Memoir Writing and Feeling the Heat

I’m having one of those really bad weeks, and I actually had to bring work home with me tonight. Since I do all of my writing at lunch (no time today) and at night (brought work home)…well, let’s just say that this (the kids table in the playroom where I usually set up my lap top – don’t ask – I just like it) is not where the magic happens at the moment. This is where the boring, tedious work happens. The whole working for a paycheck thing is really inconvenient sometimes.

Luckily enough – I just happen to have something really wonderful to post. Something that I didn’t have to write. My Aunt Jan, my mother’s sister, visited last weekend. One of the million things we talked about was memoir writing. As a teacher, she often attends conferences and workshops, and this past summer took a workshop on memoir writing. This is what prompted me to devote Materialistic Monday to Love, Loss and What I Wore. It also gave her a reason to show me a piece that she wrote for her workshop. It’s beautiful, and I want to share it. It inspires me to write more about my own life before work, kids and Must See TV. It inspires me to write something other than the ironic anecdotes that have become my comfort zone. It inspires me to write. Period.

Feeling the Heat
by Aunt Jan (AKA Janice Marsili)

Outside the school window, the thermometer reached 90 degrees before 11:00 AM, and rainbows shimmered in the hot moist air over the recently-watered soccer field. Inside the classroom, most of my seventh graders lay draped over their desks complaining about the school’s air-conditioning system, except for Tommy Chapman. Tommy, whose mother always sent him to school prepared, held a small, battery-operated fan close to his face and bragged that he was the only one in the class who wasn’t hot. Joey and Anthony Santucci, brothers who were both in the seventh grade since Joey had stayed back, took Tommy’s fan, and were throwing it to each other over his head. Tommy, in a fit of rage, jumped up and down trying to take it back, and screeched for me to “Do something!” between each jump.

The girls folded notebook paper into fans that the boys grabbed, turned into paper airplanes, and began winging around the room. I turned off the overhead lights and raised my hand, our signal for attention, and finally, everyone, including a still-protesting Tommy, went back to their seats. I knew that my chances of successfully teaching an art lesson were slim, so I began to tell them how hot the middle school of my youth would often get on June days. “I know that you’re hot,” I told them, “But this is not the same heat that anyone over fifty felt as a child.”

“What do you mean?” asked Jillian Armitage, the most inquisitive student in the class. Jimmy O’Conner, who was the class clown, rolled his eyes and smacked his forehead.

“Now you’ve done it Jillian! She’s going to tell us the story of life before air conditioning.” And he slammed his head down onto his desk with the type of exaggerated despair that only a seventh grade boy can express.

“Yes, I am Jimmy,” I said. “Because maybe hearing it will stop some people from whining.” With that, he raised his head just long enough to roll his eyes once more, and then let it spiral back down to his desk which it hit with a bang.

Later that night, I replayed the events of the day in my mind, and remembering Jimmy’s performance, I asked myself why I had really wanted to tell my tale of past heat suffering. Why would I want to revisit it? Could it be that I actually had some nostalgia for that sweat-soaked world? Was there anything from that life that could possibly be better than sitting in my sealed ice box of a den watching television with my husband?

I thought back to summers when I was a child. The post-war development of Cape Cod houses that we lived in was filled with children. There were several families with six or more siblings who slept in the finished attics of the little homes. I loved these dormitories of multiple bunk beds that we turned into slides or used as the underpinnings of tents, but not in the summer. When the hot sun began to beat on the roofs of our neighborhood without the shade of any large trees to cut its heat, we children fled our attic bedrooms.

We ran across the biggest street to “the woods,” where we spent the day riding our bikes down dirt paths, or playing tag or dodge ball. Finding our way back home for lunch, we rested in the shade near our homes for an hour or two into the hottest part of the afternoon. I usually read, but you could always find a game of Candy Land, Go Fish, or, if you were older, Monopoly or Canasta….sometimes a secret game of poker in the Lynch’s basement if their mother, who was always pregnant, was taking a nap.

Life speeded up as dinner time approached. Fathers would be coming home and meals had to be prepared. This is where we really learned to stand the heat. In tiny kitchens decorated with apple wallpaper we set tables, peeled potatoes and stirred sauces. Ovens were turned on despite the heat and the air in those rooms became so moistly thick and heavy that I often imagined I was looking at my mother and sister through a fog.

After dark, all of the families on the street would escape onto the small screened-in porches that were connected to each house. Sitting on the cool concrete floor of our porch, I would read with my flashlight, and look up to see the glowing points of the cigarettes being smoked by my friends’ fathers all the way up the block. I wouldn’t know this was bad for them until years later, when some of them, including my own father, died of lung cancer, but back then, as I watched the small points of light moving slowly back and forth, it was just another familiar part of the life we all shared.

We could hear our neighbors back then. I recognized the voices of each of my friends’ parents and I heard their children giggling and roughhousing until someone’s father would have enough of the noise and would rumble for quiet. Soon the flashlights and candles would be snuffed out, and one by one, the families would return inside until the entire neighborhood went dark.

My sister and I went up to our attic room to lie down, but not to sleep. The heat of the day hid high in the rafters above us, and the air outside was still too hot to make any difference as it blew over us, sucked in by the exhaust fan in the window at the far end of the room. Our white sheets glowed hot in the dark. We lay still. We talked.

We told each other about the books we were reading. I was always talking about Gone With the Wind. “What do you think happened to Scarlett? Once I said that I really liked a character in my book named Step Hen. My sister laughed and laughed and then told me that it was Stephen, and I got mad.

Sometimes we sang the French songs she had learned at school, and then she would tell me what they meant. “Dit te moi, pourquoi, la vie est belle…. Tell me why life is beautiful.” Or I told her jokes that she pretended to think were funny.

“Knock, Knock.”

“Who’s there?”

“Who.”

“Who, who?”

“I didn’t know you were an owl!” and she laughed.

And then, as the room grew cooler, she always drifted off to sleep before me. I lay listening to the sound of the Katy Dids in the woods across the street. “Katy Did, Katy Didn’t, Katy Did, Katy Didn’t.” I could hear their scratching rising and falling above the soft thunder of the fan. I timed my breaths to the rhythm of their song. Then I closed my eyes, and slept.

My sister and I both have children who grew up sleeping in their own air conditioned bedrooms. They played video games together and still trade lines from The Simpsons and Seinfeld, but they didn’t lie awake together in the dark hot nights of summer. Theirs was not the same heat.

8 thoughts on “Memoir Writing and Feeling the Heat

  1. Christy

    Wow this was great – her descriptions are so vivid I felt like I was right there with her – and I wanted to read more. I see that writing is a family trait. Tell your Aunt Jan thanks for contributing to your blog – loved it. And, sorry to hear you’re having a tough week – at least we’re close to the weekend now…

    Reply
  2. csquaredplus3

    I too am sorry your week is bad. Nothing is worse than working at night, especially when free-time is so limited and precious.

    Your Aunt’s writing is lovely. I can see how it inspires you.

    Reply
  3. Vodka Mom

    That was fantastic writing! I love the idea of memoir writing. I thought about it often this summer when I was visiting with my mother’s hysterical sisters. I need to get together with them and have them share their stories!

    great post.

    Reply

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