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Tuesday, 16 October 2012

A Twice-Written Memoir

By Mary Hertslet

During a conversation, Beth (not her real name) talked about having to rewrite her memoir because of her sister. I thought what she said was interesting. I decided to write this story from a few notes I took plus my own recollections of what she said. In essence, the truth is in the story.

Soon after her mother's death, Beth sat down at her typewriter and started typing the first line of her memoir, "My mother ruined my life.”

Beth had kept her high school diary for years waiting for the right time to write her story. And now, Beth couldn't type fast enough. All the thoughts that had been held hostage in her mind and in her diary for all those years came gushing out onto the paper like vomit.

She was writing about her miserable life growing up in the middle of the Depression as the oldest of her three siblings.

Beth was the first-born. In a few years came her brother followed by another brother within 18 months of each other. After several years, her baby sister was born. It was beyond her mother's ability to take care of her children alone. Beth was already helping her mother with the two boys. Now a new baby entered their lives.

Throughout Beth's school years she felt she was living two lives: one, at school, trying to keep up her grades and the other, at home, taking care of her three siblings, doing housework with no time for herself.

Her father's job was tedious and laborious and it paid very little. When he came home at night, he ate dinner and went to bed only to get up every morning and replay his same, tired life over again.

Beth helped her mother wash the family's clothes in the washtub using a plunger to agitate and clean the clothes. They wrung the clothes by hand and Beth hung them outdoors to dry. In winter, the clothes froze on the line.

Her mother did the cooking. She knew how to stretch the meals to feed six people. She added more liquid to the soup she made. If they were lucky to have meat, she would cut it into small pieces and add a lot of gravy to it. She made biscuits to sop up the gravy and fill their stomachs.

Beth saw her mother as a weak person who always needed help. She wondered why her parents had more kids than they could care for. Beth was in a constant angry state of mind and it was playing havoc with her schooling. She couldn't wait to leave home.

Finally, Beth did leave home and years later, she graduated from college. By now, her baby sister was married with a baby of her own.

Although Beth hadn't finished her story, she decided to take it to her sister to read and evaluate. When she returned to pick up the memoir, her sister met her at the door shouting, "How could you write these horrible things about our mother? The mother I knew was a good mother. She read to me and taught me how to sew and bake cookies."

Beth was shocked. Her mouth dropped open with disbelief knowing it wasn't the same mother she had, growing up. For days they didn't speak to each other. Beth tried to absorb this new information, to understand how her mother had morphed into this wonderful person after Beth left home.

At last, Beth came to a realization and started putting things into perspective. Beth moved away while her sister was still very young. Her two brothers were in high school, one had a job at the drugstore, while the other delivered newspapers. Before long, they both left home. Her sister was still at home with her parents.

Beth had an “aha” moment and went back to tell her sister. She had thought it through and realized how many things changed after she left home.

The depression was over, as was WWII, which followed. Her mother's responsibilities to her children had lessened. For the first time, her mother had more energy and time to give to her little sister. It was something she didn't have for Beth. Realizing this, Beth never begrudged her sister's closeness to their mother.

Beth went back to the beginning of her memoir and erased her scathing first sentence, "My mother ruined my life.” She took out the part about her mother being a weak person. Finally, she changed her memoir into a story about a hard working family trying to stay alive in the dark days of the depression.

The adult Beth, looking back at her adolescent diary, finally understood what her story was really about - survival of her family.

[INVITATION: All elders, 50 and older, are welcome to submit stories for this blog. They can be fiction, non-fiction, poetry, memoir, etc. Please read instructions for submitting.]

Posted by Ronni Bennett at 05:30 AM | Permalink | Email this post


It's all about perspective, isn't it? How loving of Beth to change her story.

Great story!! I think there are many elder sisters that struggled through those difficult times being a pseudo hired girl. Families had to take care of their own. No assistance programs, no birth control, etc. Life was very difficult. Our government plays a much bigger roll in peoples lives but the problems that have developed and the dissolution of the extended family provides us with different problems.
Enjoyed the end where Beth and her sister could share their different relationships with each other.
Michigan Grandma

Beth lived through some difficult times but even siblings today who did not face these difficulties, each paint a different picture of their childhood.It is indeed how they perceive it. The old saying goes," They blame God and mother for everything." Hopefully, when they mature this attitude changes, as was the case with Beth.

Many thanks for your comments. While writing this story, I often thought about how our own placement within the family has an effect on our childhood. For example: as an only child, or the oldest, middle, youngest, or a child placed within a large family. The story clearly shows two completely different pictures the sisters had of their mother.
Mary Hertslet

Very nice story! Puts things into a whole new persepective about growing up.

I am struck by the stress Beth's mother must have been under having children during the Depression. So many of my aunts and uncles were farmed out to other families, expected to send their money home to the family to save the farm. I'm sure many of the girls suffered sexually at the hands of the other men in the hiring family. I am also thinking that Beth's reaction of resentment that they had such a big family was somewhat unreal since birth control really didn't come out for years. But a good piece. Lots for the next generation to ponder.

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