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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.    

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.              

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

Also republished by J Town.


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Comment Preferences

  •  Does a story have to have a form? (27+ / 0-)

    Share your writing fears and joys below.

    Words can sometimes, in moments of grace, attain the quality of deeds. --Elie Wiesel

    by a gilas girl on Tue Sep 25, 2012 at 11:19:53 PM PDT

  •  If I could figure out what (7+ / 0-)

    Is missing from this poll, I'd gripe!

    Such interesting writing and a blessing for the insomniac. Thank you.

  •  Not so sure about this ... (7+ / 0-)
    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 think it is not of a "lesser" form ... more of a "different" form. And the writing in our heads shapes the writing that people eventually read and as such has great value. Some of my best writing is in my head (or in my own mind, perhaps!) and those words surely impact the words that are eventually shared with others.

    Thank you for this thoughtful diary, a gilas girl.

    Words have meaning. Our words will reflect what is in our souls.

    by JanF on Wed Sep 26, 2012 at 03:49:24 AM PDT

    •  I have written (6+ / 0-)

      entire libraries in my head.  


      But I do have a go-to volume of in my head short stories, of which this one has a central place.  In a drunken stupor I once recited all of them, to anyone who would listen.

      (I guess that would make another entry to that volume!)

      thanks for the republish.

      Words can sometimes, in moments of grace, attain the quality of deeds. --Elie Wiesel

      by a gilas girl on Wed Sep 26, 2012 at 06:17:12 AM PDT

      [ Parent ]

      •  AND (3+ / 0-)
        Recommended by:
        a gilas girl, oculus, Thomasina

        dear gawd don't get me started...  i also know i am the repository of stories of my grandmothers, great-grandmothers, mother and feel a certain obligation to them to tell their stories (but tell them slant, as Emily D says) as one of their daughters.   it is the only place in my life where i am still a daughter, and, as i have no daughters of my own, i am the cap to that particular group of women.  so i write their stories, barely recognizable (of course by now no one remembers them but family anyway), and so, their stories are rendered in poems.   and i've done it.  

        my own story?   ah, much harder to render on paper because of all the blood that spills!!!!   LOL    that on-going story gets to 'set' for at least 7 years before i'll attempt to write it.  i want some perspective in place!

        so, for me, any writing that stems from myself, my soul, is written mostly in blank journals in one lines.   eventually i go gather them up and see if i can make something with them.  

        ps.  this post was not edited.   that's usually not a good thing.   ;-)

        "From single strands of light we build our webs." ~kj

        by kj in missouri on Wed Sep 26, 2012 at 09:20:42 AM PDT

        [ Parent ]

    •  agree with JanF (3+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      a gilas girl, oculus, Thomasina

      on the concept of what we write in our heads is the iceberg that informs the tips, those pieces that actually break through the surface onto paper.

      i have an ongoing mythology that informs basically, yeah, everything i think, notice and live (and paint.)  at one time i thought i could write the story, but i'm realizing over time that maybe if i live to be 90, that might happen.  but not now...  because i'm living it.   so what i do actually write down on paper or the computer are merely pieces of that big mandala that is life as this writer sees it.

      it is my informing myth.  lens. whatever i want to call it.  

      "From single strands of light we build our webs." ~kj

      by kj in missouri on Wed Sep 26, 2012 at 09:11:13 AM PDT

      [ Parent ]

  •  My sister (5+ / 0-)

    had a similar experience. Her first name, middle initial and last name are the same as our grandmother's, who died a few months before my sister was born. When she was six my dad took her to see her grandmother's grave, without warning her about the name situation. Six was old enough to read her name on the headstone, and my sister completely freaked out. She had nightmares about being buried alive for weeks after that. My mom was SO mad at my dad, if he'd told her that's where he was taking her she would have prepared my sister for that. It didn't even cross his mind to do so.
    She knew she had been named after her, but she hadn't realized that only the middle name was different, and even that was the same initial (and the middle initial was all that was on the stone, not the full middle name).

    A story has to have a form, but that form can vary greatly. There is much to be said for the oral tradition of story telling. That said, I write mine down mostly, though after I've hashed them out first in my mind. Sometimes I'll put notes on my thoughts down in paper simply so I don't forget something, but that's generally with longer works.

    "Madness! Total and complete madness! This never would've happened if the humans hadn't started fighting one another!" Londo Mollari

    by FloridaSNMOM on Wed Sep 26, 2012 at 06:28:57 AM PDT

  •  Great diary! It reminds me of a passage (3+ / 0-)

    in Thomas Flanigan's Year of the French, in which a hedge poet, a man who has memorized all the poetry of all the Irish poets before him before he has earned the right to compose his own verse, is thinking about poetry.  I can't find the passage now, but it runs something like, "The real poems were mysterious things, flashing in the mist, evanescent."

    The reality in your head will never quite match what comes out on paper.  The paper version loses the context, the mind colors, the mysterious forge whence ideas form.  At best it can be a pale reflection.

    Is it hard work to bring that paper version as close to the mental one as possible? Sure thing.  Is it worth the effort?  Ah, that's the rub.

    "I speak the truth, not as much as I would, but as much as I dare, and I dare a little the more, as I grow older." --Montaigne

    by DrLori on Wed Sep 26, 2012 at 12:26:02 PM PDT

  •  Fascinating diary! Some day, I would like (3+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    kj in missouri, a gilas girl, mimi

    to write about my paternal grand-mother. She was born in 1885 in London, England.When she was five years old her mother took her to an orphanage and left her there. I guess she just couldn't take care of her any longer, we really don't know much about it.
    At that time a Dr. Bernardo was arranging for orphans to be taken to families in Canada to be adopted and my grandma was one of these children. They were called "Home Children".
    Some of them found good, loving homes but many were abused and used as free labour. There was a terrible stigma attached to being a home child. In fact, no one in the family knew this about her until after she had been dead for many years. Her oldest daughter began researching the family tree and discovered all this. It was quite a shock!
    Grandma left her adoptive family and struck out on her own at the age of sixteen. She married Grandpa and had eight children. She also had many joys and sorrows along the way.
    I really don't remembe her well, I was only 5 or 6 when she died.
    It breaks my heart to think of that little girl being left alone and then making that long difficult journey across the ocean.
    I wish I could talk to her today and tell her that I love her and admire her courage and tenacity. I hope her life was happy in spite of everything.

    You cannot cross the sea merely by standing and staring at the water. Rabindranath Tagore

    by Thomasina on Wed Sep 26, 2012 at 01:04:42 PM PDT

  •  Beautiful diary (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    kj in missouri, a gilas girl

    I have so many stories I've begun and never finished, but you're right there is one overall narrative story that I've written in my head a million times. The equivalent of my own "Remembrance of things Past."

    Beautiful and evocative writing agg! Thanks!

    In our sleep, pain which cannot forget falls drop by drop upon the heart until, in our own despair, comes wisdom through the awful grace of God ~RFK

    by vcmvo2 on Wed Sep 26, 2012 at 03:57:37 PM PDT

  •  Amazing how you reflect upon yourself and your (0+ / 0-)

    mother and express it. I wished I could read your go-to volume ... and your signature line just got another additional meaning after reading your diary. I think you just had a moment of grace ...

    I can't help now to tell you a story, very much OT, but it came back reading your diary and now I can't get rid of it in my mind. This is a story I have just heard one sentence of and would like to know so much more about. My mind often tries to imagine what is missing and unknown but I can't come up with anything ... I am a blank sheet thinking about it.

    My husband, after we had separated for some time, went  back to his home village to visit his mother's grave - he hadn't been at home for several years and always had long time intervals  between his visits to his country, where he was born. Many died away during his absence. He didn't seem to have any relationship with any of his family members when he was out of the country, but picked the relationship up, after years of having missed to exchange any words with them, just as if he had seen them just yesterday.

    When he arrived in his village, he found aside from the gravestone of his mother (and his father, I believe) another grave stoneone with his name on it.

    All I heard about it is him saying way later and only by chance and haphazardly that he has seen his own gravesite stone with a short sentence on it saying that he ("fill in his name here") is resting here.

    When he told me that in one short sentence with a half shrugging, half bitter little laugh, I stared at him in disbelief. According to the second sentence he added, he asked his only surviving older brother, who has a relative position of power in his country, to remove the stone and please wait to put him into a grave until he is really dead and has his corpse at hand for real.

    I didn't ask any further question, because it was clear he never would say anything else about it. But I just wonder how he must feel about knowing that someone in his family had declared him dead and buried him with a stone though I think they hadn't exchanged much words for just a couple of years or so.

    Now my mind can't stop thinking about how one can deal with an experience like that.

    It's just that your story brought this back into my mind again and I hope that one day in my life I still get an opportunity to learn from him what this was all about. But I guess he won't allow that to happen. I so much would like to understand this story. If I just had enough imagination. The story scares me.

    •  Your story makes me think of all those (0+ / 0-)

      melodramatic Southern women who could fling out the phrase "you are dead to me" to loved ones who had disappointed them.

      But it is an evocative event that does make one want to spin a story around it, hmm?

      Thanks for adding to thing to think about.

      Words can sometimes, in moments of grace, attain the quality of deeds. --Elie Wiesel

      by a gilas girl on Thu Oct 04, 2012 at 12:06:26 PM PDT

      [ Parent ]

  •  Sorry I missed this earlier. (0+ / 0-)

    This is really great.  I also enjoy the paradox of a written description of an unwritten story, essentially the telling of non-telling.

    I don't have any written fiction for exactly the reasons you've laid out here.  I love the period when a good story starts heavily percolating - when the details and structure become so specific I can almost taste them - but they never make it to the written page with the same taste, and the bitterness turns me off.  I envy people who can write and, having written, recognize their original thoughts in the language they produce.

    Saint, n. A dead sinner revised and edited. - Ambrose Bierce

    by pico on Thu Sep 27, 2012 at 08:44:00 PM PDT

    •  I can't decide if (0+ / 0-)

      I'm a coward or an idealist because of that dilemma.

      Some folks might just call me "lazy".  Thanks for stopping by, no matter when...

      Words can sometimes, in moments of grace, attain the quality of deeds. --Elie Wiesel

      by a gilas girl on Thu Oct 04, 2012 at 12:07:28 PM PDT

      [ Parent ]

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