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Please begin with an informative title:

Tools of the trade, or merely nostalgia?
I want to tell you about two short stories, neither of which were ever actually written, at least not in any lasting format. Each of these stories has many offspring, and they've been oft told. The fact of their not-written-ness does not render these stories unreal; simply without form.

Interestingly, the biographical events that gave rise to these stories did occur, and do have form.  So perhaps it is best to begin there.

In the southeastern corner of Rutherford County, North Carolina there is a Baptist Church called High Shoal Baptist Church. Both my maternal grandparents, as well as all four of my maternal great grandparents are buried in this cemetery, along with all the infant and toddlers of those couples who died as children. They are all buried in the same plot.  I have only been to this cemetery once, on the occasion of my grandmother's funeral, the day we laid her to rest. My grandmother was the last to be placed in this plot. With her burial, the plot was closed. It was, finally, complete.

For my mother and her siblings, however, the cemetery was not a new experience. As children they had been brought there every Memorial Day by their mother, to clean up the grave site of their father, who had died in an industrial accident in 1945, on the floor of the textile mill where he was an electrician. The yearly trip to High Shoal was an elaborate endeavor. The cemetery lies some 13.2 miles from the town where they lived, and as a widow with 7 surviving children, my grandmother did not own a car. The trip had to be planned, arranged with a friend or family member, along with the yard tools, potted flowers and usually food for the entire family to eat while on their errand. Once there, it was the children's task to pick the weeds from the gravesite, while my grandmother and her eldest daughter arranged all the flowers that they would have brought with them.

Before he had wed my 16 year old grandmother, my grandfather -- at the time an older man of 21 years, had already been married once. His first wife had died at the age of 19, one day after having given birth to a daughter who had lived for only a few hours. Both my grandfather's first wife and his infant daughter were also buried in the High Shoal Cemetery, though not in the plot where my grandparents and great grandparents rest. His first wife, T and their infant daughter, M, were buried on the other side of the road, closer to the church, but on the slope of the hill, with small stone markers that most likely reflect my grandfather's economic status at the time of their deaths. But those graves carry the same last name as the name on the majority of the stones in my family's plot.

During these yearly treks to the family cemetery, my grandmother always insisted that her children tend not only their father's, and then later their grandfathers' graves, but also these two, non-adjacent but nonetheless still family gravestones. This task often fell to the younger of the children, if nothing else they needed the exercise that running across the road and down the hill would bring. And perhaps, it was just easier for my grandmother that way. As the youngest daughter, my mother was nearly always one of the ones sent to do the work on these two gravesites. Ironic in many ways, because my mother, as the youngest daughter, had also been named for this child of my grandfather's first marriage, the one who died.  So her task was to clean and tend the gravestone that had her own name on it. Her younger brothers teased her unmercifully once they were old enough to understand what the name upon that stone was.  

Now today in these days of Google and Facebook, it is perhaps not so unusual to come across people who share a name with you. But in the late 1940's coming face-to-face with this phenomenon was somewhat less commonplace. Granted, the practice of naming a child after a child who has died has a long history, at least among the descendants from the inhabitants of the British Isles. The British in particular seem to relish the use of just a handful of names, if my forays into genealogy are any indication. What is, perhaps most rare about this situation, however is the fact that my mother's name was neither an attractive nor popular one for that era. It was a name out of time by the time she was born, and a name that she had always hated. But every year she was reminded of just why that was her name, so that these trips to the cemetery seemed to carry more meaning for her than for any of her other siblings. Or at least this is what she came to feel, as she used to tell her own children when she shared this story with them once she was, herself a parent. And thus did we, her daughters, learn to identify and even experience in some ways, the strange and sometimes scary "honor" that was also something of a horror for a sensitive young girl of 8 or 9.    


You must enter an Intro for your Diary Entry between 300 and 1150 characters long (that's approximately 50-175 words without any html or formatting markup).

My mother had always wanted to write. For many years she was too tired, or busy or frightened to do anything more than want it. By the time her children were grown, she began to dabble, writing stories in her head and sometimes even actually writing them down in her journal. I know that she did, at some point write them down because when one of my cousin's daughters was born and her parents had named the girl "Molly", my mother said to me, "I like that name. That's the name of the girl in my stories". So I knew that somewhere in my mother's journal was a story of a girl named Molly who saw her own name on a gravestone. And I noted that she had picked a name that was neither old fashioned nor unattractive as she had always believed her own name to be. So she fashioned a story of a young girl who had to deal with the strange contradiction her own mother had thrust her inside of: forcing her to confront her own mortality at such an early age, forced to think about herself, not as a little girl running and jumping and playing with her siblings, but as a little girl who died. Asking herself if she was simply a replacement, and then engaging in the rituals of an existential crisis long before she even knew that such words for it could exist.

Or maybe that story didn't exist.  My mother never actually showed me her "stories". I never knew if she actually wrote them down or not. She never trusted me enough to share them. And I'm pretty sure that the story, even if it did exist, didn't look very much like I just described it.  Because at exactly the moment when my mother was telling me about her story, I was busy writing my own story of exactly the same thing. And I've written that story many times myself. Mostly in my head, but on a couple of occasions I've even written that story in some form down. Sometimes its the story of the little girl, first seeing her name on somebody else's grave. Sometimes it's the story of the little girl who is familiar with that gravestone, and familiar with what it means. Sometimes it's the story of the little girl grown up, telling her own children, or confronting her mixed feelings about her own mother that that story opens up. One time it was a story of an existential crisis, another time it was a story of being her father's favorite child because of that name. After my mother died, it became a story about her gravestone and how we all took care to make sure that her name was no longer the same as the little girl down the hill, and the fights that ensued among us, her children for doing that.

I imagine my mother wrote that story many times, too.  At least she told it many times, and each telling was always somewhat different.  Different in just exactly the ways that a good re-telling is bound to be, as the storyteller, the author, the writer of non-written (and sometimes even written) stories herself changes and comes to understand the events differently. Can we ever actually write the same thing twice?  (Only in academia, perhaps, where people build careers out of republishing the same piece of writing in different packages for as many years as they can get away with it).

People write for many different reasons.  And they don't write for at least as many others. In my mother's case, I've long believed that it was fear that kept her from actual writing. Not fear that the resulting product wouldn't be good, but more a fear that the actual act of writing something would not live up to the idea of writing.  A fear that one can't live up to the sheer grandeur of one's own imagination.

In my own case, the writing and not-writing tango that I choreograph for myself has more to do with my distrust of my motivations: am I writing to find my voice or simply to satisfy my own ego?  There's also the interesting pas de trois between me, my motivations and the giant bugaboo of the "potential" of a topic. For once I start to actually write and remove the subject from the amorphous "potential" that it holds in my mind -- a rather mystical state, I might add -- the potential of the topic fades and it becomes instead, that actual text that never quite lives up to the potential of what it could have been.  And then I feel as if I have done the topic a disservice.

The writing in my head is still my favorite of all my writing, though admittedly it is the least productive, and certainly not to be recognized or valued by anyone but me. I refuse to discount it entirely, however, by letting people tell me that it's not writing.  It is, instead, writing of a lesser form. I can't afford to let it be anything else, because I know it was a form of writing that sustained my mother for many years.  And there's no way I'd agree to minimize that.              

Extended (Optional)

Originally posted to Ungewiss Vor on Tue Sep 25, 2012 at 11:30 PM PDT.

Also republished by J Town.


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