The pleasures of writing memoir

In my job I tutor all kinds of students, but most of the writing they show me is academic writing and their questions are about how to do it, improve it, and understand it.  Last week I was surprised by two students who were working in a border genre of academic writing meets creative non-fiction. It was such a pleasure to listen to them and read bits of their work. I was motivated to open up a document I wrote in 2014, a short memoir. I was guided in my writing by a book on women’s memoir. Unfortunately, I cannot remember the title or author, but I do remember that her suggestion was to write using topics, not chronology as a guide. One chapter, for example, is on “birth and beginnings” in your life. Another one is on “body language.” And so on.  I liked this approach, and I produced around 80 pages in a few weeks. I tucked it away and forgot about it until recently. Here are the first few pages. img_1451-1

Prologue

A sunny protected courtyard with high whitewashed walls. The courtyard is scattered with easels, and small children wearing paint-splashed smocks stand before the easels, brushes in their hands, intent on making marks in bright colours on the cheap newsprint. Dave Brubeck’s jazz is floating over the scene. Branches of a mountain ash tree, resplendent with clusters of orange jewel-berries, hang over the edge of the courtyard wall. The feeling is one of serenity and innocence, yet zinging with the subtle undertone of jazzy, creative energy.  This memory is lodged deep inside my bones, and I don’t even know if it is a memory of something that really happened in my life, perhaps at nursery school, or a dream, or a scene I imagined in waking life. But it doesn’t really matter, in the end. It stands for the best of life to me—childlike open curiosity and freedom to create, the improvisation and airiness of jazz, sun on white walls, signalling the unlimited joy we can feel, the beckon of the blank slate that we mark with our spirit. I want this scene at the beginning of my life story, and I hope it passes before me as I die.

Chapter 1 – Births and beginnings

Birth—my story goes like this. My parents and two older sisters lived in Berkeley, but my mother arranged specially for me to be born at Kaiser Hospital in Walnut Creek because they had “rooming in,” a fresh new concept in 1958. Your baby could room in with you instead of being relegated to the big nursery of Plexiglas cribs filled with pink and blue swaddled bundles.  Rooming in would make it easier for mother and baby to breastfeed and bond.  But the plan was upended. My father took my two older sisters, 18 months and three years, trick or treating on a rainy evening, October 31, 1958, while my mother, lonely, I imagine, and feeling unwell, laboured and gave birth to me. I was whisked away from her and she didn’t see me for 24 hours as she recovered from some virus they didn’t want me—the newborn—exposed to.  So best laid plans of women often go awry (with apologies to Robbie Burns).

Perhaps I should take that as important information about my life—don’t make elaborate plans, as they are sure to fall apart at the last minute?  I look at that blurry old photo of me, tummy down, in that nursery crib of acrylic glass, my face squashed, and I imagine the suffering there. No skin to skin contact, no bonding or gazing into my mother’s eyes. No breast at all, not even one suck. I was bottle fed from birth. I would like to call my mother and ask for some details, but there is a bruised quality to our relationship right now. I imagine her getting very defensive, touchy about those details I would probe for: What illness did you have?  Were you terribly sad when you couldn’t see me, hold me?  Did you feel the loss?

So I imagine a lonely beginning to my life and loneliness for her as well…no soft breast to suckle me, only the discomfort of rock hard engorgement. A new birth marked by loss. But there were two other children to see to, and not much time or money. So not a time of abundance. Rather, of scarcity. I have never thought of my birth this way before, as a time of loss, but perhaps this inured me to getting less than expected, to ask for less, to settle for less, and to pretend it doesn’t matter.

Many people remark with curiosity that I was born on Halloween. “What was that like?”  Perhaps my propensity to feel bereft and envious grew from that first night of my birth. My sisters were out getting candy, trick or treating, other babies getting the breast…I was getting nothing. No candy, no colostrum. Poor me. The night in the Wiccan calendar when the veil between two worlds is at its thinnest…perhaps I feel closer to that mystery now, although my affinity for the metaphysical was well closeted for almost 50 years.

I had a turn toward the melancholy as a youngster. Photos show me looking sad or scowling, and perhaps I cultivated that persona. But why? When my smile was so brilliant and beautiful, and I could have plucked joy like plucking a low hanging fruit?  But it took me awhile to paste on that frown. It was not always so.

I love a photograph of me at the kitchen table in student housing in Berkeley, my first home.  I am sitting in one of those 1950s chrome and plastic high chairs—the simple kind you pull up to the table: no trays or gadgets or even straps.  The profile shot has me turning in the chair to face the camera, one hand grasping the side of my chair and my plump little leg and bare foot tucked under me. The other hand clenches the end of a piece of toast and brandishes it in the air, and the plate in front of me has a few crumbs of scrambled egg left. I have this big lovely open grin on my face. I look to be around one year old, my dark happy eyes gaze at the picture taker with love, my tongue is just at my lips which are slightly open and upturned. I have a thatch of glossy hair atop my square-ish head and my demeanor says I am joyful and ready for the day! I love to check out this picture of me to remind me that my sad-sack self that persisted through childhood and adolescence (and beyond) was a construction—that I am and was equally able to be joyful, present, happily alive in the moment, ready for anything, loving, accepting, energetic.

Tribe

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This is the story of how I became a drunk and found a tribe. My memory often fails me, so I have quilted over gaps with scrappy fictions, not completely accurate, but not without truth, either.

I was a sweet, reckless 11-year-old, still taking ballet lessons on Saturday mornings. Our instructor—upright, proper, wearing a pencil wool skirt—told us in her English accent not to hold our fingers “like the bunches of bananahs in Lob-ee-laws.”  I wore the garb of the innocent—pink tights, black leotard, hair in a bun. I was perfect, chaste. I had hankerings then for certain clothes, just like 11-year-old girls do today, but my coveting now seems odd and historical. For example, I yearned for a floor length nightgown sewn from a particular Butterick pattern in lavender viyella. And I wanted a kilt, a real kilt.

I often passed the store on Yonge Street and stood in front of the window, pining for one of the kilts worn by the chalky mannequins. You could order a kilt from one of the many tartans on huge bolts at the back of the store—cut to your measurements. How did they make the pleats, I wondered?  The idea that I should have my own kilt became an obsession.  Did that desire pull me precisely because I did not belong to a tribe? Strangely, my family didn’t feel like my tribe; there was a sense of “every man for himself” with us.  But here I could choose my own tartan, my own clan. . . I could pretend to be Scottish.  I could belong.

My mother was agreeable. Perhaps she thought it quaint that I wanted a kilt.  It must have been very expensive to have a kilt custom made in 1969. We didn’t have much money, but my mother tried to give us what we wanted, within reason. “We’ll find the money,” she would say, and she did.  I chose a small red plaid, the MacAulay modern red, and the Scottish lady measured me up with her long yellow tape, marking numbers on a scrap of brown paper.  I waited impatiently for several weeks, imagining how the quilt would look and feel.  I had a tendency then to fetishize objects. If only I had that thing, my life would be perfect.

One Saturday morning we went to fetch it. That lady’s broad freckled hands wrapped the skirt around my neat, trim body, expertly fastened the kilt pin onto the outer apron, checked the waist, stood me back from her appraising eye, and commented in her brogue that I looked “bonnie.”  I loved the way the skirt swung around my thighs just slightly, the mechanical whirl of the crisp pleats—the big silver pin that I could put in myself—higher if I wanted some of my leg to show. There is something lovely and innocent about a slender 12-year old girl wearing a kilt, bare leg in the fall, black tights in the winter.  You might expect her to raise her arms in a highland fling.  She looks as if she belongs.

* * *

I try to imagine how it all came down to vomit on the kilt and all over the bathroom floor, my sisters both dabbing at me with warm wet cloths, quickly cleaning me up and putting me to bed so our mother wouldn’t know. Perhaps we started by pouring small amounts of wine from corked bottles in the kitchen. We might have sat around the kitchen table with coffee cups half full of too-sweet sherry. But my memory also keeps tugging at the old refrain, “come alive for a dollar five.” That was the joke we used to make later about the cheap rotgut wine “Old Niagara” that kept the rummies fueled. I remembered the old men slumped against the wall of the Silver Dollar tavern when I walked Spadina, paper bags concealing identical green glass bottles lying beside each ragdoll body.

I come up from the abyss of memory with a wry smile. It’s no wonder you can’t remember, can’t put the details together, you killed your brain cells, you pickled them with alcohol. I once asked a chemist acquaintance if he thought my memory loss was from frequent LSD trips while my mind was tender, still developing. “No, LSD is likely not the culprit. That’s the cleanest drug around—more likely it was the alcohol.”

We got tipsy, the three of us, light-dark-redhead, but it was too much sweet stuff my first time drinking. We probably laughed, acted giddy and silly as sisters do. Felt the thrill of being bad. But before the sweet sickness came over my gut, I felt the first stirrings we alcoholics get—that deep gut-warmth. That halo of euphoria that crosses us over into a land of freedom, power, luxury—the velvet couch of glory. Give it to me again and again!

So even though I scrambled up the stairs two at a time, my gut heaving, to retch in the toilet, partly missing and getting the sherry-smelling chunks of vomit on my new kilt, I was still shaken, seduced by that blood-warming pleasure. Even if I woke the next morning feeling black-wasted, tongue sour, I still wanted to go back to that land soon, to loll on that velvet couch again.

There was a problem with empty bottles, which makes me think we had somehow gotten our own booze, not purloined small amounts of our mother’s. Come alive for a dollar five . . . indeed!

* * *

The kilt smelled of my vomit after that, and so I wore it less than you would think a girl would wear a new kilt she was so excited to get. “Why don’t you wear your new kilt?” my mom would ask. “Don’t want to,” I mumbled.

But really what I wanted to say, I imagine, was that it smells vile now, the smell reminds me of my first drunk, which was horrifying because it felt wretched to get sick but it felt wonderful to get drunk. So wonderful that I am going to find a way to do it again, soon. I stuffed the kilt into a plastic bag at the back of my closet.

* * *

Latvia is a smallish Balkan country, the home of Michael P’s mother. I wanted to ask Michael about the Latvian quilt I puked over in his basement all those years ago—what were the colours, what was the fabric? Who made it? But then I remember Michael died of AIDS in 1989. Michael’s tribe is now the tribe of the dead—all those beautiful young men who died that decade and beyond. The faded quilt I wasn’t sure about, but we always joked about it, calling it the “family heirloom.” We would cuddle under it—teenage boys and girls in Michael’s basement room, our hub. We nestled together, legs sprawled over legs, arms around each other, drinking, laughing, feeling the incipient sexual thrill for one another, the thrill of being so close with hormones bubbling. One night we were all gathered there, my first time drinking tequila. Lime wedges, salt shaker, the iconic worm in the bottle. Michael lined up the shots, the shaker, the slices of lime on the edge of his candle table, a slab of wood holding dozens of candles in wine bottles. The dripping wax formed stalactite formations we loved to pick at, rolling warm wax in our hands and creating new shapes.

The candle glow lit our young pimply faces as Michael prepped the shots and passed them round. The taste was medicinal burn, but the feeling was flooding gorgeous warmth, an invitation to the couch of glory.  After several shots, I felt my gut roiling, and it all came up again on the quilt.   I suffered shame and guilt from ruining that heirloom, staining it and souring it so Michael would never use it again.  Michael is dead now. But he was Latvian, he was gay, he had two loving tribes. I like to think he basked in their tribal warmth when he was alive.

My contemporaries were not my tribe. Sure, they partied, they drank, but I started to see I approached drinking differently from them. I had to hide, elaborately, the machinations to get another drink, to keep going when everyone else had enough. I had to keep going until I was curled fetus-like, comatose, on the velvet couch.

* * *

Memory, please help me excavate the first AA meeting I attended.  Likely it was held in a church basement somewhere in Toronto. A large room with scarred tables on metal legs laid with 12-step literature on one end and a huge coffee urn and cookies at the other. A tower of Styrofoam cups and those leaf-shaped maple-creme sandwiches in plastic trays, straight from the package. A cloud of cigarette smoke striating the room. Chairs set in front of a podium. All old men but perhaps two faded washed-up ancient women with bad lipstick. This is not for me. Not my tribe. I am so different. I am young and smart.

* * *

We’d had some wine for dinner but the bottle was empty, and we lay in bed, my husband and I, talking, arguing. I was agitated—I needed more booze. This was becoming a grating need. Not so bad when I hadn’t had a drink for a few days. But when I started, the pull was tremendous, and I couldn’t fight it.  I went up to the kitchen on some excuse and poured a coffee mug half full of cooking sherry I found in the cupboard. But before I took it back down to bed, I took several big slugs. I drank more than my share of wine at dinner, and now I was increasingly slurry in my words and actions. As I got into bed, and he smelled the sherry in my cup, I could see the disgust in his face. He took the cup and flung it against our bedroom wall. I remember the drip, drip of it down the wall, and the stain it left there, even after scrubbing.  You were not of my tribe, husband, you who could nurse a Guinness for hours. You could not understand the addict’s yearning beyond reason.  But who, then, was my tribe? Not other drunks, they were old and washed up.  But not non-drunks either. Not the Scottish or the Latvians. Not the gays, not ballet girls—I had quit dance after being told I didn’t really have the body to make it as a ballerina.

* * *

I remember starting a hand quilting class in my early twenties. Quilting was another yearning—I longed to create those perfect squares and sew them all together. To make something great out of small goods. I only completed one square when alcohol—my then lover—got in the way of my relationship to quilting.  Alcohol was my primary relationship in those days; none other stood a chance.

I have been sober 30 years now, but some days I still feel like an emotional drunk careening through life.  Recently I took up my love affair with quilting. This time, with focus and forgiveness and a Pfaff Ambition sewing machine. This time, I started slow, piecing fabric, watching YouTube videos over and over. Pause and sew, play and sew. The plump woman with infinite patience on the video, sewing, showing. Laughing at herself, sewing, showing. Talking us through the techniques, the tricks.  Always a beautiful finished quilt hanging behind her. And then the women in the sewing machine store, the fabric stores, the quilting stores. Patient, full of information, encouragement, tales of experience, wry compassion for the mistakes. So I would try again, laughing at myself for cutting wrong, sewing wrong, taking out stitches, not once, but three times. Patience growing like a little bud inside me.  Oh you quilters, all you women out there—are you my tribe? Is this how I finally learn patience?

These are women I once would have scorned—too podgy, domestic, uninteresting, unintellectual. They care about fabric, for God’s sake, and quarter inch seams! I cared about building skillful arguments, refuting claims, excelling in academia. But now that stuff seems arid.

Free motion quilting got into my soul when I first tried it. After struggling for an hour to put the new foot on my machine, I took off with the freedom of it. Flying around the fabric in huge loop-de-loops, great flowers, words, lines, circles, hearts grew out of me like thread songs. My whole body moved with the shapes and the orange thread spun out, making my mark. It was like the poetry that sometimes runs through me. I am just the container now, for the great spinning quilt goddess who speaks through me.  Oh, is this my tribe, then? This is my tribe. I can’t wait to tell another quilter about it, to share that feeling of stepping off a cliff into free motion quilting.  Sometimes I worry it feels a bit too much like being drunk, that crazy whoop-de-whoo feeling. Like lolling, once again, on the velvet couch of glory. But I reassure myself: There is no hangover, no shame. Just a beautiful imperfect quilt at the end that I will give to somebody I love. Perhaps to you.

Memoir and sketches by Madeline Walker.

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