Essay and drawing copyright 1994 by Barrie Maguire
Imagine that you are visiting your mother's house and you're poking around up in the attic when you come across a dusty shoe box tucked under the eaves, a box you don't remember from earlier forays into your past. Curious, you open the box to find that it is filled with sheets of yellowing stationery, each sheet covered with your grandmother's elegant handwriting. As you take out the top sheet you are already imagining her quiet, quavering voice, But when you begin to read it is the voice of a younger woman you hear. You read her simple prose; she is peering into the eyes of her tiny daughter, born that very morning.
She hasn't settled on a name yet, she refers to the infant as Baby Girl, but she lists the names under consideration. In the middle of the short list you find your mother's name.
Entranced, you dig further and find a childhood memory about your grandmother's grandmother: Grandmama is in the cellar, it reads, it is wash day, and the outer cellar door has been unlatched and opened outward and sunlight is sliding into the stony-grey dampness of the cellar. There are soap stone tubs and a wash board, and homemade soap, yellowish-tan and cut in rectangles, drying on shelf paper made from newspapers. As the children play, running in and out between the cellar and the back yard, Grandmama works and works and works. Finally she carries the basket of clean clothes up the steps and out into the yard. Rope has been tied from trees to poles back and forth. Grandmama never seems angry or annoyed when the children follow her around. At the end of the day the wash is all down, the clothes line rolled up, the outer door closed again and the cellar clean, dark and empty.
A third story describes five weeks of barely-suppressed terror that your grandmother endured during the last summer of the war; five long weeks when, without warning or explanation, the daily letters from her young husband--your grandfather--suddenly stopped arriving.
A treasure! A treasure from the past. Would you trade this box of writings for any novel you've ever read? For any movie you've ever seen?
Then why aren't you writing down your life?
"But we've taken tons of pictures," you say, "we've videotaped the baptisms, the birthday parties, the vacations."
"So what," I say. "What have you written?"
"A picture is worth a thousand words," you say.
Wrong. I'm suggesting a far more ambitious payoff than pictures could ever deliver. Consider this: what if we could explain ourselves to our children? And to their children? What if we could explain how our lives changed after they were born, or what it was from our childhood that we tried to duplicate--or eliminate--in theirs, or even what went wrong with their parent's marriage. Or what mistakes we really regretted, what our secret joys were, why we cried for them, or for ourselves; how we felt when they got in trouble at school, or when we rushed them to the emergency Room, or when their kitten died.
What if we wrote down on paper our ideas, our secrets, our lives. And what if the things we wrote were so stupid, so embarrassing, that we never showed them to anyone. What if we just hid them away in a desk drawer, or on a floppy disk, or in a shoe box. And one day, sometime in the twenty-first century, a grown child of ours, or maybe even a grown grandchild, went poking through some attic in search of us...and found our simple words. Could we leave a more dramatic gift to the future? Is this not immortality? Our snapshots and video tapes will be appreciated, they will show what we looked like. But to be understood, to be known, we need to write.
"But what should I write about?" you ask in a last-ditch attempt to avoid your responsibility to the future.
"Just write about what you know," I answer. "Write about you."