Writing Memory

July 22, 2016 § 23 Comments

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Dina L. Relles

A guest post from Dina L. Relles

On my 36th birthday, I’m meeting a friend for lunch. The car radio is playing and I turn up the volume thinking, that’s all I ask: a good song. Maybe a good cup of coffee.

I’d like something slow, even sad, a ballad that takes me back. I want to suck the marrow from this moment and only let go when I’m good and ready. Which is never.

Somewhere between the Northern State Parkway and Middle Neck Road, I realize I write not—as Joan Didion, as Flannery O’Connor did—to figure out what I think, but to remember what I thought. To take time and memory, fold it eight ways, pressing firmly along the creases, and tuck it away in a pilling hoodie pocket. To preserve a shirt worn, a street walked, a friend seen, spoken to. A snippet of conversation cut too short, a slice of time and space never to be had again.

Is a life lost to all this looking back?


In late May, a month after giving birth, I sit in the quiet of an empty foyer. Inside the reception hall to my left, people fete my father for twenty years at his job. The thump! thump! thump! of the band’s bass line reverberates in my still-sore belly while the baby mercifully sleeps in the stroller. A social worker with a shock of curly brown hair passes, then pulls up a chair at my cocktail table.

“I’ve read your writing,” she says. “What are you working on now?”

I hate this question. Especially after having my fourth child left me feeling like I’ll never work on anything worthwhile again. I mumble some half-thought about creative nonfiction, about mining old relationships for truth and story.

“Why do you write what you do? Why do you write about the past?”

“I’ve always been a hoarder,” I shrug. “The writing is like hoarding memories.”

“Ahh,” she says, making sense of me. “It’s your way of holding on to who you were. It’s how you fight for space in a life all too eager to edge you out.”

Maybe. I’m not so sure.


Time feels slippery these days. No sooner do I take in the sudden maturity behind the eyes of my middle son than he darts into the next room to help his brother with Lego. I follow, one hand wrapped around the thickening thigh of my not-so-newborn. Four children—each chipping away at my attention span, each endlessly running off in a different direction—making it hard to hold fast to…anything at all.

But I’ve never been one to let go. I want anyone who’s ever loved me to love me still, with that same fierceness, that same can’t-live-without love. Even though we’ve all moved on and away. Even though we’re happy where we are now. I lay claim, I take with. If I spend a night, I feel it’s home. If I loved you once, I always will.

This is not the work of motherhood. This is me.

Perhaps, if anything’s changed, it’s that my grip on what’s gone only grows tighter as I leave more and more days behind.


There it is, as I’m pulling in: the first few chords of a song strummed fireside on camp canoe trips so many summers ago. The shaggy slant of teenage boy hair comes into view, the soft fray of too-long sleeves pulled self-consciously over hands, the electric tension of flirtation, unfulfilled.

So is it a life lost to all this looking back?

Or one well-loved? Tattered and torn from overuse, softened by many strokes, smooth and worn. When the world feels cruel and out of control, here, I’ll say. I have this little corner of earth, captured, kept, mine.

Slow build, volume cranked, I push the gearshift into park and close my eyes.

I write this moment into eternity.


Dina L. Relles‘ writing has appeared in The Atlantic, Atticus Review, River Teeth, STIR Journal, Full Grown People, The Manifest-Station, The Washington Post, and elsewhere. A piece of hers was recently chosen as a finalist in Split Lip Magazine’s Livershot Memoir Contest. She is a blog editor at Literary Mama and is at work on her first book of nonfiction. You can find her on Twitter @DinaLRelles.

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