I touched on this topic a couple years back, but it bears repeating, especially for those working on a memoir. For many of us, there are precious words of wisdom tucked away in our memories. Odd and typically quirky, these folksy lines played a subtle yet important role in our childhoods. We ignore them all too often today, because they haven’t been run through a Madison Avenue filter, nor are they used by the relentlessly Mid-western broadcast voices we hear every day.
If we’re lucky, we won’t have much trouble digging them up to share with our own progeny. BUT, we have to commit ourselves to doing so. Memoir writers, on the other hand, have additional opportunities. They can work these gems into their personal histories and leave these verbal riches for posterity.
“Wish in one hand, spit in the other. See which fills up first.”
I’m channeling the wisdom of the diminutive Anna Gunderson Hasdal, the only one of my grand quartet to survive past my third birthday. Doubtless the other three could have provided similar proverbs if they’d only had the chance, and I ache for the memories of them I’ll never have.
Happily, Anna lived a long and bountiful life, and I have many great memories of her. Standing all of 4 foot 10 in her sensible, sturdy, little shoes, Anna left Norway at 18 and sailed to America. She shuffled through Ellis Island at the beginning of the 20th century and made her way to Chicago where she sought her fortune as a housekeeper. She met and married yet another ex-pat Norwegian, and they had four children, one of whom was my late mother.
“Gramma” was a no-nonsense gal, and I dearly wish she could share her wisdom with me and my writing classes today. She could teach me so, so much about a world which no longer exists–the one she grew up in. What she learned about that world, however, still applies to this one.
“What you don’t have in your head, you have in your feet.”
This one annoyed me greatly as a child, because I heard it so often. I hated it because it was true; it’s still true today: forget the car keys? Walk back and get ’em; forget my class notes? Go back and get ’em. Forget the grocery list? Thankfully, parts of my memory still work, and I know I can survive without everything on the missing list. I’ve gotten quite a kick out of using the phrase on my own kids — and with any luck, they’ll use it on theirs, too. We’ll see.
It was true for Anna, and it’s still true for me and my bride. Better still, it requires no explanation.
“We don’t count the food.”
Anna wasn’t the only one to dole out familial wisdom. The above line was one of my dad’s favorite expressions. The third of five boys in his family, they shared a house with their parents plus various aunts and uncles all through the Depression. There’s no doubt in my mind a limited budget demanded that all food be scrupulously accounted for. As an adult, Dad no longer had such concerns, and that provides everything I need to understand.
I seriously doubt my grandmother ever said this, but I can easily imagine her doing it, and I can almost hear that faint Scandinavian lilt in her voice, which was every bit as small and charming as she was. Best of all, this one takes a moment or two to absorb. And, seriously, shouldn’t advice be something one has to think about to appreciate? Otherwise it’s not much more than, “Be careful, or you’ll shoot yer eye out!” Okay, got it. Moving on now, sans BB gun. And self respect. Here’s another my great dame would surely have endorsed:
“Don’t talk unless you can improve the silence.”
If only our elected representatives put this to use! In lieu of that, we must do what we can, and this is prime stuff for a memoir. It’ll go in mine, for sure, one way or another. Which brings me back to the beginning–spend the time it takes to dig up the sayings which got traction in your family.
“Cook ’em; don’t Shermanize ’em!”
This one I remember quite vividly; it was a favorite of my late father-in-law. Long ago, when I dated his youngest daughter, he would dispatch us to the backyard barbecue grill on Saturday nights with that one grand injunction. Saturday night was steak night, and you didn’t want to mess with that man’s favorite meal. Fortunately, we didn’t screw it up too often. Otherwise, I’m not sure I’d have had his blessing when I asked for permission to marry his sweet baby girl.
Please, do your best to capitalize on these things. They may help to keep alive the memories of loved ones long gone. Though the sayings may have been corny, or ungrammatical, or phrased with a degree of color rarely seen today, your memoir will benefit from them. And so will your readers.