Saturday, January 16, 2010

The Pink Album

I'm currently reading Stephen King's, On Writing, A Memoir of the Craft, as my walking-on-the-treadmill book. The book begins with his high praise for Mary Karr, and her novel The Liar's Club. He writes with shades of awe and envy for the "totality" of the recollections of her childhood being "an unbroken panorama." As a prelude to the story of his own childhood, which he says was "herky jerky," it seems to me self-preservation had a say in his choice of memories.

This first part of the book he says is "not an autobiography" but calls it the "C.V." He gives the reader snapshots of his life. After reading all about his childhood and his early struggles to write and succeed, I felt this was an author I never knew much about, only that I loved his work. By the time I reached the passages describing his mother's death, I was bawling and howling for the pain it laid before me. I just kept walking, sobbing, with my head down, tears falling on my sneakers and the black "ground" moving ever backward.

"Forget your personal tragedy. We are bitched from the start and you especially have to be hurt like hell before you can write seriously. But when you get the damned hurt, use it - don't cheat with it." Ernest Hemingway.

The word "snapshots" reminded me of a project I've launched headlong into. I started scanning hundreds of photos from one of our oldest family albums, "The Pink Album." Making sure everyone in the family has access to these pictures on CD as real film degrades, pictures are lost, torn and fade, is important to me as the youngest child of nine. It's one of the little things I can take care of, seeing how I'm "aimless and fiddle-diddling" on the computer all day anyway. Picture five hundred eighty-eight or so has hit my hard drive with a thud and I'm looking forward to being done. I've four more albums to conquer yet. Wish me and my hard drive luck.

When I began the project I didn't expect the head trip it would take me on, filtering through memories - - The Pink Album Time Machine. This album starts back when my folks were in their mid-thirties, 1950-something. The black and white film does great justice to the time, way more than color film could have. There are pictures that make my parents look like something from The Grapes of Wrath, sans the dust storm. They were certainly as hard-pressed, poor and struggling, with too many kids.

Each child growing up, picture after picture, there's an evolution of each happy kid to teenager. Then some change would occur in each one. It was the sixties then the early seventies, the hippie days with alcohol, marijuana and worse. You could almost see the moment when the times and some "thing" overtook their lives. From one Christmas to the next, a once great, smart kid turned drunk or drug-addicted, or somehow now despondent, or uncaring about themselves. Then they'd just stop being in the pictures altogether. The older siblings then gone from the house, away on their own. They were either running off across county to escape responsibilities or desperately wanting to simply be gone from a small mill town. The worst of all? Getting married to cover the cost of a life carelessly tossed like a coin without first checking to see whether it landed heads or tails. All of us girls did that, me included.

"Memories may escape the action of the will, may sleep a long time, but when stirred by the right influence, though that influence be light as a shadow, they flash into full stature and life with everything in place." John Muir

I remember in these photos my parents turning from what I understood to be loving and responsive to no more pictures together, and no more kisses good-bye in the morning. Each picture showing how far apart, the body language now so obvious to my seeing eyes. A picture of our old kitchen reminds me of the day Mom threw a plate full of breakfast and an orange and white coffee cup at Dad's head across the room and missed. I loved that cup. It was iridescent when held up to the sun, all shimmery like an eggshell with orange stripes. I might have been five and I just couldn't understand why. She was always doing things like that, but there was no one to make her stand in the corner for being naughty. Dad never gave up but he knew when to walk away.

All the screaming and yelling was nothing compared to the silence, when I'd hide under the dining room table until Dad got home. I was so little at the time, I fit in the small space where all the inside legs came together, maybe eighteen inches square. Fear was a big part of my life before I started kindergarten and my days became filled with something other than soap operas. At this point in time, my oldest sister would frequently visit Mom with her children in tow. She always had a slap for me like I was her kid and not Mom's, and I hated her for it. She always had a lie to tell, too, and she and Mom were perpetually on the outs. Perhaps if she'd realized I'd become a writer, she might have thought twice before laying a hand on me and lying her ass off? Too damn late now.

"Your memory is a monster; you forget - it doesn't. It simply files things away. It keeps things for you, or hides things from you - and summons them to your recall with a will of its own. You think you have a memory; but it has you!" John Irving

This album takes me through my entire early life and family history as I look at the snapshots. Experts on family dynamics say that the youngest child does not have the most accurate memories of events. Mine may not be accurate, but they formed who I am today. These memories are where I live in my head and what sets me howling on my treadmill. They are why I write.
"It's surprising how much of memory is built around things unnoticed at the time." Barbara Kingsolver.


  1. Once again, I am witness to your courage. It is not easy to acknowledge the pain that wants to hide but comes out anyway. Your willingness to attend at least gives you a choice as to how the pain will be experienced.

  2. I too was a child of "children were seen and not heard" "spare the rod and spoil the child" so, I can understand afflication this can cause. It takes much courage to write about these things. Stephen King is my favorite writer and I love his books as well.

  3. I understand what you say. My problem sometimes is trying to realise how far my interpretation of the past is actually true and how far it is either romanticised or interpreted in a way that suits myself and my writing.
    Annoying thing history. Some people think it's about facts, you know.