Wednesday, March 4, 2015

The surprises everyone holds

Imagine walking through an airport. All around you are people carrying bags – small purses, large backpacks, gym bags, duffels, briefcases. Imagine that you have to guess what’s inside each bag.

A lot of the time, you’d probably be fairly accurate. A laptop. A water bottle. A wallet. A phone. Cosmetics. Paperwork. Snack food.

But if the bags started falling open, you might be surprised by some of the items that fell out. Heirloom jewelry. Small weapons. Toys of an unidentifiable nature.

That’s how I feel when I meet with prospective memoir clients. They have a story to tell. Usually I can guess parts of that story. Sometimes I can even guess most of it. But there are always surprises.

Yesterday I met with a prospective client in her nineties. She was trim, mobile, alert, articulate. She must have had an easy life, I found myself thinking as I settled into an upholstered chair in her well-decorated condo.

She talked for nearly two hours. And like a stranger’s purse spilling open in an airport, some of it was what I might have guessed. A happy childhood with several siblings. The run-up to World War II. A romantic chance meeting with her eventual husband. A lifelong penchant for arts and culture, especially community theater.

But surprises spilled out too. One of her three children suffered from incurable mental illness and died in middle age. She said goodbye to her parents at the age of 22 in her country of birth and never saw them again. As a young wife and mother of three, she held a clinical fascination for the fast-evolving technology of birth control in its early years. In their eighties, she and her husband were victims of a violent home invasion. 

She recovered from that event, though, and now tells the story of the home invasion in nearly as merry a tone as when she described emigrating from the U.K. to America by ship and seeing the war refugees kneel at the sight of the Statue of Liberty. If there was lasting trauma, it isn’t apparent anymore. It’s just another thing that happened to her, another bead in the strand making up the story of her life.

If she decides she wants to do a project with me, I’ll learn even more details. As with all my memoir clients, I’ll be amazed at some of the details that spill out and unsurprised by others. But as I listen, I always remember how hard it is to guess. As you walk down the street or through the airport, you just cannot imagine what is in all those bags. Remarkable, really, just how different each story is…and how different each person is.

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