Monday, January 16, 2012

Lye soap and cow pies—the stuff of our best stories!

Memories are not cooperative.  As sure as we pull out a paper or open a document and write, “My Life History” across the top, the mind goes blank.  We wonder, “Where are all the great memories I wanted to share with my children?”
We may toil away, attempting to write chronologically, but the imp of living, breathing memory hides just out of sight.  We may force ourselves to write, but do we really want our grandkids to read pages and pages of stuff such as:  “Mrs. Lane was my fourth grade teacher.  She was very nice.”
So first, draw a map.
In my last column, I suggested that to mine the past for memories, start by drawing a map of a childhood neighborhood, or a diagram of a childhood home.  My good friend, talented artist Patty Bess, told me that her children said, “Great idea!  Peter Pan had a map of Neverland, and “The Lord of the Rings” had a map of Middle Earth.” 
We can’t be in better company than J. M. Barrie and J.R.R. Tolkien.  Best of all—this exercise gets the memories flowing for our own stories.
We all want to “see” our past, but we must smell, touch and hear it as well.
Master storyteller Donald Davis tells people who want to tell stories that memory is sensory.  He describes the smell of his childhood dentist’s office: “like burnt chicken feathers” and the smell of the dentist’s bathroom: “like old fruitcake.” 
“When we listen to a story, we have to mentally see where we are and who is there—and then we can follow the story…. We paint the backdrop… but as the storyteller, I hand you the paint.  If we go to my grandmother’s house in a story, you paint it with memories of your grandmother’s home or a place like it,” he said in a recent radio interview.
And sensory memories are the paint.
So after drawing the map, the next step is to choose a place on your map or house diagram and think about the senses connected to it. 
Here are some ideas: 
How did the canal smell when you floated down it in an inner tube?
That pasture across the road—How did you feel about the cows? Were you frightened by their horns?  Was the ground a carpet of green or field of scrubby, clumps of dirt and bits of chewed-down grass?  What did you call the manure?  (We called it cow pies—horse biscuits were found in the horse pasture!)
The cattail patch (the stage for Patty’s imaginary playtimes)—How did the cattails feel?  What did you do with them?
The smells of Grandma’s kitchen: Bacon on a fall morning, pumpkin pie at Thanksgiving, a crock of odorous sauerkraut, Numotizine medicine on a plaster for a feverish chest—and the paint smell when Brenda and Caroline painted the walls that apricot color. 
What bathroom soap did she use?  I learned how lye soap smells in one place only—Grandma Rhodie’s bathroom.  James Herriot wrote that for years, he couldn’t use one brand of soap because it evoked memories—his wife had packed it lovingly for him to use during military training.   Another Grandma’s bathroom had sandpaper on the walls and matches in a box—an early form of “Airwick” that could’ve been named “Smoky Sensations.” 
Write these thoughts and sensations down, and don’t follow the essay form you hated in school.   You don’t need an introduction and ending—dive into the middle of your map and your sensory memories and the stories will follow.  If you hate writing, follow Davis’s lead and tell the stories.  Share them with the next generation in a way that makes you comfortable.


  1. My Grandma Anderson smelled like "Chamberlain's Golden Touch Lotion" and Palmolive soap. I can't smell either without her memory!

    My Grandma Nelson let us dab vanilla behind our ears so we would "smell pretty" when we helped her make cookies. Cookies are better when you take time to stop and smell the vanilla!

  2. Your next post accomplishes this exactly.