Good old Toronto – from spring to blazing summer in 60 seconds. Today, 31 degrees, “feels like 36,” they say, though it didn’t to me, I didn’t even turn on my air conditioning. Definitely hot and muggy, though, and the sky is rumbling and clouds are moving in. Loud cracks of thunder. My neck is okay. It has made me conscious of mortality.
I’ve resolved to make Sundays a day for reading, clean-up and research instead of writing work. Taught a make-up class this morning, and then dove into some of the stacks of letters I inherited from Mum. I just can’t throw them away till I check them out – for example, a series of flirtatious letters written in 1948 from my mother working in post-war Germany to the handsome Yank she’d fallen in love with four years before, who was back in NYC about to launch a Ph.D. She assures him that she is surrounded by adoring men (“We had quite a party last night and I played Gin Rummy till 3 a.m. with a Czech and a Pole”) but that she is waiting for his letters, and then, eventually, that she is going to sail to New York for a short visit to him and her recently emigrated sister – and, incidentally, that she’ll need to borrow $100 when she arrives. Thank heavens he lent it to her, and she stayed!
A 1949 letter from my British grandmother to her daughter, who has announced that she might stay in New York and marry the young man in question. “I don’t care for the idea
and nor does Pop,” she writes, “of a Jew and an American – the latter because it means your
home will certainly be so far from us always, and two gone is a bit much! The
former because you might at some future time become one of the “stateless” ones
– we none of us can tell how politics, wars etc. are going to affect us, but it
is a fact that in times of stress, the Jews seem fated to become someone’s
My grandmother was not anti-Semitic. She simply didn’t know any other Jews, and was worried about her daughter – this was just after the horrors of WWII, after all. I found out that in 1950 my safely married and now pregnant mother considered leaving NYC to sail home to London to have her baby there. I wonder what my life would have been like with a British passport instead of an American?
And so it continues. A chore and a gift, all this paper.
The wonderful Ian Brown has an article in the Saturday “Globe” about the fate of photography in this world of ubiquitous camera-phones – he was asked to judge a photography competition with hundreds of entries and found not a single winner, because though the shots were technically good, none told a story. “A story,” he informs us, “is a cohesive account of events in which something is at stake – a beginning, middle and end tied together with characters, scenes and details (long shots, mid-shots, closeups) that lead to a climax and resolution (or not.)”
That’s about as succinct a definition as I’ve ever read, and one I’ll pass on to my students. That’s exactly what we’re looking for, both Mr. Brown the photography judge and I, the memoir teacher.
And here, from the same “Globe,” is Neil Gaiman from his latest novel (which sounds wonderful) “The Ocean at the End of the Lane” – “Childhood memories are sometimes covered and obscured beneath the things that come later, like childhood toys forgotten at the bottom of a crammed adult closet, but they are never lost for good.”
Good to know. Of course, losing childhood memories is not so much of a problem for those of us blessed (cursed) with a mountain of archival paper, illuminating the past.