Awakening Memories to Create Truth

June 10, 2021 § Leave a comment

By Linda Schifino

I’m two years old sitting in my highchair and my mom is feeding me pieces of donuts from a paper bag. I can see her face smiling at me; I can smell the sweet aroma of the donuts each time she opens the bag; I can taste the sugary bits.

Our earliest memories reveal how we tell stories to ourselves and then learn to tell them to others. By reconnecting with events from the past and then, like an archaeologist, excavating additional bits and pieces, we create our version of true stories. But recovering old memories is challenging in that they are often faulty, frequently vague, always contextual.

I find it helpful to start the process of evoking memories by making lists of my recollections using categories such as places, people, sensory memories, and artifacts.  Each of these touchpoints helps to bring forth a memory that can turn into a scene that can create a story.

Place grounds us, so memories are often rooted in place. Visiting a neighborhood, street, or room can return us to a scene. I’ve driven down the street of my childhood home several times in the process of writing. Sadly, most of the buildings are long demolished. Yet, I can envision them – our apartment, the stores, my school.  At one point, I created a floor plan of our apartment, an exercise that unlocked many memories, generating multiple scenes and stories.

It’s also helpful to make a list of people. Family members, friends, neighbors, teachers, can spark the memory of an event. Consider interviewing the people on your list if you can. If not, try to connect with others who knew them. I interviewed the grandchildren of Mr. Corazza, the man who owned our apartment building and the grocery store below. They shared photos and filled in details about the store and the neighborhood, all of which fleshed out my own sketchy recollections.

Often our strongest recollections are connected to senses, like the smell and taste of those donut bits preserving a precious long-ago memory of my mother. Be overt in getting in touch with sensory memories. Ask yourself what your grandmother’s kitchen smelled like. Closing my eyes and thinking back I can conjure up a combination of garlic sizzling in olive and my great-grandfather’s cigars encroaching on the food smell, sensory memories that opened a flood of recollections of Grandma’s house and inspired several scenes in my manuscript.

Artifacts are also key. Newspaper articles, maps, and census records help corroborate recollections and are often easily retrieved online. Personal artifacts can stimulate memories of the people connected to them. The chair your dad sat in, a piece of jewelry your favorite aunt wore, or personal mementos like recipes or letters are all valuable in resurrecting memories.

After my mom died, my sister and I cleaned out her attic. We found boxes of artifacts: her rosaries, old church bulletins, a photo album that held prayer cards memorializing the death of family members, friends, and neighbors (yes, there’s a theme here), and hundreds of photographs. For me, photos have been extremely useful in summoning memories, inviting me to step back into the scene in a process of re-enactment.

Digging through my mom’s boxes of old Polaroids, I found one of my dad and me sitting on a blanket in the park. I look about five years old. I can’t recall the exact event depicted in the photo, but the tenderness in my father’s face places me back in that moment, basking in his love.

When examining photos, we typically zoom in to the central message or main focus. But it’s also valuable to zoom out to examine the background.  In The Art of Memoir, Mary Karr says that, “a single image can split open the hard seed of the past and soon memory pours forth from every direction.” A photo taken the day of my First Holy Communion – squinting into the sun, trying my best to look dignified – resurrects the memory of that day.

Yet the photo also reminds me of my first confession a couple of months earlier when Sister Carmelita dragged me by my braids to the back of the church for singing a popular song by Patti Page instead of a hymn. I can’t imagine what my mother was thinking when she posed me in front of Ursula’s beer store, but I remember the Budweiser sign in the picture’s background. It lit up at night and shone into my bedroom window in our second-floor apartment across the street. Each element of the communion photo splits open a seed.

Memoirists excavate memories by revisiting the places, people, senses, and artifacts that populate our lives.  Each detail gifts us with some essence of our past that can be captured and developed to form a scene, a story, a bit of our truth.

Linda Schifino is a writer living in Pittsburgh. She holds an MFA in Creative Nonfiction from Carlow University where she is also professor emerita of Communication.  Linda is currently writing a memoir describing growing up in an Italian-American enclave in Pittsburgh in the 1950s. She has had essays published or forthcoming in Adelaide Magazine, DoveTales Literary Journal, Northern Appalachia Review, and Voices from the Attic Vol XXIV and XXV.

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