The wild, permissive Rentzels with a red porch light live next door to our family, the Mennonite Longeneckers, one of several plain families that live on Anchor Road.
In their parlor, the Rentzel’s old Emerson black & white TV has introduced me to the wonders of The Howdy Doody Show with Buffalo Bob. As often as I can, I escape at 4 o’clock every day, running next door to ask Mammy Rentzel whether I may watch the show. Of course, she says Yes. I become part of the Peanut Gallery, mesmerized by Howdry Doody himself, a freckle-faced boy marionette with 48 freckles, one for each state of the Union in the 1950s.
My favorite parts are seeing Quaker Oats shot from guns, cannon-style and laughing along with the speechless Clarabell the Clown, who talks with a honking horn or squirts seltzer water. The shades are always pulled in the Rentzel’s tiny living room that smells like pipe smoke and mothballs, adding to the secretiveness of my television viewing. We’re not allowed to have a TV at home. Our church forbids it, but there is no rule to keep me from watching shows on somebody else’s TV! (Statement of Christian Doctrine and Rules and Discipline of the Lancaster Conference of the Mennonite Church,1968, Article V, Section 7):
Television programs are often destructive to the spiritual life and undermine the principles of separation from the world, the precepts of Christian morality, the proper respect for human life, and the sanctity of marriage and the Christian home.
Yet, Phineas T. Bluster, Clarabell the Clown, and Howdy Doody himself, continue to cast their spell upon me. Before I knew the word, I observed that Buffalo Bob Smith was a ventriloquist, himself voicing words that appear to come from the mouth of Howdy Doody.
The word ventriloquist derives from two Latin words: “venter” referring to the belly and “loqui,” to speak. Isn’t that what writers do? Speak on paper or computer screen from a place deep inside themselves where language mixes with thought and feeling.
Critic Brian Boyd says of writer Vladimir Nabokov, “In his novels Nabokov can not only ventriloquize his voice into the jitter and twitch of [his characters], but he can also” invent incidents . . . names, relationships.” Like a ventriloquist, Nabokov in his autobiography entitled Speak, Memory translates his life experiences into words.
Yes, memoir writers do just that: Give life to their memories by putting them into words. If your life is recorded as jottings in a journal or collected as photos in albums, you are “writing” memoir, perhaps starting out as amusement for yourself, but just so bequeathing a legacy to the next generation.
I’ll bet you may already have recorded your history, ventriloquizing your voice into something tangible: letters to family members in college, love letters, scrapbooks, family photo albums (physical or online) even recipes.
How are you ventriloquizing your experience: art, journals, recipes, a memoir?
Inquiring minds want to know. The conversation starts (or continues) with you. As you know, I will always reply.