoir, notice the details, the glowing reflection of light from windows, the grit and grain of wood or bricks, the sense you get from a location, setting, building, landscape or city. As the train passed by villages and crossed fields, I thought of the silent history of the centuries, when Shakespeare traveled by horse from Stratford on Avon to London, when London Bridge was the only way to get from the City to the other side of the theatre district–the “bad” side of town. Every cobblestone had a story to tell, and the Thames has witnessed millenia of human stories. When you are writing your memoir, you offer the reader this felt sense of your history through the details you give, you create a whole world where the reader is pulled in enough to use imagination to live in your shoes as you tell your story.
In London, I tuned into enough history to fill in the “how it must have been back then” parts of London’s many stories. How do you draw your reader in? Is your story part of the backdrop of the time you lived through? Create a well-rounded portrait, and your readers will eagerly follow you wherever you lead them.
Stimulating piece: The Story is in the Stones–History in Your Memoir. I am a great fan of culling meaning from history in any memoir.
I live in the area (Lewiston, Maine) where my great-grandparents, my grandparents and parents–and now me–spent their lives, and I am also an amateur historian of this region. When I was asked to speak at a library lunchtime program several years ago, I chose a topic similar to yours: Lewiston’s Buildings Tell Our Stories.
This was an industrial city in the 19th century with a Protestant Anglo-American ruling/mill ownership class and an underclass of Catholic Franco-Canadian-American and Irish-American mill workers. I asked the library audience if they had noticed how the funeral homes in town were in large, distinguished houses. Of course, they had, but most people had not asked themselves what was the history of these homes was. What did homes of such stature on the edges of the tenement district imply/signify?
These mini-mansions had been the mill agent’s homes. The venture capitalists who owned the mills did not live in Lewiston but were represented by agents. Essentially, Lewiston was operated as a colony (to be exploited as the British exploited India and Ireland: not different from Lowell and Holyoke, Springfield in Massachusetts, Woonsocket in RI, Manchester and Nashua in NH). The prosperity generated in Lewiston and other cities was shipped off to improve the quality of life in the “mother country”–Boston, NYC, etc. Lewiston’s money went out of town and financed atheneums and university chairs and athletic facilities in cities were the financiers lived.
(By the mid-twentieth century, the system of local agents representing distant owners had been replaced and many of the houses were bought to serve as funeral establishments.)
The memoirist must ask: what happens to people who are exploited for generations? In my local workshops, I read a lot of memoirs that state how proud someone’s parents and grandparents were to have worked hard and to have made do with little. That always makes me sad rather than proud of my history. I think of a photo I have of my great-grandparents standing in a tenement kitchen. They look exhausted, tired, people to whom life has not been generous. (My great-grandfather, at 78, came home to his daughter’s apartment [couldn’t afford his own] on the evening of February 29, 1928, after having worked all day at the Hill Mill and went to sleep from which he never awoke. Because there was no social security then, he had had to keep working–at 78. When I hear my Republican nephews and nieces rail against SS as an entitlement program, I usually suggest they have forgotten their family history.)
A walk through Lewiston and a second walk through Portland (30miles to the south) points out the difference that inevitably is produced in a city when the money generated there stays there.
So, our history is all around us—here in Lewiston and wherever you live, dear reader–and knowing it can explain how differences arose. Of course, to know your political, economic and ethnic history, you will have to study it and reference it–not just voice opinions or confuse your family history with group or regional history. (The plural of anecdote is not data!)
Thanks for the article, Linda.
Dear Denis–this is a wonderful post of your own about your history. You have really done your research! You make an important point about the class differences, the suffering of working people whose efforts are subsumed by others. That kind of endless work with little reward takes its toll. It’s very interesting to see how the history of people, classes, and work in your area appears in where the funeral homes are!
Thanks for your response–as always thoughtful and deep.
Thank you Linda for a wonderful and informative post.I love the”gardens of memory”analogy.History will (mis)record the big events,but only a memoirist can put history in a personal context so that it is meaningful to ourselves.This is especially so in our era,as the world is changing as never before.