20 June 2016

Memoirs Are Made of This


by Susan Rogers Cooper

I've taught classes on writing the mystery for several years now, off and on, and feel I know the genre well. Recently I was asked to teach a writing class to a group of seniors, but, unfortunately, mystery was not the focal point of this group. Mostly the participants wanted to write memoirs – something I know next to nothing about.

I like make-believe. Fiction. Making up a story and telling it. I've been doing that since I learned to talk, much to my parents' dismay. But I did manage to entertain my captive babysitting charges a great deal with my abilities – such as they were. But memoirs? That's a whole 'nuther ball of wax.

I tried for several sessions to translate what I actually knew about writing into something these participants could use. And I did – to some degree. Then one day, as the class was winding down, we started talking about experiences we've had in our lives, and I told a couple of stories. One of the women looked at me and grinned. “You should write a memoir,” she said.

Well, I may not go that far, but there were a couple of things I thought I should probably put in writing, just for my grand kids, and maybe even their grand kids. Because I was witness to some world events that will still be part of history when those further away grand kids are up and running.

I remember in high school reading a book entitled something like “When FDR Died,' and asking my mother where she was when that happened. This was history from before I was born, and I wanted to know. And she could tell me every detail of her day and where she was when she heard the paperboy's cry.

And so I thought maybe my grand kids might like to know that their grandmother was standing in the road that led out of Love Field Airport in Dallas and was close enough to touch President Kennedy on the day he died. Actually, I did try to touch him, but a secret service man looked at me and I backed off quickly. My mother had taken my older brother and I out of school and the three of us stood there, not knowing we were about to become a part of one of history's darkest hours. I remember going back to school. I'd missed lunch with my class and had to go eat alone. When I got back to home room, a boy came over and told me the president had been shot. Knowing he knew where I'd been and why I was late, I just told him it was a really sick joke and to leave me alone. Some of the other kids came up and tried to tell me the same thing – I shooed them away, getting madder and madder at such a stupid and mean joke. Then my teacher came to my desk, squatted down, took my hand and convinced me that it was true. It was my first experience with the death of a person I felt I knew and knew I admired greatly. I still have the slip of paper the school secretary gave my mother to get me out of class. It has the date on it and as for the reason, it simply states, “President.”
Many, many years later, my grown daughter was in a car wreck on I-35 from Austin to San Antonio during a bad rainstorm. Her little Toyota Celica was T-boned by an over-sized Ford F-150. Her head cracked the driver's side window. Basically she wasn't physically hurt so much as emotionally wrecked. She couldn't get back on the freeway and, since her job was half-way between Austin and San Antonio and the only way to get there was on I-35, she lost her job. I thought she needed a vacation. And to get her mind off of the trauma, I decided the two of us would fly to Las Vegas. We boarded a plane at nine a.m. on September 11, 2001. Not a good way to get over a trauma, you say? Agreed.

We, of course, didn't know what had happened until we landed. There were little clues – like all the flight attendants disappearing into the cockpit for longer than seemed reasonable, and the fact that the people who were taking this plane on to Los Angeles were told to deplane ASAP. When we got into the airport, I noticed they were playing the old films of the bombing at the World Trade Center. When I asked a man standing there why, I found out those weren't old films. The long and short of it was we were stuck in Las Vegas for five days, away from home and family, horrified, in mourning, scared of what could happen next, and unable to get out as all planes were grounded and all rental cars were gone. Finally I was able to get a rental car and we left all the seemingly inappropriate bells and whistles, drunken laughter, and revelry, my daughter and I singing “Leaving Las Vegas” at the tops of our lungs as we vacated that city. It was a long drive back to Austin, but in some ways a cathartic one. Driving through the dessert with no traffic and watching the changing of the colors from midday to midnight was soothing on the soul. But that didn't stop us from jumping out of the car when we got to the Texas state line and singing “The Eyes of Texas”, again at the top of our lungs. (Which is not a pleasant thing since I can't carry a tune in a bucket – even with a wheel barrow attached.) Getting home to where my husband and her father awaited us was the best part of the trip. But I think being so close to real disaster helped my daughter put things in perspective. She never got her Toyota Celica back – it was totaled – but she got a new car and eventually got a new job, and, yes, has been able to drive on I-35 since then. It was a bonding experience for mother and daughter, one we'll always share, and one her kids and their kids need to know about.

Okay, maybe not memoirs, but I think I'll write this stuff down.

9 comments:

janice law said...

Maybe not a memoir yet, but you've certainly got a good start!

I had the same reaction to the news of JFK's death, although I was considerably older. There had been a political joke going around - JFK's sick, he's passing Goldwater _and I thought it was more of the same. Sadly, we wouldn't have the same disbelief now.

Eve Fisher said...

Absolutely, write it down! That's what memoirs are - personal memories, with thoughts, emotions, anything and everything that makes that memory important to you.

B.K. Stevens said...

Your post brought back some memories, Susan, and so did Janice's comment. On the morning after Robert Kennedy was shot, I heard the news on the radio and ran downstairs to tell my mother. She was furious with me for making such a sick joke. I tried to tell her that I wasn't joking, that it was true, but she wouldn't listen. She told me to go to my room and stay there until I was ready to apologize. I'd almost never seen her so angry, so I didn't try to argue. I went to my room and stayed there until she turned on the radio, heard the news herself, and came upstairs, her face numb with disbelief.

Susan Rogers Cooper said...

Janice, it's so true that we wouldn't have the same disbelief today. I can't imagine now thinking what happened in Orlando was just a joke. Or another school shooting. We began to lose our innocence the day we lost Kennedy. And by 1968, when we lost both RFK and MLK, our innocence was gone.

Eve Fisher said...

Susan, you're right - to me, 1968 was the year that everything collapsed in the middle of assassinations, riots, and the violence surrounding the Democratic Convention. Nothing was ever the same again. And then it got worse in 1970 with Kent State, and those of us who were young and anti-war realized that we could be actually shot and killed by the National Guard for those beliefs... Sigh.

Jeff Baker said...

I was in grade school when Martin Luther King was killed and then Bobby Kennedy and I remember thinking that this must happen all the time.

Leigh Lundin said...

I'm glad you wrote it down. Thanks, Susan.

Anonymous said...

I have to agree with everyone here. 1968 was the year it seemed like we learned the people in "the old ways of being" were not about to let light and life blossom. They shut it off by killing people. I can remember thinking, "I never thought they would go that far." But they did.

Leigh Lundin said...

Anon, that's terribly well put.