MY OWN “REMEMBRANCES OF TIMES PAST”

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

 

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.

Chagall                                      Chagall 2

 

 

 

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.

 

QUEBEC 1

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!

 

MADELEINES

 

 

*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.

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14 comments

  1. A lovely post, Renee. I’ve loved Chagall’s art ever since I encountered it in college, but it never occurred to me to search out something like his letters, which I wouldn’t be able to read in French anyway except in a very spotty way. I barely passed beginning French literature in college, and then only because my too-lenient professor graded us on content as well as correct language. Later i wished I’d paid more attention when I wanted to read Collette in French. Maybe now, fifty years later, I should try again to learn the language well enough to read it.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Sacchi, I would encourage you to take another stab at acquiring a reading knowledge of French. As you know, the process of forgetting foreign vocabulary is constant. Regarding Marc Chagall, I continue to find great enjoyment when I look at his dream-like paintings with their vivid colors.
      Thank you for reading the blog.

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    • Ladydanita, I’m so glad my words touched you, and I appreciate your having taken the time to read the post.

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    • I’ve never baked madeleines, Lady M. My reference to their aroma wafting from my mother’s kitchen is symbolic. It’s meant to be similar to what happened to Proust the moment he entered his late aunt’s home. The fragrance of the little cookie-cakes opened a world of memories for him. Please let me know when you come across someone who DOES bake them, especially if that person resides ANYWHERE in the U.S.
      #therealmadeleinesnot a knockoff

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      • Darn, I was hoping you got the recipe and art of making them. LOL Entenmann’s Madeleines Petit Butter Cakes actually remind me of France, and my grandmother, because that’s the only brand of store-bought bakery she would deign to eat, lol. So, I totally get the symbolism of smells evoking memories. 🙂 I did notice a French bakery during my exploring this week. I think I’ll check it out. It looks authentic.

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  2. Your lyrical prose never fails to stir my spirit, Renee. You write with such beautiful detail, vibrating with your emotion and love. Thank you for sharing your memories!

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    • Thank you, LM, and thanks for reading the post. You and I share an appreciation of the craft of writing. Writing well takes a bit of thought and a lot of revision. One’s reward is receiving positive comments similar to yours. Thanks for reading.

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    • Ah, merci Lee! My bucket list includes rereading a few books from my college days. If only I’d known then that Baudelaire was a gay man, etc. The symbolism in his poetry would have hit me more profoundly.
      A la prochaine fois, mon chère amie.

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  3. Thank you for another lovely post. I was reminded of my time in Cote d’Ivoire in the Peace Corps, functioning in French on a daily basis.
    I once saw a snippet of Martha Stewart’s show in which she proudly talked about owning Julia Child’s madeleine pan–perhaps she has a recipe.
    I envy those who can read and write in French, I was a fluent speaker in the past, but written French seems to be another thing entirely.

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  4. Thank you for your thoughtful comments, Sharon. I’ll bet you have some interesting memories of your Peace Corps days in the Côte d’Ivoire. The Temple U. prof I mentioned in the blog is related to the wife of an Ivoirien gov’t. official. Of course, that was many years ago, during the early 1970’s. A childhood friend of mine spent a few months in Abidjan gathering research material for her doctoral degree. No worries regarding your French writing skills. Quand nous sommes en Vegas, nous pouvons parler un petit peu, n’est-ce pas?

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