Wednesday, December 16, 2015

The Art of the Memoir, Mary Karr

My grandparents and me circa 1958
In her new book, THE ART OF THE MEMOIR, Karr says early on that she came from a family of story tellers. I did not. I cannot remember many stories at all. And when there was a story, it was often because it was forced on my parents. A visitor might say, "Remember when Elsie and Harry pushed his first wife out of the car." Or this admission, "Actually your Dad and I were separated for some time after the war."  I learned that when my brother found an insurance policy with the beneficiary changed.

But on the average day or year, I learned almost nothing about the early lives of my parents. Was it that they didn't find their lives interesting enough to recount? Were their childhoods unpleasant and they didn't want to relive them? Was talking about the past a waste of energy to them?

Although they were both on the quiet side, my mother liked to talk about politics and Hollywood gossip. My Dad--well, I can't remember him talking about anything other than the most ordinary things. Like the best way to get to Atlantic City. Or the price of an oil change. Or whether it was time to clean the kitchen fan. He worked long hours and we saw little of him except on Sunday.This was certainly not by choice. He was devoted to his family.

And most conversations in our house played out over the din of a TV. It was always on in both our house and my grandparents' house. My grandmother would put on a golf tournament rather than have dead air. The TV was on from the Today Show to the Tonight Show. So it wasn't that my mother or grandmother didn't like stories. They just didn't tell them.

Was yours a family of story tellers?
My parents in the fifties

My parents and my brother, Jeff. Early sixties

Us in 1954

18 comments:

George said...

I loved Mary Karr's THE ART OF THE MEMOIR! My father was a story-teller. He came from a family of five brothers and three sisters so there were plenty of stories about them growing up on a farm. My father served on a destroyer in the Pacific during WWII and he had plenty of war stories (he was injured when a kamikaze plane crashed into his ship). And, as a teacher, my father always came home with stories about his students' antics. My mother, cooking and cleaning for five kids and a husband, had little time for story-telling.

pattinase (abbott) said...

My father was overseas for four years and although he had pictures, he never talked about it. He was a staff sergeant so mostly sat at a desk although he moved around a lot.

Al Tucher said...

Did we tell stories? My sister wrote a book about it:

http://www.amazon.com/Andie-Tucher-Happily-Sometimes-After/dp/B00SCU6E8M

Jeffrey Meyerson said...

Yes, I definitely came from a family of storytellers. Not my father so much, but my mother, grandmother, aunts and uncles, etc. My father's mother had 10 brothers and sisters. My grandfather was from an eccentric, intellectual family. My mother's mother had five sisters. We had a ton of cousins. For years we'd have my father's parents and my Aunt Gussie (grandmother's sister) over on Sundays, and while my grandfather sought the sanctuary of a long walk so he could smoke his cigar in peace, we'd play hearts and listen to stories. My other grandmother had a restaurant on Second Avenue on the Lower East Side that catered to the Yiddish Theater, so there were stories there too.

Also, my mother was an incredibly gregarious person. She'd talk to anyone and made friends with women she met on the subway. And everywhere my parents went they seemed to run into someone she knew.

Obviously, I married a person with my mother's storytelling skills.

Jeffrey Meyerson said...

Oh, and I'm reading the Karr book now. I loved THE LIAR'S CLUB and will be reading her other memoirs soon.

Charles Gramlich said...

I'd say my family were 'anecdote' tellers. We often told little anecdotes about each other when we got together. But not really stories. Most of my family weren't readers, except for me and my sister.

Deb said...

I know I already posted this when George reviewed Karr's book, but this interview with her is excellent: http://www.theparisreview.org/interviews/5992/the-art-of-memoir-no-1-mary-karr

As for my family, both of my parents came from large, working-class English families and both were children of the Blitz, evacuated to the English countryside at the start of the war (they were among the thousands of children standing at Paddington Station with their names on boards around their necks). But my mother's family was gregarious and affectionate and full of stories. My father's family was far more somber and dysfunctional. He rarely told (or, even today, tells) stories of his childhood.

Mathew Paust said...

Anecdoters (thanks, Charles) and storytellers. My dad loved to keep us in suspense--so much so I have a nervous aversion to suspense to this day. I remember one time sitting on his lap as he spun this outrageous tale about an anthropomorphized raggedy parachute named "Johnny" that finally got a chance to save someone's life. Down down down went the pilot wearing Johnny as Johnny worries he might not open or that if he does he will tear apart in the wind and...down down down they go...oh dear, will I open? oh, I sure hope I will open, oh oh oh...down down down... Finally, unable to stand it anymore I slapped my dad's face. It must have been pretty hard because he reared back and stared at me. Refused to tell the end of the story. I started crying, apologizing and groveling until the sadistic bastard finally said tersely, "The parachute opened and they landed safely." He pushed me off his lap. I was still crying. I must have been no older than 5 or 6. I remember it clear as if it happened an hour ago. I see the pack of Luckies in his shirt pocket. He never told me another story, and I never asked him to. My mother read Uncle Wiggly to me every night at bedtime, though--the entire series, bless her sweet heart. I imagine she did the same with my younger sister, but I don't recall. My sister was and is a much tougher cookie than me. She sold real estate.

Holy crap, am I starting a memoir here, or what? Over and out!

pattinase (abbott) said...

I am in awe over your family story telling. I cannot imagine my parents telling me a true story that lasted more than two minutes. Now I may be making them seem odd here and they really werent't.l Just not story oriented.

Richard R. said...

My impression was that talking about oneself and one's past was unseemly. Sort of like bragging, which was a Wrong Thing To Do. So there was very little "storytelling" that I remember, except occasional recounting of stories about my brother or myself by our parents to other adults, in the vein of "Bill did very well on his tests this year", or a comment about my swim club.

No, the stories came from books, read to us when young, then read by ourselves.

pattinase (abbott) said...

Maybe you nailed it, Rick.

Cap'n Bob said...

Growing up, there was a modicum of storytelling in my home but I wouldn't call my parents raconteurs. My mother's side, being Italian, was very talkative, but they preferred gossip. My father's side, largely Scots, were more taciturn.

Changing subjects, there are a few things I can't allow to go uncorrected. One is people spelling calvary when they mean cavalry. One is saying chomping at the bit when they mean champing at the bit. One is adding "Congressional" to Medal of Honor. And the last is saying "over and out." It's wrong, it isn't proper radio protocol, and whoever started saying it many years ago needs to have his head mounted on a stake. It's over or it's out, never both.

Margot Kinberg said...

I love those 'photos, Patti! And I've always found memoirs interesting. They give you a real perspective on the author, even if they aren't totally objective.

Mathew Paust said...

Roger that, Cap'n. I'm all for joining the campaign to change the name of the Congressional Medal of Honor Society, too, which, as it is a creation of Congress, will undoubtedly require an Act of Congress to affect.

Deb said...

A few years ago, I was visiting a small church for Good Friday services and throughout the program "Calvary" was spelled as "Cavalry." I figured whoever typed up the program was very tired and spellcheck would obviously be no help.

Mathew Paust said...

Typos can kill you, Deb. Verbal ones, too. I have a helluva time saying "admiral," meaning the Navy rank. It always wants to come out "admirable." Might be a good title: The Admirable Admiral?

Cap'n Bob said...

Interesting idea, Mathew. But in this case is the word Congressional modifying Medal of Honor or showing that the Society is a congressional creation? I will say that it only serves to confuse the issue further.

Mathew Paust said...

Creation of Congress, Bob, as was the medal. Click for background: Medal of Honor.