I wonder how frequently writers infuse their works of fiction with memories from their pasts. Do they find it impossible to avoid basing characters, settings, or events on their own real histories?
I know I’m guilty of giving in to a few memories as I’ve written fiction. My last novel, The Rules, was a memory tapestry of people, places, and experiences that draped themselves around my shoulders as I wrote about London Phillips, Lenah Miller, and Rand Carson.
Memories, the good as well as the not so good, visit us when they’re least expected. They entwine themselves through an overheard conversation, a few notes of a song, the texture of a piece of clothing, or a photo taken long ago.
I should have figured I’d come face to face with memories when I began attending once-a-week sessions of a conversational French group. I’d been aware of the group’s existence for more than a year, but I hadn’t joined because I feared my diminished language skills would render me mute, especially if the group were composed of native French speakers. One cold Monday this past January I shrugged away my reticence and decided to go, if only to gauge the group members’ tolerance of my French. I realized I wouldn’t know what I no longer knew/had forgotten unless I jumped in.
I introduced myself, sat down, and answered the usual question, “Where are you from?” followed by, “Does your name have one “e” or two?”
(Mind you, I was used to hearing the former question, but the latter one was new to me. It wasn’t subtle, just new. I’ve filed it mentally in a folder labeled speaking-a-foreign-language-while-being-a-black-American.)
Anyhoo…as I’ve become enamored with spending ninety minutes each week hearing and speaking words I thought I’d forgotten long ago, I’ve had so many memories float my way. The first was the memory of a course about Marc Chagall that I took eons ago.
The instructor, Dr. Lena Shore, was a tiny, spirited woman whose Polish-accented voice rose excitedly whenever she described the subjects of Chagall’s paintings and then descended under a shroud of sadness when she spoke of her own family’s escape to Canada during the Nazi occupation of Poland. She felt a kinship with Chagall because her family found the light of survival in Canada just as the artist discovered how the sunlight in southern France made the colors he painted so much brighter than they’d been when he practiced his craft in the city of his birth, Vitebsk, Russia.
One evening Dr. Shore began class by showing us a book that contained letters written by Chagall to his family. She asked us to excuse her if she read portions of the letters in their original form, French. She read to us slowly. Before I knew it, her voice took me by the hand and led me down a path past the numerous hours I’d spent in French literature classes, past the Guadeloupe sunrises described by Dr. Arlette Smith, my favorite French instructor at Temple University, and finally to that department store in Québec City where, for the first time I’d heard my mother exchange questions and answers with words that were foreign to my ears.
It was cold in Québec City that Spring week of my family’s vacation, and my mother had forgotten to put our light weight coats in the car. That first morning found us in a large store in search of the children’s clothing department. As we approached a salesperson I heard my mother utter strange sounds. She seemed to understand the equally odd noises flowing from the salesperson’s mouth.
Caught somewhere between stunned silence and silent admiration, I walked alongside my mother and sister until we reached our destination and made our selections. That day I became the owner of two new possessions, an extremely thick cardigan sweater and an unquestionable desire to speak a second language.
I’m writing about this for three reasons. First, this month marks my second Mother’s Day without my mother and I realize how proud I am of her and of my father also. Second, memories can be the stuff of creativity, be it in writing, painting, composing music, making films or sculpting. A writer’s future characters can be a reflection of that writer’s past. And third, in reading aloud Marc Chagall’s letters, Dr. Shore gave me the gift of remembering an instructive and tender experience. She helped me recall the excitement inherent in discovering new possibilities for and about oneself, of nascent skills being encouraged to emerge and bloom, of the pride felt while soaring high above low expectations. Dr. Shore’s French was the delicious fragrance of madeleines,* just baked, wafting through the air from the oven in my mother’s kitchen.
Merci à tous!
*Wonderful buttery shell-shaped cookies described by Marcel Proust in “A La Recherche du Temps Perdu: Combray”
Renée Bess is the author of five novels and the co-story collector (with Lee Lynch) of the anthology, OUR HAPPY HOURS, LGBT VOICES FROM THE GAY BARS. You can find her here at Women and Words the fourth Thursday of the month. Her web site address is http://www.reneebess.com.