Start with the Squirrels


Lately, I have been thinking about the memoir my father never wrote. I see him in his beige leather recliner, legal pad in lap, poised to scribe a remarkable life: from Depression era chicken farm to college, to a tuberculosis sanitarium, and then back to college— emaciated and still getting pneumothorax treatments. He was one of the few men on campus during World War II. Here was the son of a first generation German immigrant who survived a then-terminal disease to marry the “prettiest girl on campus,” become a world traveler, and befriend many a famous sports figure.

The pen lingers above the paper. The book does not materialize.

Long I have imagined Dad’s voice on paper, sounding much like his oral storytelling. There was the time his Uncle Rufus brought him a pony in the back of a Packard.  There was the time, in South Africa, when he stayed awake all night watching the beetles, “as big as Volkswagens,” nesting in the thatched ceiling above his head. There was his acquaintance with Les Brown of the Band of Renown, who was a patient in the TB Sanitarium, in the Allegheny Mountains, with my father. I imagine the college boy and the big band leader who co-wrote and popularized the song, ‘Sentimental Journey.” Together, Les Brown and Dad might have fished for squirrels—a process by which the TB patient attaches a string to a nut and throws it out the window to see what he can catch. Some squirrels took the bait. Others did not.

Good storytellers have a masterful and spontaneous sense of timing. Dad knew the moment when his audience was most receptive—gathered together and nurtured by good feelings, food and drink, they were happy captives to his stories. Generally, guests appreciated these thrice-told tales. My mother did not. “JEE-IMM” she would say, crooning a polysyllabic version of his name, Jim. “We’ve heard this story oodles of times!” This refrain was so often repeated, that my toddler daughter referred to Dad as Grandpa JEEE-IMM.

In truth, good storytellers never tell the same story twice. Each retelling is a new creation. The embellishment becomes the reality.

I have wondered why a masterful storyteller who led a remarkable life was unable to commit his story to paper. He had what it took for a story: the fascinating content and the storytelling skill.  I have learned, on a writing journey of my own, that one can write a fabulously boring story about a remarkable life or an extraordinary story about an ordinary life. This lesson came first-hand while writing a childhood memoir to fulfill the requirements for my MFA in writing.

“What is this memoir really about?” my writing mentor asked. “It has to have more unity, a thread of tension running through it.” He paused. “I think this story is about your epilepsy.“No, not only that.” I said “Then is it about being a fat child.” I refuse to let my childhood maladies define me. “I am writing about my nomadic childhood, moving every three years and never settling down in one place long enough to feel a part of it. I am writing about feeling out-of-place.” I explained. “This story is my unique experience. It is about me.”  My mentor replied,“You are not enough.”

After I graduated, I sent the memoir to my brother, who became uncharacteristically sentimental, then marveled at all the details I remembered that he could not. After leaving Jim with a copy, I tucked the manuscript into a drawer where it remains today. He, as audience, would be enough.

My writing mentor was correct, of course. A good memoir needs a plot, a central point of tension that the protagonist must resolve. Good narrative storytelling, when true, should read like fiction. Good fiction should feel true. My memoir was too much about ‘me,’” a chronicle of moves from place-to-place; a life in households where food was comfort. My memoir is about childhood epilepsy, and moving vans, and new friends. It’s about an adventurous father and a tenacious mother who would often say, “All you can do is the best you can do.” And we did.

“The oldest human longing is self-expression,” said Zora Neale Hurston in what is considered her masterpiece novel, Their Eyes Were Watching God. Self-expression is what my father desired. Perhaps, he also wished for that smidgen of immortality created by written narrative.

I know what I would do now if Dad were to tell me once again that he planned to write his life story. I would tell him to begin small, with a single image. In fact, as I write this, an image comes to mind. I see a dainty hand-painted porcelain sink in a guest bathroom in an apartment in Wiesbaden, Germany. I live on Kleine Weinbergstrasse. It’s 1960. I am five years old. The painted porcelain sink, washbowl style, is barely big enough for a man’s hands. The tiny sink seems out-of-place in this apartment in an old mansion with 14 foot ceilings.

My father’s office in Wiesbaden is under a huge cuckoo clock. He has a secretary/interpreter and a salesman named Julian, allegedly a former Nazi who, according to Dad, “clicks his heels together” when he greets a customer. “We should have Julian over for dinner,” Dad tells my mom. “I will NOT have a Nazi in my house.” my mother says. The Nazi comes for dinner. He does not click his heels together. My mother does not trust the Germans, but attends Berlitz classes. My father loves the Germans, but claims no aptitude with foreign language. He hires an interpreter so he does not have to speak German. My father loves the food. Often, he takes us for Wiener schnitzel at a restaurant down the hill from our house, where a white-haired gentleman, too old to have been a Nazi, greets us warmly. He speaks to me the few words of English he knows. “Mickey Mouse!” he says, and I laugh.

One image leads to many.

In truth, the existence of a unified memoir is false. None of us is one single story; we are many. This is one reason Dad was unable to tell his life story. He also needed an audience. A yellow legal pad does not respond. It does not lean forward, laugh or ask questions. Dad did not realize that telling your life is different than writing it.

If I could talk to Dad today about his life story, I would say, “Begin with something small. First, write about the pony—the one in the Packard. Then, write the story about those big-as-Volkswagen beetles in South Africa. Write about staying awake all night in South Africa, aware of the beetles crawling above you. And, when you write the story of your years in the TB sanatorium, begin the story with an image of something that seems unimportant. Start with the squirrels.”

Note: This brief memoir began as a craft essay regarding the natural tendency to start a memoir with too big a topic. However, the process that had begun with wondering, soon sent me wandering. My reflections on the reasons my father never wrote his memoir led me to recount stories he told and places we lived. Soon I had quickly traversed three countries and four states, scattering snippets of memory, like breadcrumbs, from 13 years of my youth. I enjoyed the process but scolded myself for veering wildly off-topic. I had succeeded in writing an authoritative craft essay; instead I was writing random memories. What is the lesson for writers? Begin with an idea. But let yourself wander. Trust yourself. And consider the details, which may seem small, but aren’t. As Flannery O’Connor said, “The longer you look at an object, the more of the world you see in it.”

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