In my Composing the Self class, we are exploring the genre of memoir and the rhetorical frames that we create when writing about memory. The power of the memoir lies in its ability to create vivid moments of identification, those experiences, scenes, and choices that readers can connect to their own lives, or imagine themselves in. In fact, Richard Burke in A Rhetoric of Motives asserts that there is an inherent human need to identify and connect, building a social cohesion through shared symbolic action—language, narratives, stories, images. The memoir works to rhetorically “induce actions” (Burke 41) through the identification of life experience, rather than more standard forms of argument.
But how do we avoid the danger of self-indulgence? As Henry Louis Gates, Jr. puts it in “Lifting the Veil,” writing the memoir is automatically an act of “indulging yourself in your own sentimentality” (108). Memory is subjective, influenced by our state of mind, our knowledge, our age and wisdom and later experiences, and it changes the further we move away from the initial experience. Yet memory is central to the memoir, and the “truth” of memory is central to a reader’s ability to identify it. We need to simultaneously access that truth and guard against sentimentality and navel-gazing. “A memoir is all about the unfolding of your ego, and you need to deflect your presence. You’re center stage but you need to move yourself to the periphery” (Gates, Jr. 109).
Memory is also associational, stored in fragments throughout the cortex, and so as an exercise in inducing those associations to better access the “truth” of our memories, I had my students create Memory Boxes.
The memory box consists of a number of tangible items—in the case of our exercise, a minimum of five—that somehow connect to the subject of our short memoirs (about a single event in our lives). Each item provides an opportunity to access memories through the sensory associations that object brings: smell, touch, sight, sound, taste. I’ve decided to do this exercise along with my students, and to write a short memoir of the last visit I had with my father before he passed away.
Because I already know what I will write my short memoir about, I chose objects that helped me dig into some memories about my dad that were perhaps too painful at the time to consider, but which were there beneath the surface nonetheless. For those writers not yet sure on a subject, selecting objects from a specific time period, or connected to a specific person, can act as catalysts for discovery and idea generation.
After my dad passed in the spring of 2014, I travelled back to Washington in the summer to settle his estate. There, digging through his material life, I discovered items that I’d forgotten about, and some that I’d never seen before. The few I describe here evoked memories that helped me return to and better understand my last visit with my dad.
Blue Star Construction
The first object in my memory box is the Blue Star Construction business card my dad gave me a few years ago when he and I reroofed my house together. That memory alone is a good one, where, after decade, we worked together on a roof one last time. The business card has sat where I first dropped it, right next to my keyboard, and it was the first thing of his that I saw the night I learned of his death.
Looking at it even now, I am instantly transported back to that moment. I had talked to my dad on the phone two days earlier, told him how my daughters and wife were doing. The conversation had lasted only about ten minutes before he finally apologized and said he had to go. By then his pain was nearly intolerable, even with the high dose of synthetic morphine he was taking, and he just sounded worn out. Done. I remember hanging up the phone then and feeling this dark sinking in my body. I knew it wouldn’t be long, and so I started looking up flights, thinking about heading up to Washington on the weekend. I was actually looking at a flight, preparing to book it, Friday night around 9:00pm, when my cell phone rang. My aunt’s name was on the caller ID, and I knew. I knew. “Mark died,” was all she said.
And there, silent, the phone pressed against my ear, I noticed his business card.
Vertical print instead of horizontal, blue (his favorite color), with a rainbow crossing through it. Totally unprofessional, made using an old Microsoft template no doubt, but such a reflection of my dad. It made me smile then, despite the shock of knowing that he was truly gone, and it makes me smile now, because just this little card, his only form of advertising, evokes so many memories: roofing with him in the summers, listening to classic rock on the radio as he quizzes me on band names; long conversations about nature, about life and the way that each of us approaches it every day.
The tagline at the top sums up what roofing meant to my dad: “Referred by your neighbors in Lewis Co. for over 30 years.” Roofing was more than a job, more than a career to him. It was his entire network of social relationships. He never lacked for work, and he never advertised—it was all referrals, all word of mouth, and through this old-world network my dad was able to tap into the vibrant interconnected web of families, marriages, divorces, affairs, births and deaths, success and failures that was the rural, backwoods county in which he lived.
I found his old Bushnell binoculars in his room as my brother and I cleaned it out. They’re heavy die-cast metal, made in the Sixties and still strong as ever. They won’t break if you drop them—trust me, I know. He’s had them as long as I’ve been alive, and in old photo albums I’ve found them hanging from his neck.
The smell of the case is musty, reminding me of our old shop and the mildewed tents and backpacks stored in there, which in turn reminds me of camping and backpacking in the damp woods of Washington. Trips to Hurricane Ridge, Pinnacle Peak, Soda Springs and Ohanapecosh in the Rainier wilderness; Clear Creek and Mt. Adams, the Olympic Peninsula. My dad took us all over the place on the weekends we stayed with him, and these Bushnells were always there, spying out Osprey and deer and girls camping across the lake. They represent adventure and peering into the distance to bring close that which seems so far away.
A Harmonica, an Accordion, and a Ukulele.
My dad loved music of all kinds. He listened to the radio, and later mix tapes and mix CDs I sent him, all day long as worked on the roof. He liked to play instruments as well, though he never mastered any of them. He was the best at the harmonica, able to perform more complex runs and riffs with it, and there was always one around—in his truck, on his desk, even in his tool box. I can remember at a very young age blowing away at the harmonica, probably making an awful racket, but he never told me to quiet down and always encouraged more. When I brought his go-to harp, the Marine Band G, out to photograph for this post, my daughter immediately snatched it up and started playing it, blowing in and out in discordant harmonies. I thought that would be a good way to represent this instrument.
The instrument that defined my dad, however, the one that cousins and friends would always ask about, was the accordion. He was pretty good at that one, too, and since he’d played piano as a kid (my grandma was a piano teacher), he could do a lot with it in jam sessions. The accordion is such a strange instrument, reeds and keys and abrasive tones. I picked it up and messed around with it, and my daughter shook her head emphatically “no.” But as I found some of the buttons that my dad had marked out with drops of putty, I suddenly heard those chords that he’d played when we jammed, and, despite having no real skill at the instrument, I was able to recreate the generic rhythm and riff that my dad would play whenever he strapped the thing on.
A flood of memories came in, simultaneous and ragged, of jamming with cousins at my grandparent’s house, of listening to my dad late at night in front of the fireplace, of the echo in the dark evergreens as my dad laid down the rhythm for my brother and me to solo over on flute and guitar as we sat around the campfire. My dad was always reveling in the joy of creation, even if it wasn’t perfect and it didn’t always work, and as I stood in my living room, fumbling through the keys while the accordion bellows wheezed, I think I understood the release that this strange, unique instrument brought him.
The last instrument is one that I never saw my dad play; I didn’t even know he owned it. Shoved in the back of a closet beneath down sleeping bags was this high quality baritone ukulele and case. His girlfriend told me that he had heard the “Over the Rainbow” song on American Idol and decided he wanted to learn to play that.
That was my dad. Impulsive, optimistic, a dreamer. There was a DVD, “How to Play the Ukulele,” still in its cellophane packaging. I knew without a doubt that he knew without a doubt that one day he’d play song. So I’ve decided that I’ll learn to “Over the Rainbow,” no matter how much I hate that song. This uke will remind me that my dad was not just a father, but a man with a life beyond me, a concept that is sometimes difficult for children to understand.
Which leads me to the…
Most of my dad’s stuff was crammed into this outdoor shelter, a pre-fab canvas tent that you see advertised on late night infomercials, usually as carports. His was more of a storage shed, and deep in the back, behind his skis and tools and backpack was this unstrung, wood-laminate S-curve bow.
Where the hell did he get it? Why? His girlfriend had never seen it.
When I was twelve years old, I desperately wanted a wooden long bow, just like this one I had found. Leading up to Christmas that year, I kept talking about how much I wanted this bow, and my parents kept adamantly assuring me it wasn’t going to happen. Yet on Christmas morning, behind the tree, I saw a tall, narrow wrapped present that I assumed could only be my long bow. I savored the anticipation, unwrapping everything but this final gift, and when the living room was filled with crumpled paper and bows and ribbons, my dad said, “There’s one more for you behind the tree, Morgan.”
I could barely contain myself as I took up the package, wrapped in a different paper that I instantly knew was my dad’s. But as soon as I tore off the paper, my stomach sunk. It wasn’t a long bow. It was a package for an aluminum framed netted backstop, meant to help with my accuracy in throwing a baseball.
I’m ashamed even now recalling this, but I threw a fit, crying in disappointment and saying how much I hated baseball. Even then I could see the hurt it caused my dad, but he said nothing.
Standing in his storage tent, looking down at that bow, the bow I always wanted and that he inexplicably had, I felt a punch in the gut of regret. Certainly when your father dies, regret is part of the waves of emotion you feel, but this was acute, specific to that Christmas morning in 1992. I’d never apologized to my dad for my ungracious, snotty outburst, and the regret was so strong that I had to sit down.
Did he see it at a yard sale, remember that Christmas, and buy with the intent of giving it to me? Was it just another impulsive purchase? I’ll never know, but this bow, which I took back with me down to California, will forever be a tiny window into that unknown life of my father’s.