WHY WRITE MEMOIR?

A Post by Cleo Lynch

Memory

Lost and found…

Who am I to write these memoirs? What delusions am I under? How presumptuous of me to inflict my life’s memories and experiences on others! And whose stories are they really? Are they mine? Or do they belong to my family, friends and acquaintances, an entourage of figures promenading through my memory, caught in the glare of a selective, literary spotlight?

 

As the eldest of thirty-one grandchildren, I find I get nominated to write about particular aunts and uncles, and sometimes write (and deliver) a eulogy, that close cousin of memoir. But memoir, I’ve found after penning a number of them, can have a positive healing effect.

I stumbled into memoir when trying to come to terms with the devastating death of a dream in my own life. My whole being was consumed by the need to resolve and survive this life event. I knew I had to write it, but no words would flow. Eventually I found a key to unlock the garbled chaos in my mind. Writing it was cathartic. Then an on-line writers’ association told me it was such a compelling read they wanted to publish it in their first publications.

But it’s the power of memoir to heal that I’ve found so rewarding. When turmoil and tumult toss the happier times into remote recesses, memoir can shine a spotlight on them as I discovered from the reaction of one of my daughters after she’d read the story.

After I’d given the eulogy at our favourite aunt’s funeral service, the clergyman declared that this woman must have been a saint. Memoir had delivered a wonderful confirmation of her life.

 

A long-lost ancestor and his dog

Uncle Bernard

When a long lost uncle, given up for dead was resurrected, aged ninety years old, in the death notices of the Courier Mail, I was asked to write a memoir of his life. None of us had met this uncle who’d stormed out of my grandparents’ home in the 1930s. As a child I’d lived with my grandparents so had some memories of the family home and dynamics. Along with information gleaned from the nursing home and people who’d known him during his wanderings as drover, jackeroo, cook and eventually a man who needed looking after, I pieced together some fragments of his life.

This uncle’s twin sister had spent years searching for him before her death many years earlier. When her daughter read the story she emailed me, telling me she wanted to give me a hug, because she now understood much more about her mother’s life.

The last of my mother’s siblings died a couple of years ago, and almost to the year of her death, had carried a bitter grudge against her mother, born of a devastating hurt my grandmother had inflicted on her. But after reading my memoir of the long lost brother, she said, ‘You know, Mother didn’t have an easy life either did she?’

That in the final year of her life she could find some measure of forgiveness for her mother, is testament to the healing potential of memoir.

Cleaning out my cupboards one day I’d found a bag my mother had knitted for me when I was a young mother and it triggered memories of my mother. She’d knitted it before her atrophying brain had begun to scramble the intricate stitches into patterns of jagged confusion. Perhaps she was staying with us again, smoking incessantly while she worked her way through the pile of magazines that had consoled her through long, lonely years. Romance, the ideal whose heady currents had swept her into marriage, had then abandoned her as a deserted wife in her late twenties, to the isolated existence of the single parent.

A film of memory blurred the bag. Elusive images, chameleon exposures of light and shade, teased and smudged its symmetrical lines into an abstract collage, ephemeral motifs of love and deception, happiness and grief, dreams and disappointment, life and death. I’d run my fingers over its knitted fabric; the lives of mother and daughter are etched in its texture, the tensions of the pattern binding and entwining them in a seamless history.

When I shared this memoir with a cousin I haven’t seen since childhood, she wrote that she was going to try again to navigate the prickly journey of an irreparable rift with her ninety year old mother, understanding that it really has to be now or never.

When my mother’s remaining sister (and sibling) died a couple of years ago, I was again called in to write memoir. Not much feedback has come from this record, but it’s my hope that her struggle as a single mother in an era when children were almost forcibly adopted out, will resonate with other generations. Because back in the 1950s she performed the extraordinary, juggling childcare and employment, along with moonlighting at other jobs, so she could afford to place her son in a boarding school, rather an orphanage. Without a car she would travel the marathon journey to beyond the city limits to visit him, before eventually marrying and gaining security and stability.

It can be difficult to acknowledge what happens in families, and how individuals coped with social, physical and mental adversity. In my memoir writing I have tried to embrace my remembered characters with understanding and tolerance, because they are a part of my life and who I am. And if I can’t accept them and their foibles, then I deny myself.

Although that generation has now passed, I continue to write memoir for my children, about the dog, the car, their grandmothers, snatches of life and history that one day they might enjoy.

© Cleo Lynch

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