Don’t Change the Shirt

February 17, 2022 § 23 Comments

By Janice McCrum

Before I add the cream, I do the test, even though the best-before date says it’s expired. Under the kitchen skylight I give the tall container a shake, then a smell. I know it’s still fresh. Any hint of sourness and I dump it.

“Wouldn’t it be easier and—safer—just to trust the date and throw it out?” asks my daughter.

My mental math confirms that the cream is indeed a few days past the best before date. My eyes meet hers, those big no-nonsense young mother eyes.

“Perhaps,” I answer, “but I’ve learned in my many years that some things outlive their pull dates and what’s printed on the carton doesn’t necessarily mean it’s done.”

But she’s hit that sensitive spot and started my brain spinning. When does something become too old or out of date to write about? When does it need to be shelved? Deleted. When do the cracks become too deep or dry? When does the information in my memoir become obsolete? I’m not thinking of telegrams, party lines, girdles and roll-down car windows. I’m thinking of events that don’t happen anymore. The complicated ones that should never have happened. So obscure and unbelievably shameful no one would understand.

It’s all in the way you tell it, I hear over and over at memoir writing classes. Instructors I admire say it’s the second story that captures your readers, the subconscious one you have no idea you are writing. There will always be something universal and magnetic that lures readers to your words. Life, like art needs to be pondered. Processed and preserved.

I pour the cream into my coffee. Wave the carton in the air, wordlessly asking if she wants to risk it? Years ago, she would have said no, making her point. Today she sighs as she watches me stir the liquid, probably thankful for the few quiet moments away from her energetic family. She inspects my newly coloured brew and adds the cream to hers.

“What’s the state of your memoir Mom? Have you sent it out yet?” She knows the answer but she’s the one who has spent hours, days, more likely months helping me seam my manuscript together over the years ( ten in July) listening to me whine, wail, shred, cut, paste, braid, edit, type, print, rip and salvage my story about her grandmother (I’ll swear a twin of Olive Kitteridge), my journey to South America and a Saturday night error in an Edmonton hospital that still keeps me awake at night, forty years later.

“It’s old news. It doesn’t happen that way anymore.” I stir my coffee again.

She rolls her eyes. “It’s life. Isn’t that what memoir is Mom? You have to forge ahead.”

Maybe she’s thinking about the book I wrote about her children’s early years, the words and pictures of the garbage men lugging all those dirty diapers to their truck; still a favourite read. But we both know the book is out of date because in four years our city now uses bins instead of bags and an automated truck that lifts them, which I’ve also written about in my second children’s book, this time including my grandson and his enthusiasm for Tuesday. Boon Day, he calls it.

“It’s in the details Mom, the way you’ve written the story and the way you tell it. The way the words always pull at my heart. It’s about Granny who deserves to be in print.” My daughter holds her cup under her chin and blows over the rim.

“But you need to be honest and as clear as you can be. Don’t give your reader room to doubt. Did you know that Emil realized right away in The Boon Truck book you wrote, that he was wearing a different shirt even though the story you were telling was taking place on the same day? An illustrator’s error, but you thought it wasn’t important. That no one would notice.”

She pauses. Takes a long drink.

“But Emil did. Right away on the first read. And he’s three years old.”

The furnace fires up again and the grandfather clock bongs the hour.

“So, after all that work, get your story out there. Be brave. It needs to be told. Write it the way you wrote about my girls, those diapers, with the smell, the gloom and Norman, with the sock on his nose.”

“Don’t try to soften things. And don’t ignore the details that matter. In other words, don’t change the shirt.”

“But honestly, the cream? It’s a week past the best before date. Even you have a best before date, Mom.”

She puts her cup in the sink and blows me a kiss.

Janice McCrum, born and raised in Banff, Alberta writes memoir, poetry and travel. An avid cyclist, gardener and retired dental hygienist, she shines at discovering the unusual in the mundane. Her work has been published in The Globe and Mail, Westward (magazine of the Writers’ Guild of Alberta), Vistas of the West (a poetry anthology), Apocryphile Press, Mslexia and other journals. Author of two children’s books, she lives in Edmonton.

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§ 23 Responses to Don’t Change the Shirt

  • Karen says:

    Lovely glimpse at what sounds like lovely mother-adult daughter interactions! Could be another book brewing 🙂

  • In researching a work of fiction, I read a dozen memoirs and the reprinted diaries of Westering women from the nineteenth century. Since then, I have thought a lot about a woman who noted her days’ accomplishments in her diary and total the entry for one day: “cut out skirt.” Some days she churned butter, and every day she would have prepared three meals. She would have baked bread and washed clothing by hand, ironed with a slab of iron heated on a woodstove, Lit that fire and split wood, cared for chickens and milked. Childcare, helping with the birth of a neighbor’s baby, the death of someone’s loved one. She noted many of these things each day. The special accomplishment she noted on one day was cutting out a skirt… it is still valid, her life is still valid and her challenges still matter. At least to me.

  • allisonlane71 says:

    “Perhaps,” I answer, “but I’ve learned in my many years that some things outlive their pull dates and what’s printed on the carton doesn’t necessarily mean it’s done.” Your words touched me so deeply – before I knew it, my tears had welled and that familiar ache in my chest pounded.

  • I love the sound of your daughter. Lucky you.

  • eileen527 says:

    I love this so much, Janice. I love knowing the stories behind the stories you so elegantly allude to. Your daughter’s once smart gal. Can’t wait to see your book in print!

  • This: “I’ve learned in my many years that some things outlive their pull dates and what’s printed on the carton doesn’t necessarily mean it’s done.” is a WONDERFUL and wise line.

  • Nina Gaby says:

    How did you know this was just what I needed this morning? And I echo the above comments about “wise” and “lucky.”

  • Thanks for writing about this. As I write about events that happened 40+ years ago I realize how hard it is to convey my angst of that moment–nobody worries about that stuff anymore. I also recently had the odd experience of a journal wanting to publish something I wrote more than 15 years ago about a breast biopsy. I no longer feel the way I did about those events, but apparently the biopsy material resonates with the editor. You might be surprised that your memoir resonates with today’s readers whether it covers a historical moment (;0 i.e., 40+ years ago) or 15 years ago. BTW, I do the same thing with cream–we and our cream are often good past our ‘sell-by’ dates!

  • lgrizzo says:

    I love the honesty in this piece, one most writers can relate to. It is how you tell the story – and you told this one well.

  • Thanks for your kind words Lisa.

  • Beautiful and hopeful. We all need to hear this, absorb it and forge on 🙂 Thank you.

  • Richard says:

    Dang! My “Best Before” date and has come and gone. I wasn’t even aware at the time what a momentous date it was. Or has it? Maybe the best is yet to come. There is no sourness in me so that is a promising taste test.

    Great piece of introspectiveness. Gives food for thought for all readers. You can feel the unspoken communication between mother and daughter in between the verbal jousting. These days I don’t drink coffee. Well maybe once a year I’ll taste what Juan Diaz keeps promoting. However, the above written work has me longing for the days when coffee and conversation were mainstays of my weekends.

    I enjoyed the read Janice. Look forward to the next. And the picture was lit also.

  • I enjoyed reading this…thank u for this

  • Sue says:

    Someone’s story is always relevant, whether it’s to teach a new generation about the past, or to connect with writers who can understand. Regardless, it’s most important to tell the story for you and your loved ones.

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