ScrapMoir How To #25: Changes in Self When Writing Scrapbook Stories and Memoir

by Bettyann Schmidt on February 24, 2011


catnav-scrapmoir-active-3Post #72 – Women’s Memoir Writing, ScrapMoir – Matilda Butler and Kendra Bonnett

by Bettyann Schmidt

Every beginning is a consequence – every beginning ends some thing. ~Paul Valery

All changes, even the most longed for, have their melancholy; for what we leave behind us is a part of ourselves; we must die to one life before we can enter another. ~Anatole France

Memoir Writing, Uncovering More Layers

As I write posts here on Women’s Memoirs, I’ve also been writing my own ScrapMoir. It’s been an ongoing project for the last two years, during which I’ve shelved it for months at a time and then pulled it back out to continue.

One of the things I’ve been doing wrong, I just discovered, is going back over what I’ve already written and trying to pick up the story from there. For me, this is detrimental. It may not be to someone else.  But because all of our lives, the one you’ve lived and the one I’ve lived, are different, our lifewriting will require different methods.

Fear has been responsible for keeping me from my finished story. I thought I’d already opened the closet doors on all of the secrets that have haunted me. I never realized that my story still held events that I’ve pushed deep into my subconscious where they couldn’t hurt me. My subconscious, though, knew they were there and waited until I was ready. Ready for the change I would have to undergo if I indeed wanted to tell the whole story.

Old Ghosts Don’t Die Easy

Recently, I decided to start my story from a new vantage point. I’d been writing vignettes, or “scenes,” up to this point and planned to organize these into book form eventually. But then I had an idea that I should start my book with the scene of my visit to our old home in Cincinnati after my mother died. But when I started this story, my mind drifted to the next time I’d gone home, after my brother Ray had sold the house and moved my father out to the suburbs. After Dad had been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s.

There was something keeping me from this story. Something too hard for me to grasp and let sink in.

I remember getting a phone call from my sister Donna telling me that Ray had sold the house and moved our father out of the old Over-the-Rhine area, where he’d been born and raised and lived all of his life, except for a stint in the army.

Old Steps Leading Up to Klotter Avenue
Old Steps Leading Up to Klotter Avenue

The house on Klotter Avenue was gone. Gone?

What about all of my mother’s belongings? Her old pink Depression Glass dishes I loved so much, my old record player stored in the attic that Dad bought me when I was fourteen along with some Elvis 45’s? What about all the family photos?

Anger doesn’t even begin to say what I felt.

I jumped in my car and raced the miles between me and my brother, and I’m surprised I didn’t get stopped by the Highway Patrol. It takes at least four-and-a-half hours to “safely” make the trip, and that’s long enough to do a lot of thinking and hurting. When Donna and I got to my brother’s, and my father’s, new residence, I demanded answers. “I am the oldest,” I remind my siblings. “This should not have happened.”

By this time, my sister had filled me in on other startling facts. Not only did Ray get Dad to sign papers selling his home, my brother was also spending my father’s money, using the proceeds from the home and my father’s University of Cincinnati retirement check to buy whatever he wanted, including drugs to keep him feeling good when “taking care” of my father got too hard.

I heard how one dark night my father was found wandering the strange neighborhood, probably trying to find his way home. How he almost burned the house down by leaving something on a lit stove burner, and finally how Dad saw Ray passed out on the floor and thought he was dead and didn’t know how to use the telephone to call anyone. He was traumatized.

I dealt with all of that. I wrote about it after I got home to Tennessee.  But I didn’t deal with it all, or write it all.

While I was still there, in Cincinnati, we all went to the bank, and I had Dad’s account put into Donna’s and my younger brother Bob’s names, and I ordered Ray’s name removed from anything and everything. Dad became upset. He pleaded with me to leave Ray some money because he had no one; all of his other children were married and had families. Ray was alone. I finally agreed to the ten thousand dollars Dad requested to be put in an account for Ray. I tried to explain to my father that this would hurt my brother more than anything because I knew how he would spend all of that money, but Dad insisted.

I called a family meeting, and while everyone was getting together, I took Dad out to eat so I could talk to him alone.

We sat across from each other in a booth. Before I could say anything, Dad’s eyes met mine, and I saw true fear.  He stated simply, “I thought he was dead.”

I put my hand over his on the table and said, “It’s okay.  I understand.” 

I wan’t sure if he felt he had to apologize for something. Maybe he thought I was put out to have to drive up there on his account, that the reason I was there was because his children thought he was bad for thinking his son dead.  I felt so sorry for him.  He was like a little boy who didn’t know what to think or do. 

And then he said, “I want to go home with you.”

That was the part I couldn’t write about. Those were the words I wanted to erase from my memory.

Because I didn’t take Dad home with me. I thought it was unfair for me to take him away from his sister, his two other daughters and his youngest son who wanted to take care of him, my brother’s two children who loved their grandfather. It was probably the hardest decision of my life. I’ve regretted that decision over and over. If I could go back, I’d pack my father up and bring him with me and take care of him. Why didn’t I do that? 

And why didn’t I go back up to Bob’s house and bring him down here for vacations instead of just visiting him at my brother’s house from time to time?

Because I had a son here with a brain tumor who was going through chemo and a daughter with lupus who was going through a long flare-up of the disease and in the hospital much of the time. And because I had grandchildren, my daughter’s children, to help with.

Even so, I’ve still regretted my decision.

I’ve finally had to get over it, however, and the writing has helped do this.  I made the decision to write the family story and leave nothing out. I’ve been banging the keys getting it out day-by-day. Writing in streams of consciousness where everything is blocked out but the story.

When I get to the memories of my father relying on me when I was growing up, I just keep going and don’t allow the accusation of letting him down at the end of his life stop me from writing. I must give up the guilt. It’s not helping anyone, and it’s hurting me and my family.

Dad wouldn’t want that for me. He pushed me all of my life to climb the ladders, make something of myself, not to settle for a little when I could have more.

No, Dad would want me to finish my story. 

Even more, I owe it to him.

There’ll Be Some Changes Made

For there’s a change in the weather
There’s a change in the sea
So from now on there’ll be a change in me
~Benny Goodman, Song Lyrics from “There’ll Be Some Changes Made.”

Those who expect moments of change to be comfortable and free of conflict have not learned their history. ~Joan Wallach Scott

Because I’ve accepted the fact that I must change my thinking, allowing me to let go of the guilt, to let go of the fear of hurting my family, doesn’t mean it’s easy. There is still hurt. Writing through the stories has been a release, however. I’ve been blessed with a sense of freedom from a heavy burden.

The stories of my father explain why he wanted to come home with me. I was his security. I always was. And my mother was gone. I didn’t really grasp these facts the evening he asked me to take him home. That awakening hurt deeply when I wrote about it.

I accepted it, felt it, and went on to the next story.

The anger at my siblings had to be let go as well. Yes, rightfully, as the oldest, I should have been consulted before selling the house and disposing of the contents. I’ve come to understand that they were afraid. I’ve even conceded that maybe my younger siblings thought a different neighborhood was safer for Dad.  Maybe they were afraid he would take the liberty of going out into the inner-city streets with all of its crime and get hurt. 

They knew if I found out about the sale of the house, I would have stopped it. My father planned to die in that house. I was with him when he bought the house in 1961, when I was eighteen and my mother was sick. It was the last time he planned on moving. He loved that house. He knew that area — Over-the-Rhine–like the back of his hand.  I have to forgive my siblings for not knowing those facts about their father. They were too young.

Continuity gives us roots; change gives us branches, letting us stretch and grow and reach new heights. ~Pauline R. Kezer

The story of my father falls on me to teach his younger children, our grandchildren and great grandchildren, who he was, what he stood for. His bravery in dire times when taking care of his family meant everything.  His weaknesses, because we all have them, need to also be described. What got him up out of bed every day and moved him to keep on going.

I’ve changed my mind about how I feel. I will use the pain, the guilt, the anger, and turn them into a gift to my father.

Let me encourage any of you who’ve experienced a resistance to write because of something painful in your past to try my method of writing through it, just getting the words down on paper without stopping to think about how those words affect you.  Let me also suggest that if you’ve felt betrayed by family members you love or anyone else, that you also write about that with a heart of forgiveness, because you will find healing in that.  I’d love to know some of your stories.

For those who know about the upcoming e-book, ScrapMoir: 7 Steps to Combining Your Photos, Your Memories, Your Stories, it will be out in early March, so be sure to stay tuned.

Bettyann Schmidt
Be sure to join me on my blog and click to “follow” to receive a free e-book in a few weeks:

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