I have begun work on a memoir and I am finding inspiration in reading the memoirs of others. Some writers prefer not to read anything in the same genre as they are writing in at the time, but these works by others provoke me to think about questions that I might not have thought to ask myself. For example, in his memoir All the Strange Hours, Loren Eiseley writes about “the most perfect day in the world.” He says:
“It is never the same for each. For some it will be the memory of a woman, or a fading bar of music, or a successful night at a gambling table leaving you with the momentary illusion that you have won the game of life. Also the perfect day is apt to be so subjective that no one else who was with you will remember it in the same fashion, if he remembers it at all. It will be a day totally yours.”
And so I begin to comb my mind for memories of a perfect day, or if not perfect, then a day fully remembered, an important day. As I read on, I am surprised to find that Eiseley’s memory of his perfect day is totally lacking in the usual specificities. He doesn’t remember when it was, or exactly where, nor does he recall who was with him.
“I only remember that there were four of us. But out of all the towns and stations of those years, it was somewhere in Kansas in the wheat.”
Suddenly I realize that a memory need not be “an event” to be of importance, that a beginning, middle, and end are not requisite. Thoughts and feelings, moments recalled and perhaps savored, even if seemingly disjointed from time, these are what illuminate a life.
Freed from some unspoken and self-imposed constraint, my childhood mind opens and I smell the chlorine at the Leroy Street swimming pool where my dad and I went swimming, the incense wafting from every doorway on Greenwich Village’s Eighth Street in the 1960s, the burning wood and singed marshmallows of summer camp fires. I feel the heat on my chest from mother’s Vick’s VapoRub cures, the ache in my ankles after hours at the ice skating rink in Central Park, the exhaustion following a marathon at the Folk Dance House. I taste the cinnamon in mom’s rice pudding and an oyster from my grandfather’s plate. I hear my father reading Charlotte’s Web aloud and my mother singing to me to sleep.
What memories and musings will find their way into a manuscript remains to be seen. Meanwhile, I will keep conducting an ongoing self-interview, aided, in part, by questions that I see other writers pose to themselves.