Editor Mary Rakow recently suggested that I write the next phase of my manuscript differently, when I met her in San Francisco. We brainstormed ways to braid together life stories into descending and ascending arcs, that deliver a different experience for the reader than the saga I wrote about my time on this planet. Like most people, I usually tell my story in chronological order, but what happened doesn’t really need linear chronology.
For example, starting my life story with both sides of my grandparents doesn’t move my story. It provides context for who I think I am, but other people probably don’t care about my grandparents. When I jumble up personal anecdotes, people and events change. My memory changes when I jumble it up.
I keep a vivid shameful memory inside me of a babysitter who shocked me as a child. My lingering experience becomes less weighted when I when I tell it like a simple story.
I remember every blade of grass in my back yard, but who really cares? Cutting a story from my next manuscript doesn’t take away my experience, but it seems to make me stronger, like new strength comes from NOT sharing it. I wrote it down. It’s no longer inside of me.
Here’s the story:
My parents needed another sitter for my four year-old brother Brian and seven year-old me, since Grandma moved back east, and we’d been latchkey kids for awhile. They hired a short Irish matron named Mrs. Blakely with chiseled cheekbones, a straight nose and grey eyes. Charmed by her little smile, and her Irish accent, my father liked to imitate her. What he didn’t see was Blakely’s bogeyman side, a suspicious, scary, judgmental woman. Blakely’s dark bogeyman superstitions felt like something looked over my shoulder, ready to pounce on me at any moment. She put my nerves on edge, and was quick to reprimand me. Buckley frightened my heart, not by hitting, but with shame and condemnation. She taught me to fear the unknown evil that happens to children who did not comply. She babysat us for three years.
“Bad girl! Your mind is in the gutter!” Blakey screamed at me. But it was circus day, and tomboy that I was, I marked my chest with black eyebrow pencil to make little hairs, thrilled to be the lion tamer in our pretend circus. Big hazel eyes hidden by overgrown bangs, I stood tall in summer shorts without a shirt.
“Who do you think you are, you filthy girl!” Blakley grabbed me by one arm and shoved me into the bathroom, pushing a washcloth into my hands, ordering, “Wash yourself and put on a proper shirt!” Stricken and confused, I tried to rub off the hair lines, afraid to look at myself in the mirror.
My cousins were visiting from Los Angeles, and I forced my first cousin with the gigantic cowlick to wear an ugly old red satin devil costume for our circus. Brian put toilet paper streamers on his fenders and rode around using his little steering wheel. The circus had started for him.
I watched Brian zoom around, streamers flying, and thought of evil inside me: My mind is in the gutter. I’m a bad girl, and I don’t deserve to live. Does everyone know I’m full of filth? I just wanted to be a hairy lion tamer, the guy with the whip on the swing set who makes tigers sit and jump on stuff. I was just pretending. I went to our swing set and sat with my head in my hands. Mrs. Blakley turned her back on me and went to make lunch.
I missed my Grandma Brown who loved me and called me “precious Pru” and “sweet child.” Brian rode around without shame. I walked over to him. “Get off. The circus is over.”
“No.” He ignored me and looked straight ahead in his little car. “I’m in the circus now!” Brian made his circus without me. My cousin took off the devil mask and placed it on the bench. I picked it up and squished its nose with my teeth before I put it back.
“See that?” I showed her the mask I’d bitten up.
“So?” She hated the costume. No circus, no devil costume, no parade.
I wanted to run, never come back from my hills, the old houses, broken barbwire fences, dead horses. Instead I turned and went back into the house.
This vignette is different without chronology. My experience stands on its own. Writing about Ms.Blakely feels cathartic, like some of her demonic cruelty goes away. I see her as a pathetic lady who didn’t understand children, not the monster she grew to be in my history. Her reaction to my joy wounded me back then, and I still battle with the shock of shame.
Don’t most of us have these childhood experiences that we have to manage as adults? I don’t think this little story is worthy of great history. We all carry these types of ordeals, and writing is therapeutic, to help remove the painful times.
My writing continues to evolve, leading me in directions I never in my life thought I would go. Psychologists call what I’m doing “reframing.” The new order of telling stories effectively releases energy from so long ago, regardless of who reads it.
I recommend writing down things like this because it’s real, but also not real. It’s somehow changed.
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