Friday, October 21, 2011

An extraordinarily ordinary life

I am almost done with the memoir project I began last March. And even though the client I’m ghost-writing it for will be thrilled if we meet our goal of having it ready for her to present to her family at Thanksgiving, I’ll be a little sorry to see it end.

The project began when the mother of one of my high school friends said she wanted to talk to me about an idea she had in which she would preserve memories of her 75 years of life: her childhood, her teen years, but most importantly her relationship with her husband, to whom she was married for 50 years before he died in 2008. The impetus for putting all of this in writing came during her recent move from her own home to that of one of her grown sons. Faced with box after box of letters that she and her husband exchanged during his time in the military, she thought about what a keepsake it would be for her family and friends if she could just somehow make a book out of all of it.

To say I was reticent to get involved is putting it mildly. I agreed to meet with her only to recommend how she might approach the search for a good ghost-writer who could take this on, but I made it clear that the appropriate person was not me. During our meeting, I framed my sentences carefully. “The writer you end up working with…” I said, and “Once you find the right person to do the writing….” But I told her outright that I couldn’t take it on.

“Let me tell you a little bit more about what I’m thinking,” she said. “I just want to make it a simple story about what it was like growing up in Arlington in the 1930s and ‘40s. About walking to church, and playing violin in junior high, and having my first job at the Arlington sanitarium.”

My fingers started to twitch. The fingers that take notes on my keyboard when I’m interviewing someone for a story.

“And meeting my husband in a chance encounter on the beach a few days before my 18th birthday. Our first year in college. What Harvard was like in the early 50’s.”

I turned on my laptop.

“The excitement of getting engaged the night of my senior prom. My husband’s summer job collecting seaweed in a wooden dinghy in Plymouth Harbor. And then how it felt seeing him go off to Marine Corps officers’ training camp.”

With a sigh, I opened a new Word file. It was becoming increasingly obvious to me who was going to ghost-write this memoir.

Over the course of three months, I did about ten hours of interviews with my friend’s mother, and in between our weekly meetings, I’d review my transcripts and do a little editing. Finally, I started going through the letters she’d selected, letters she and her husband exchanged during three different summers that he attended Marine Corps officers’ training camp in Quantico, Virginia.

From our first discussion to my last edits of our current draft, which is nearly ready to be sent off to the self-publishing press we’ve chosen, I remained transfixed by this story. When I tried to tell a friend about it, she asked, “Did this woman have a really fascinating life?’

“No!” I exclaimed. “She had an ordinary life! But somehow that’s just what’s so fascinating about it: I’m getting such an in-depth look.”

What radio shows she listened to during lunch as a girl. How she and her mother traveled to Downtown Crossing by bus and subway to shop at Jordan Marsh. What she remembers about her first year of teaching. The engagement gifts she received. It’s all so everyday. But told by the person who lived it, it’s also all so interesting.

I suppose it’s not surprising that I find the story of an unsensational life compelling. As a freelance journalist, I’ve essentially made my career out of writing features about regular people doing interesting things. I’ve never covered celebrities or political figures or crime stories; I always seem to write about some aspect of daily life.

Soon the memoir will be printed, and my friend’s mother will give copies to her children and grandchildren. I wonder if they’ll like it as much as I do. I wonder if they’ll even read it as closely as I have.

To me, it’s a wonderful tale of a life well lived and even better remembered. To them, it may seem uninteresting: there was nothing spectacular or amazing about this particular woman’s 75 years. But I hope they see in it just what I did: an unforgettable story about the daily wonders embedded within an ordinary life.

No comments:

Post a Comment