Yesterday morning my daughter, Robin, and I attended our first class in writing memoirs at the Sea Country Community Center. On the way to lunch afterwords I said, “I’m not sure I agree that a memoir should tell all, no matter how bad.” The teacher had said, “We all have hidden indiscretions we’d rather not tell about but they may be the very things that will capture the attention and sympathy of our readers. They’ll make us human. People will relate.”
I looked over at Robin’s tanned face as she drove, arms and hands in the sunlight gripping the wheel. She always has insight to things that puzzle me but she was thinking. I continued, “That’s reasonable advice, I suppose, but what if the things I tell about may injure others? And even me? Don’t we all eventually outgrow our sins? So, why do they need to be documented? I’m writing my memoir for my children, grandchildren and all the ones to come. If I tell some things about us that are shocking or unlovable, what will they remember? Those things! Not the good I have to tell. After all, I’m not writing it as a submission to True Confessions Magazine." (Is that still in print these days?) Anyway, this time even Robin couldn’t give me a satisfying answer.
A little later over lunch, however, we continued discussing the class and I brought up a few times when my mother-in-law had done things that annoyed me greatly.
“It’s true those things colored my memory of her,” I said. “I even let them take away some of the feeling of endearment I may have had for her. Should I record those things and color the image our grandchildren will get only through my writings, or should I tell of her good qualities only?”
“Well, Mom, maybe you could paint her as I saw her, a lovable grandmother who welcomed me into her room when I’d get home from school. We'd talk, laugh and play cards, or watch TV.”
After a pause she added, “You could treat the things that bothered you as humorous. They were, you know. Funny. Nothing was really malicious about Grandma.”
“You’re right, Honey! Remember the time she went on a bus trip to see the fall colors in New England and brought back presents for everyone?”
“Not really. What about it?” Robin said.
“Well, she brought her other daughter-in-law a beautiful black beaded sweater. Do you know what she brought me? An ironing board cover! But here’s the really funny part of that: I would no more have wanted that beaded sweater than a dish rag! I was actually delighted to get the ironing board cover!”
“That’s what I mean, Mom. She knew you both. And what about the time she set her breakfast tray on a tray table close to her bedroom door inside the bedroom before you, Dad and she left for church. Auntie Dorris was living with you then too and Grandma had suspected Dorris was snooping around her room when you three went to church so she’d set a trap. But when you got home you had opened the door to lay her shawl on her bed before she could warn you and you knocked the tray over, spilling coffee, and breaking saucers on the carpet. She even confessed to you later what she’d done!”
“Oh, yes, you’re so right, Robin! That will be the way I tell about “Mama.”
Mama Wethe was of Pennsylvania Dutch heritage. She was not more than 5 ft. tall, if that, and though there was more than a trace of stubbornness in her, she had unbounded love for her son, Wally G., my husband, her daughter and other son and all her grandchildren. Because of that I agreed to take her into our home. She was with us for 20 years. You can’t live with anyone that long without a touch of friction now and then. Mothers-in-law get a bad rap but daughters-in-law do too.
When I tell about “Mama,” (she wanted me to call her Mama, so that says something,) I know just how I’ll handle it in my memoir. Yesterday I let my old grievances come to the surface and I got mad again. I didn’t like myself for that. The old saying that “memory is faithful to goodness” is a good one. It should sweeten the love of our progeny for all I mention in my memoirs, including me! If anything is so bad it would override the good, well, I say, if I can't see anything to laugh about in it, maybe it's due for the dust bin.