Thirty Days Hath September: Memory and Memoir

 Thirty days hath September,

April, June, and November.

All the rest have thirty-one,

Excepting February alone,

And that has twenty-eight days clear,

And twenty-nine in each leap year.

Thirty Days Has September_12x12_72

Memory is at the heart of memoir. It fuels unfolding stories. A memoir writer like me depends on it for inspiration. When there are glitches, I freeze: Trying to remember a word, I experience a flicker: Ah, it has three-syllables, begins with V. But what is that word?

One of my earliest memories is sitting in a high chair looking over the wooden tray and seeing the kitchen table covered in oilcloth with a red, black, white, and silver repeat pattern. It’s just a flicker, but I’ve experienced it so many times, I’ve convinced myself it is true.

In the blurry border between sleeping and awakening, a landscape often forms in my head: a cornfield disappearing acres away into a stand of trees. An image from my childhood, the picture is reinforced every time I look out the front window of my mother’s house where she has lived for over 70 years.

In probing my childhood . . . I see the awakening of consciousness as a series of spaced flashes, with the intervals between them gradually diminishing until bright blocks of perception are formed, affording memory a slippery hold.

                                           Vladimir Nabokov

Smells often arouse memory. A sniff of hyacinth in the supermarket takes me right back to Grandma’s spring garden. My grandchildren’s Crayolas transport me to my own fresh box in first grade. Fresh ink . . . new second-grade textbook, Friends and Neighbors. Crinkly crepe paper, my Hallowe’en costume. 


Smell is a potent wizard that transports us across thousands of years and all the miles and all the years we have lived.

                           Helen Keller

Memory is erratic too. I used to think that if I remembered something, then it must be true. But maybe it is and maybe it isn’t. We all remember Grandma giving us a dose of whiskey with honey at times of extreme unction when we were deathly sick with the flu. We all agree it went down our throats like fire. But we disagree on the details. Was it Schenley? Or Jack Daniels? One or two tablespoons?

The brain invents stories and runs imagined and remembered events back and forth through time.

                                Edward O. Wilson

We all know stress shrinks memory, but “a good dose of sugar—found in dieter’s no-nos like jelly doughnuts, banana cream pie, and chocolate eclairs—markedly enhances it.” (Rupp)

Let me take a bite . . . . Well, it worked. I remember the word now: “VICTROLA!”

VictrolaOpen Similar to one Daddy had in his shop

Source: Rupp, Rebecca. Committed to Memory: How We Remember and Why We Forget.


 Hamlet — “There’s rosemary, that’s for remembrance.”

What flickers of memory came to mind as you read this?

About what memories do you and a family member disagree?


11 thoughts on “Thirty Days Hath September: Memory and Memoir

  1. Lovely quotes and images. You describe the process very well. It’s amazing how often the smallest facts trip us up. The Internet helps our memories even as it distracts our attention. If you want to write the Great Mennonite Memoir, show us how consciousness itself connects to the dawnng of Mennonite consciousness and identity. 🙂


    1. That’s you, Shirley. Always shooting for the stars. Now that your memoir is in the chute, will you be writing the Great Mennonite Memoir? I’m sure you must have another project in view. A conference set in an exotic place, say Oxford or Zurich, for example? Writers submitting papers on the above theme.


  2. Marian, you’ve take me back not to my childhood but to a morning in my mother’s room at the nursing home prior to her death. I was mashing bananas for her hoping I could get her to eat something. I had just begun to get to know the softer side of her and I didn’t want to lose her, not now. But she was refusing food, sleeping, and I knew what was coming.

    As I mashed those bananas and smelled their fruity aroma, I was transported to a morning when I was feeding my young son mashed bananas. The thought then occurred to me that some things we do to begin and nurture life, and then we do them again to soften the end of life. Made a note to include this analogy in my memoir. Thanks for the mental nudge.


    1. Thanks for telling me your memories. It’s true . . . there are many similarities between birth and death. Our 4th grandchild was born prematurely at 2 pounds, 5 ounces but now thriving. Now my dear Aunt Ruthie, whom I write about frequently in my blog, is suffering from Alzheimer’s and needs care 24/7.

      I’d like to know more about your memoir. How far along you are with it, when it’s being published, etc.

      I’m glad the “memory” blog gave you a mental nudge. Thanks again for sharing.


      1. Marian, thank you for asking about my memoir project. I’m working on my first draft and am struggling with how to present my story of a verbally and emotionally abusive mother without whining. After all, there was a good side to Mama. The core of my story will begin and end with the decision my husband and I had to make in December 2000 to move her from an abusive situation in TN to be near us in OR. Difficult doesn’t even begin to describe the emotional turmoil I felt because I did not like the person my mother was in my life, even though I loved her as my mother. Long story short, our short time together (10 months) brought a silent healing of bad times past and the evidence of grace in our healing was abundantly evident. My hope is to help others realize the need to peel away the layers of the difficult personality until they find the “why” behind it. Once I reached that level, I could achieve forgiveness for all that had happened.

        Publishing is still a distant dream on the horizon. I’m amazed how much healing the writing process brings to me. At times, the idea of publishing seems hardly important in the face of that healing, except for the good it might do others to read my story.


        1. Writing about my father’s love of music in “Yodeling and Duets with Dad” did it for me. As you imply, putting emotions into words itself is therapeutic. If there was no struggle or conflict, there would be no story. That itself is a gift, don’t you think?


  3. Memory is vulnerable to persuasion. I told a story so many times as a child that I became convinced that I actually “remembered” living it.


    1. I’ve had that sensation too. I remember my first or second year of teaching telling a story that I thought was/might be true and then immediately thinking otherwise. Did I lie? Perplexing, huh?


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