Love in the Time of Ourselves: Reflections From a Memoir Teacher

March 30, 2020 § 12 Comments

joelleBy Joelle Fraser

The other morning, like tens of thousands of parents, I woke to a message: our children would not be returning to school after spring break. It almost felt like old news. The threat of change had been in the air itself, as real and invisible as the virus that caused it.

I’d taken stock of my situation, the way one does from shore as a storm approaches: single working mother—wildly fortunate to already be an online teacher—of an 8th grade boy with two anxiety disorders and a speech impediment. I imagined the two of us together, sheltered in place, for weeks, maybe months, as the world shuts down around us.


Twenty-five years ago, I wrote a memoir about my childhood in the late 60s and 70s, those freewheeling days in San Francisco and across the bay. I had several stepdads and father figures along the way, and I wrote about the bone-deep ways their lives had marked mine.

But one day, while working on the last chapter, I realized it was my mother and her choices that the book was ultimately about. I had written it because of her.

I’m now a mother myself and a memoir teacher and editor. For five years, every spring, fall and winter, about 20 people take my course, the “Thirty-Minute Memoir,” which I teach through an online school.

What strikes me is even when the memoir is about a year in Andorra, or retiring on a farm, or a life as a jazz musician, the writer’s mother will still be there, her presence moon-like, a faraway pull on her child’s life even when that child is 70 years old and her parents had died decades before.

Sometimes I can see the mother’s presence even if the writer doesn’t, and I might suggest in my comments, Can you go deeper here?

And when they do, I read of mothers who soothe and hover, cook and clean, lie and drink, work and cry; who lament their appearance but are beautiful to the child. They write of women who told stories and sang songs, who protected or looked the other way.

The memories are bright and swift as falling stars on the body. They describe the smell of a wrist, the sound of a car door and whether it signals calm or chaos, the taste of powdered sugar laced over Swedish pancakes. They write of morning rituals, of hummed melodies—and some create the image of arms forever, it seems, folded in anger.

For others, like me, the mother becomes the focus of their book. Many times these mothers will have secrets and mysteries, and some will write their entire memoir about that secret

These writers become detectives writing letters to distant relatives and co-workers, searching ancestry and DNA trails and making pilgrimages to childhood towns and homes. Always searching for more connection, more clues.

And of course fathers will matter, too, profoundly, and many of the writers are writing about them in similar ways. But their imprint is of a different hue.

More and more, I wonder what my son would write about me. From the participants in my course I have found some answers, but only some. He may remember that my patience had its brittle moments, and that I loved to bake but the muffins and breads came from a box. Would he write about the Beatles song I sang to him before bed until he was 13, and how when he hears it as a man he thinks of me and the blackbird singing in the dead of night? Will he remember my love of candles, my curses for tailgaters—the dazzling, summer night skies I woke him to see as we peeked from our warm tent?

Now, home with my son during the reign of the virus, as both teacher and parent, I feel the pressure of my influence even more. But I also sense the wondrous opportunity.

As a reader of others’ memories, I have little advice for mothers, for parents, just this: you will be remembered in ways you cannot imagine. Whole books could be written about how much you mattered, and how deeply you were loved.

Joelle Fraser has two published memoirs (The Territory of Men, 2002, Random House; and The Forest House, 2013, Counterpoint Press). Her essays have been published in several journals, including Crazyhorse, The Hawaii Review, The Iowa Review, Zyzzyva, Michigan Quarterly Review, and Fourth Genre. She lives with her son and five rescue pets in Reno, and is working on her third book. She teaches online at Creative Nonfiction.

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