Friends often ask, “How long have you been working on your book?” I never know what to say—what constitutes working on it? Sitting down and titling a blank page Chapter 1? Reading old letters and journals? Writing individual essays? Telling stories to grandchildren of when I was little? Attending writing workshops and reading books about writing? Or, to go back farther, writing letters and journal entries, doing therapy, talking with friends and comparing experiences?
This week I came across a piece I wrote six years ago in January of 2015. By then, I was starting to imagine a book, but acknowledged it only to myself. As I skim through this snippet now, I realize that I have done what I wanted to do. Nearly everything mentioned there has found its way into my story, so I offer it as a little teaser of more to come:
I need to start all over again to write about Park View (the community around Eastern Mennonite University where my family worked) when I was growing up, and I’m having great difficulty even imagining how. What I want to talk about are the safe streets, and the shade under the maples, and Grandma with her hoe, and Grandpa tilling in the hot afternoon while Grandma shakes her head and says that he isn’t a real gardener or he would have done it in the cool of early morning when he chose to study instead. I want to write about the root cellar and Maple Kitchen with cherries on the wall, and the plastic curtains in the living room, and baths with ivory soap in the claw foot tub with the stopper that hung on a chain. I want to tell about “The School” (EMU) where everything of importance happened—going into the cool hallway with the clock ticking, importantly walking into Grandpa’s office, getting mail at the business office window, and talking with Betty Moseman who was barely taller than I was. The sun coming up over the Peak and crickets at night, bare feet, pipes rattling in the winter and radiators hissing steam. Handel’s Water Music on the record player and stewed apples with grapefruit and slightly stale sugar cookies which Grandma called little cakes. Sunday nights in the living room with ginger ale floats after sitting through boring church.
Being sick, anxiety about school, my friend saying she’d never talk to me again, her dad cutting up our favorite pair of dress up shoes. Being uneasy with Gordon who I thought was a bad boy.
What made it good? What made it safe? My family as flawed as any but full of love. Stability. The fallings apart that might have happened would be arguments with barely raised voices. Our neighbors were much the same. Divorce only on the fringes, no drugs or alcohol with the people I knew. No violent crimes of any kind. We didn’t lock our doors. We were never warned about not talking to strangers, at least not in Park View. That happened when we went to Philly and were duly warned. Even so, Carol and I took an early morning stroll around the block and were mystified at the consternation of the adults when they discovered what we had done.
Farming country was just over the hill. Harrisonburg a mile away. We had access to everything I could ever imagine needing except entrance into the bigger world of famous musicians, writers, and public figures. I didn’t assume that I’d ever touch that world.
But stories don’t come. I want one to hang my memories on, and all I come up with are anecdotal things that hold no suspense, no story lines. Am I too close? Do I not see the arc for all the familiarity: walks to the greenhouse for plants or to Martin’s Store, the time Aunt Esther stayed home with me on Easter Sunday when the others went to West Virginia, Christmas programs at school or Friday night literary programs, Park View Melodians practicing, shelling peas, Brunk revivals, the play house.
I sit here, not coming up with stories but lots of images. Maybe that is where I need to start.