~ go to Cape Cod for a week in mid-August, the height of the tourist season;
~ and take a writing workshop on “memoir”.
Truth be told, I signed up for the memoir class because I’ve been toying with the idea of writing a novel for women using the device/format of a fictional memoir. Imagine my surprise when I received an email mid-week to bring with me 5-10 pages of “work in progress” and 3-5 pages of writing that I “love” to share at the workshop.
That requirement sent me scrambling to look over notebooks of what I had written a few years ago, my first attempt at writing a novel of about 65,000 words. It seemed okay but a little tepid and mannered, to be honest. I then began looking for an example of writing that I loved. I still haven’t decided yet what to use. I discovered that what I’ve enjoyed reading (“The Glass Castle,” “Body and Soul”) isn’t necessarily writing that I just love. I’m thinking of Alix Schulman’s memoirs too but haven’t been able to locate them as yet in my library. So the jury is still out on what to pick. It’s kind of amazing that I haven’t been able to glom instantly onto writing that I love. What’s up with that?
So, after I decided nothing I had written so far was anything I wanted to be associated with, I sat down and started typing. Not thinking, just typing. I have resisted the notion of writing about myself and my life for as long as I can remember. Yet, here I was, writing about my childhood in China. Writing about members of my family who made their way in the world a century ago. Along the way, I noticed that I didn’t know very much about them that I could write about except for what I could remember myself.
I had to look up my grandfather on Wikipedia to find out for the first time that he left China as a youth to study at Vanderbilt University in 1914, receiving a Bachelors and Masters degrees. It was family legend that in the 40’s, Vanderbilt gave him an honorary degree but we never understood how that came about. Dwight D. Eisenhower was also honored that day. My grandfather was active in the World Council of Churches while he was Dean of Religion at Peking University. But from Wiki I learned that he was elected one of the Six Presidents of that Council in 1948! Amazing.
What I remember and wrote about in my 8 pages of memoir was how he would make up fairy tale-like stories while holding me on his lap, smoking a cigarette that I would watch in fascination, its tail of ash getting longer until it fell softly onto my clothing as I listened, entranced. I remember my grandmother scolding him when this happened but it was a regular part of our story-telling ritual. I was much loved and coddled as the first grandchild of a favored son. There are snapshots of me dressed snugly in a dark red wool coat trimmed in white rabbit fur with a matching muff. There’s another snapshot of me in a quilted Chinese coat riding a tricycle, a rarity during a wartime of Chinese armies fighting each other and the Japanese at the same time.
So, you can see that this little exercise for a writing class that I’m still tinkering with has spun out a broad net of memory.
The biggest questions I’ve had to myself during all of this is: how did they get from here to there? How did a youth interested in religion get from China to Tennessee and back again? How did he get to London where the World Council of Churches met? How did my Aunt Lucy find her way as a girl in China (but educated as well as the boys in the family,) to writing a dissertation on Henry James for her Ph.D. at the University of Chicago in the 1940’s? When and how did she meet T.S. Eliot and what prompted her to translate his poem, “The Wasteland” into Mandarin?
Hard to believe as it may sound, these questions are just the tip of the iceberg in my family. But I’m not going there just yet. I think that one reason I’ve avoided so prodigiously looking at my family and their legacy is the depth of pain suffered in addition to the fripperies of fame. Both my grandfather and my Aunt suffered harsh treatment during the Cultural Revolution that lasted for decades. I’m also sorry that I didn’t spend more time talking with my grandfather in the 1970’s when I brought my children to Peking before he died at the age of 91.
So much memory. So much achievement. So much pain. People who say glibly: “no pain, no gain” have no idea what they’re talking about.
I don’t think this is what I signed up for in taking this mini-vacation for myself on the Cape. But, Life takes us on paths we may not expect. That I have tried so hard to avoid writing and thinking about my family and now falling into this little memoir exercise is either karmic or, (fill in the blanks.) My eight pages are loaded with memory, good and bad. The outcome of this new path, however, is still an open question.