“I was born in Texas, but my mother wasn’t there.” That was my fourth birthday party proclamation …
This is an excerpt from Handwriting on the Wall, an unpublished short memoir dealing with the first hints of a future class clown and the fallout from a misguided good deed. I wondered if my parents saw the first signs of what life would be like, raising a child who lived outside the bell curve.
This story relates one of my earliest complete memories, of which some details were crystal clear when I began writing it. Back then I was nuts about cowboys and our neighbor gave me a present that remains etched in my mind. The cowboy canteen that caused so much joy, I felt compelled to show my appreciation.
Approaching the open garage I called out to Mr. Steen, but was disappointed he wasn’t there. When I entered I saw several shutters he had recently painted a lovely Kelley green. Next to the shutters sat a gallon of paint and a brush. It was obvious what I had to do to demonstrate my appreciation. After all, my parents taught me that one good turn deserves another.
Suffice it to say, my good deed was unappreciated in some quarters and I discovered one of my father’s serious hot buttons—he hated to be embarrassed. This event was the beginning of conflict between me and my father, though I’m sure neither of us knew it at the time.
While I haven’t written my memoirs in chronological order, but rather when a memory from any age pops up, this particular story is the beginning and it set the tone for much of what followed in my life. I find it interesting to conjecture if my parents realized what was in store for them. Since they’ve both passed on, I can’t query them, so all I can do is speculate and try to reconstruct motives based on years of being their child and my own parental experience. Here again, memoir provides the opportunity delve into their psychology and motives, enabling me to add character and dimension to the story, rather than relate a list of dull factual events. In the end, I believe it makes for better storytelling, just as notional dialog helps to paint a richer experience for the reader.
I’m always curious to know how others view this historical and speculative reconstruction of motives ascribed to the people in a memoir. If my goal is to produce an entertaining story, is this speculative process for the sake of the reader an acceptable embellishment? When I write sometimes, I feel like an archaeologist, attempting to piece together a culture from pottery shards unearthed for the first time in centuries. How do you feel about this reconstructive process? What do you do to flesh out people in your memoirs?