Tag Archives: memoir

Score and a Heart

After weeks and weeks of missing, I flung the poop bag right into the pot! Blam!

It’s a tough shot — not so much because of the distance (from where picture was taken) or the small target, but because the missile has a tail (we use long, plastic newspaper bags) and the ballast is weighted unevenly. You can’t throw overhand or at least, I don’t, and hence you have very little control. How satisfying to nail it!
Was my aim improved by an hour long walk through sunny, summery, quiet neighborhoods? Three-quarters of the way along a sour knot in my gut disappeared. Just by walking. In the sun. With my dog.

We saw lavender blooming on Ripley Street, two Chinese brothers heading to the T in matching pj’s and yellow caps on Braeland with their dad, people out jogging, cycling and walking their dogs. Closer to home, the lavender has yet to blossom, but on Walter Street we were treated to sun-illumined rust-vermillion Japanese maple leaves and a morning dove perched up on a cable backed by blue sky.

Finn had a Training Victory on our walk, too — a trifecta. Some other time.

Given the TV’s current state, I’m plowing through a memoir called, “They Left Us Everything” — a book recommended by a blog reader a couple of weeks ago. This was Plum Johnson’s debut effort and it came at age 68. Sixty-eight!

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The book won an RBC Taylor prize, an award for literary non-fiction that “best combines a superb command of the English language, an elegance of style, and a subtlety of thought and perception.”

The memoir is interesting and well-written. Doesn’t hold a candle to “H is for Hawk”, but then, very few memoirs do (that’s like comparing debut historic fiction to “Wolf Hall” by Hillary Mantel — it just isn’t fair — but I think it’s the last memoir I’ve read?)

Johnson crafts nuanced portraits of complicated parents, not just their late, declining years, but their more vibrant youth as well. Both of her parents led interesting lives — informed by tragedy, travel and unusual circumstances. Johnson gets at the essential unknowability of parents by their children, something made plain as she sorts through their belongings.

Her mother was a piece of work and her father over-reliant on military experience as a benchmark for parenting. And yet, whatever wounds linger they scarcely show up on the page. Whether this is a testament to Johnson’s person or her writing style is hard to judge. It does strike me that building a narrative around the objects of her parents’ lives may have kept a certain kind of self-reflection at bay.

I like memoirs that get down and dirty too, but the absence of grudges, whining, or blame is notable.

I don’t know nearly as much about my parents’ courtship or their early work lives as Plum Johnson does about hers.

On our second walk, Finn and I rounded the corner to find a huge heart-shaped cloud, like a blousy kiss from the sky.

Perhaps it was meant to compensate for today’s crossword puzzles? Or the personal torment of the last couple of weeks? KISS!

And now it’s gonna rain again — no wonder I’m ecstatic about puffy white clouds and doves backed by blue sky. Man! Meanwhile, the catalpa blossoms that seemed celebratory days ago now clump in wilting piles of rot, four inches deep in places. Sweep. Sweep. Sweep. And grab. Good thing I’m totally into sweeping these days (seriously into sweeping). And good thing this old bod can still squat with ease.

Homage to Harriet Jacobs

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Mt. Auburn Cemetery, Cambridge, Mass.

Harriet Jacobs was born into slavery in North Carolina in 1813. She managed to free her two children, remain hidden in her own town for seven years (while a vicious owner relentlessly hunted her), escape to the free states, avoid capture after the Fugitive Slave Act was passed in 1850, make a living, start a school after the Civil War, and somewhere in there, to write a remarkable memoir. “Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl” tells the chilling and inspiring account of her life. Here is an excerpt:

Pity me, and pardon me, O virtuous reader! You never knew what it is to be a slave; to be entirely unprotected by law or custom; to have the laws reduce you to the condition of chattel, entirely subject to the will of another. You never exhausted your ingenuity in avoiding the snares, and eluding the power of a hated tyrant; you never shuddered at the sound of his footsteps, and trembled within the hearing of his voice.

Ms. Jacobs was initially owned by a woman who promised to free her. As often happened, however, the promise was not made good, and Ms. Jacobs passed through the estate of her mistress to the testator’s three year old niece. The niece’s father was a lecher and harassed and pursued Harriet, until in a desperate bid for safety, she allied herself with a white neighbor. At 16, Ms. Jacobs bore that neighbor, Samuel Tredwell Sawyer, the first of their two children. He would go on to become a U.S. Congressman.

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Spring and summer reading

Afraid that her children would be sold and sent away, or shipped off to a distant relative of her tormentor, Jacobs ran away, hoping that Sawyer would buy them. Through an agent, Sawyer did, though he did not free them as she had hoped. Jacobs hid in a garage and then the teeny garrison of her grandmother’s home for a total of seven years. She survived horrible cold and heat, invasive stinging bugs, and near loss of the use of her limbs from being cramped for so long. How she managed to survive defies understanding. Like many bondwomen with children, her concern and longing for those children seem instrumental in keeping her alive.

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Harriet’s stone is inscribed: “Patient in tribulation, fervent in spirit serving the Lord”

How she escapes, manages to arrange for the freeing of her children, and her encounters in the north are fascinating and important pieces of American history. This slave narrative is provocative, well-written, and horrifying.

Annette Gordon-Reed’s book on the Hemingses has been a great companion text to “Incidents”, particularly on the topic of the kinds of calculations and risks a bondwoman might make in allying herself with a powerful white man (in that case, Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings).

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respects

Just as I was finishing the memoir, I learned that Harriet Jacobs was buried in nearby Cambridge, Mass., in the Mt. Auburn Cemetery. Two weeks ago, K and I went to pay our respects. It was the only stone we saw that day with visible tokens of respect carefully placed on its upper edge. Three stones and a penny. Having forgotten to cut the irises that I meant to bring from my garden, I laid another coin above her name.

* The book spells ‘Harriet’ with one ‘t’. Obviously, her gravestone spells her name with two.