ScrapMoir How To #22: Use Your Life’s Soundtrack to Write Scrapbook Stories and Memoir, Part 2

by Bettyann Schmidt on December 23, 2010

catnav-scrapmoir-active-3Post #62 – Women’s Memoir Writing, ScrapMoir – Matilda Butler and Kendra Bonnett

by Bettyann Schmidt

Voices From Your Past

“When Christmas bells are swinging above the fields of snow,
we hear sweet voices ringing from lands of long ago,
and etched on vacant places are half-forgotten faces
of friends we used to cherish and loves we used to know.” ~ Ella Wheeler Wilcox

Being Christmas week, I wanted to use the above quote because of the appropriateness of the season, but also because it so clearly speaks of this subject. The people we used to know, the friends and family, and others who weren’t even closely tied to us, their voices “ringing from lands of long ago.”

Long ago might mean a year or two for some, and for others maybe a lifetime.

Surprising First Voices

I can’t say whose voice was the first I heard. I’ve tried thinking back to the first words I remember and found out something I didn’t like. Some of the first words I heard weren’t ones I liked. They confused me, words of my parents who likely thought I was too little to understand what they were talking about.

It’s an interesting fact that small children listen to adults, especially their parents, and then they will try to make sense of what they hear. What they perceive may frighten them or make them feel bad or insecure in some way. I think that’s what happened to me.

I must have been four, and we were living in my maternal grandfather’s house in the country. My parents had a bedroom upstairs with a window that overlooked the back yard with the water pump and the cornfield behind that stretched so far I couldn’t see the end of the multiple tall rows. The head of my parents’ bed was against the window, and I was standing on the bed between the two of them, looking out the window.

They were having a conversation, and my mother was becoming upset. I knew this by the way her voice changed when she was annoyed or angry. My father wanted me to go outside and play, while my mother wanted me to stay inside. I’d heard my name and something about going outside. I was young, but it sounded to me like my father wanted to get rid of me for a while, and Mom wasn’t too keen on the idea.

That scene has followed me throughout life. I thought about it so much, turning it around and around in my head, that I finally came to realize over the next several years there was something not nice about it. I was still too young, however, to understand what that something was. I started remembering my father’s voice that day, the look on his face, in his eyes, the grin on his face. It wasn’t the same as when he played with me, but something else about his personality that day was rather like he was when he teased me and made me laugh. But he wanted to get me out of the house that day. Why? I hadn’t done anything wrong.

Copy of Morrow Farm

As I became older, I heard arguments my parents had late at night, when Dad would come in after drinking in the bars. They assumed their children in the next room–without a door–were asleep, but I wasn’t. I never slept until my father came home, because I’d learned I’d just be awakened again.

I didn’t get a lot of sleep, obviously. Sometimes it showed in school, and the nuns accused me of not paying attention, daydreaming. What I was thinking about had nothing to do with dreams. It was a replay of the night before. Every night that it happened, which was more nights than not, I recalled that day at Grandpa’s in the bedroom. I was starting to put it together. And I was about eight years old.

“Don’t worry that children never listen to you; worry that they are always watching you.”  ~Robert Fulghum

Are there any voices from your early years that had a negative impact on you? Any words or voices that confused you when you were too young to make sense of what they were saying? Voices that implied something you had to figure out?

By my teen years, I was so tired and embarrassed by my parents’ arguments about intimacy, or lack thereof, that I began plotting how to stay out of the house. Hanging out late with friends and girlfriend sleepovers came early for me, as did moving in with a friend as soon as high school graduation was over.

This issue of my parents exposing me to their private lives was the one thing I held against them. I never brought it up with them of course, nor have I ever told another soul, not even Grandma. Because it was too embarrassing.


Klotter Avenue, in Over-The-Rhine. The above house was down the street, and the view of the city was one I could see from the bedroom I shared with my sisters.

“Solitude is such a potential thing. We hear voices in solitudde we never hear in the hurry and turmoil of life; we receive counsels and comforts we get under no other condition.” ~ Amelia E. Barr

I sought out my hiding places. I learned to love my own company. I found solace in the park close to our home, surrounded by trees and nature, where I could sort things out, figure out problems. And I tried to convince myself that other families had the same problems.

Spiritual Saint Voices

“To have courage for whatever comes in life–everything lies in that.” ~ St. Teresa of Avila

Attending Catholic school from the beginning, I was taught about goodness and evil. Some of the nuns who taught me were nice and made a lasting positive impression, and some were mean and harsh, and I learned nothing from them except to protect myself any way I could. The lessons I best remember were of the saints in Catholic history, their stories, their words. My favorite saint stories were of bravery and valor. Maybe because I learned to be afraid early in life–to be insecure, I took those stories to heart.
image 1st communion

My First Communion in Second Grade.

One of the sweeter nuns I encountered during my education must have known my fear and uncertainty, and her usual subjects of study centered on lives of young girl saints of great faith valor. I wanted to be like those brave young girls and not worry about anything bad happening to me. Here I was just an average girl, I thought, with not much to really fear at all, and some of these saints really had scary things ahead for them. Maybe even death if they weren’t careful. Look what happened to Joan of Arc.

I believe some of my saint study in bravery was worthwhile, as I was able to begin feeling more secure as I got older. I also became bossy and insulting to my immediate family, my parents and sisters and brothers. Being the eldest had a big part to play in that, but I have to say that watching my parents interact over the years was more reason. I felt somebody needed to run the house better. If I thought I was afraid when I was young, it was nothing compared to my mother’s fear. I would learn late in life the reasons for her fear, but as a young adult I was quite intolerant of such things. I didn’t like weakness.

I’ve never been exactly sure of why this intolerance started, or where it came from. Could it have been partly the Catholic education, being taught in a strict environment?

Were there any historic people whose stories influenced you early in life? Did your personality change in any way as you grew older? Do you know what prompted it? Were there voices responsible for those changes?

The Voice of Politics

“The sound of tireless voices is the price we pay for the right to hear the music of our own opinions.” ~ Adlai E. Stevenson

In the presidential race of 1952, when I was age ten, Adlai Stevenson ran against Dwight Eisenhower. My mother liked Stevenson; my father was an Ike fan. I remember the discussions about their candidates. Dad teased Mom about how his candidate was going to wipe the floor clean with her weak contestant. Mom had no real clear reason for supporting Stevenson other than she thought he was “a nicer man” than Eisenhower. Looking back, and doing some of my own research after the fact, Mom must have felt the more quiet intelligence of Stevenson more to her liking than the outgoing Eisenhower. My mother, herself, was a quiet person, while my father was the life of every party.

That was my first election, the first one I remember, and it was televised. I stayed up until it was over, on the floor in front of the big console TV with a notebook and pen and kept track of the votes. I felt my first sense of Americanism and political excitement. And I felt I had an opinion. I wanted Ike to win because Dad and almost everyone else around me liked him. Poor Mom. I wish now I’d supported her candidate. It would have made her feel somebody else cared.

The next election of America’s president was that of John Kennedy and Richard Nixon. I was a high school senior.

Kennedy’s “Ask not what your country can do for you” speech electrified me. I swayed to his carisma.  I loved hearing him speak  words of invigoration to me as an American citizen. It was a good time to be alive in Camelot.

When he was assassinated, I felt like something had been taken away from me personally, as did so many other people across the country. I thought what it took away was hope.


Faces from the Sixties along with voices that made us believe anything was possible

It was the sixties, and after our president was gunned down, I was among the rebellious mobs of discouraged Americans, angry at social injustice and a war we couldn’t win. I was influenced by the voices of Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy and was devastated when both of them were murdered too. I asked myself over and over, “What is happening to my country?”

“There are those who look at things the way they are, and ask why…I dream of things that never were, and ask why not?” ~ Robert Kennedy

“A nation that continues year after year spending more money on military defense than on programs of social uplift is approaching spiritual doom.” ~ Martin Luther King, Jr.

These were the political voices that shaped me into adulthood and determined my personal dogma.

What part has politics played in your life’s soundtrack, the voices? Did any politician or candidate’s words inspire you or change your thinking?

My Mother, Myself

“And so our mothers and grandmothers have, more often than not anonymously, handed on the creative spark, the seed of the flower they themselves never hoped to see–or like a sealed letter they could not plainly read.” Alice Walker

When my younger sister was dying in 1992, she told me a secret our mother had shared with her, because our mother felt it was safe at last to share it with someone, someone who would take it to the grave with them. Or maybe she knew Phyl would tell me.

Mom said she’d been molested by her own father when she was young. Our grandfather. Phyllis and I didn’t say anything for a few moment after she told me. I couldn’t believe it, but our mother would never lie. We both knew that.

Phyllis also told me that Mom had been married briefly before meeting our father and she’d had a baby. We both had suspected this when we were younger, when we’d found a baby picture that wasn’t any baby we recognized and Mom became irate that we had the picture. Grandma had shared some with me also about a baby before I was born, and Mom did tell me herself once I was married. I saw the still-sharp pain she felt for losing a baby. She never told me about a husband though. She never told me who the father of the baby was. I began wondering if it might be her own father’s.

A few months ago, over forty years later, while looking up information about my maternal grandparents’ marriage, I accidentally landed on a web page listing the information of my mother’s prior marriage, one that was shortlived obviously because it was only several years before my birth. My grandparents were listed as the bride’s parents. All of the birth dates matched, and the location.

Looking at my mother’s life now, I wish I could have known the things she had to suffer. I believe it would have brought us closer. I think she always wanted to share the secrets with me but was just too afraid.

I feel my Mom’s influence more and more now as the days go by, now that she’s left the world. I understand her now. She never realized her hopes and dreams. At one point, before I married, she and I went on a trip by ourselves and shared a lot, but not all apparently. Maybe we weren’t gone long enough.  Then when I went to visit during the last years she was alive, by myself, there were just the two of us, and had the house to ourselves and we listened to her talk-radio shows and laughed and shared more stories.  Had she stayed alive long enough, I believe she would have shared all the pain with me.

I always thought I did not want to be like my mother, but now I think that’s not a bad thing, and I am honored to feel her presence inside me.

What was your relationship with your own mother? What spark or flower seed did she plant in you? Did she see or accomplish her dreams, or were they like “sealed letters” she couldn’t read?

Check back on January 13th for Part 3 of my Life Soundtrack series, “Nature’s Voices”

Bettyann Schmidt
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