Post #36 – Women’s Memoirs, Writing and Healing – Kendra Bonnett and Matilda Butler
Writing and Healing
Revelations of Research
by Pamela Jane Bell, regular guest blogger, children’s book author and currently writing her memoir
For as long as I can remember, I’ve been intrigued by banisters and stairways leading to rooms perched high above the treetops. I can spend hours poring over blueprints or photos of stairs, lofts, and attic rooms in various designs and configurations. Whenever I think of my perfect writing space, I picture myself in an upstairs room, writing dreamily while the voices of my family drift up from below.
I didn’t know or even think much about the source of my stairway fantasy until I happened to catch an old movie on TV. I Remember Mama (1948) depicts the ups and downs of a Norwegian family living in San Francisco around 1910. The film generated a TV series of the same name that I’d loved as a child of three and four. I remember how intrigued I had been by the big old-fashioned house and the stairway leading to the oldest daughter, Katrin’s, attic room. The film brought it all back again.
Each TV episode, I recalled, began with Katrin, now a grown woman, returning in her imagination to her room looking out over the hills of turn-of-the-century San Francisco.
“I remember the big white house on Steiner Street, and my little sister Dagmar, and my big brother Nels, and Papa. But most of all, I remember Mama.”
Once again, Katrin is fourteen and stealing a few moments from busy family life to write in her journal. From downstairs we hear her mother calling.
We know this is the voice of the past, the voice of memory and imagination. In both the TV and film versions of the story, Katrin is simultaneously a young girl living her life, and an adult looking back on her childhood. In other words, I Remember Mama is a memoir*. As a child, what really intrigued me about the series, I realized, were the parallel worlds of the writer – past and present. And the attic room where Katrin wrote her stories and eventually her novel-memoir about her family was the physical embodiment of those worlds. It was there, gazing out over the hills of the city, that
Katrin gained the perspective that allowed her to recreate the landscape of her past.
Like unlocking doors to hidden rooms, each discovery I made about the source of my stairway fascination led to an even deeper insight. After seeing the film, I remembered how thrilled I was as an older child to discover that one of my favorite authors, Maud Hart Lovelace, understood the mystery and allure of banisters and stairways.
In Betsy and Tacy Go Over the Big Hill, Betsy and Tacy go from house to house to collect names for a petition:
“Opening doors gave glimpses of strange faces, of banisters leading mysteriously upstairs, of an organ, of a hired girl in a cap.”.
“Leading mysteriously upstairs” is integral to the magic of stairways. Like prop stairs on a stage set, a glimpse of a disappearing staircase and voices calling off-stage, hint at a world implied but not seen, and inspires us to imagine. What do these hidden rooms look like? Who are the people living in them? What is their story?
The final revelation about the origin of my stairway obsession was the most important of all. Though I could not have articulated it at the time, watching I Remember Mama as a little girl led me to realize that the ordinary events of family life could be shaped into a narrative with a beginning, a middle, and an end. And so the world of the story-teller, and a fascinating and functional piece of architecture fused in my imagination. Happily, knowing this does not diminish my fascination; in fact it makes it even richer and more intense.
Memoir takes you deep into your interior to a mysterious place where memory is transformed by imagination. In the process, you sometimes uncover long-forgotten sources of the stories or settings that intrigued you as a child and continue to influence and inform your writing as an adult.
What enriched your creative vision and inner world as a child, and how has it shaped your writing, and your perspective? Was it a particular color of a princess’s gown, a window seat, or a mysterious garden?
*Mama’s Bank Account by Kathryn Forbes is the original novel that inspired the film. The book is based on Forbes’ own life growing up in San Francisco.
Pamela Jane Bell is the author of twenty-six children’s books, and is currently completing her memoir on how she became a children’s book author.
Her newest children’s book Little Goblins Ten (Harper, illustrated by Jane Manning) is a humorous riff on of the classic country rhyme “Over in the Meadow.” Little Goblins Ten was recently reviewed in The New York Times:
“Readers are rewarded with ample humor and wit… there’s a sweetness to the parental-offspring interactions in the playful, alliterative text.”—New York Times Book Review
Pamela Jane’s first book, Noelle of the Nutcracker (Houghton Mifflin, illustrated by Jan Brett) is still in print:
“Jane’s first book magically captures the dreams-can-come-true atmosphere of the holiday season…Jane is a skillful storyteller. A lovely novella any time of the year.”— Publishers Weekly
Each month Pamela Jane Bell gives us something new to consider.
Pamela’s other hat, that of a children’s author, gives her a unique perspective. If you have children or grandchildren you’ll want to check out Pamela’s new lovely, illustrated book — Little Goblins Ten — that received a starred review by Kirkus and a review by Publishers Weekly that said, “In a gently spooky spin on “Over in the Meadow” that counts up to 10, various ghouls and beasts groan, swoop, and haunt. Jane has fun playing within the nursery rhyme’s parameters…”