Memorial Acts

Kate Flora here, sharing something I’ve been musing about this morning: memorial acts. I still wear

Mom's rings

my mother, writer A. Carman Clark’s wedding ring. Struggle to keep her plants alive five years after her death, even though she had a green thumb and mine is brown. I regularly gaze at the collection of blue china my father collected for me. I still hear my sister Sara’s corrective, iconoclastic voice in my head. I have carried this tendency to cling to those who are gone, to remember them, to honor them, to mourn them in lasting ways, into my fiction. Characters in my books, like characters in my life, engage in memorial acts.

In my first Thea Kozak mystery, Chosen for Death, after Thea’s husband has been killed in a car crash, she won’t wash the sheets. She won’t do the laundry, clinging to a shirt that still smells faintly of him. In Playing God, Burgess has a collection of photographs that form a shrine to a murdered child that lives on the inside of his closet door. When he enters a suspect’s house to search, and finds an unusual arrangement of items in an untouched spare room, he knows he’s looking at someone else’s shrine. What about the rest of you? Do your include memorial acts in your books? And if yes, what are they?

Kaitlyn Dunnett here. I’m not sure memorial is the right word, since the results aren’t always flattering, but I’m drawing on my, shall we say “complicated,” relationship with my late mother when I’m writing scenes between Liss MacCrimmon and her mother, Violet.

My house is littered with bits and pieces of family history, going back several generations. They are memorials, but they can also spark my imagination. Same make it into a book. Some don’t. Probably the oddest one is the dish shown here. It came from “the farm,” the family homestead, now gone, where my mother grew up and where I spent every Sunday until my grandmother died when I was ten. Where did it come from? No idea, but at six or seven I decided it was magic and when it came time to sell the old farmhouse and take what we wanted from it, that was the one thing I had to have. It seems kind of appropriate now that I write murder mysteries.

On the other side of my family, my paternal grandfather was the inspiration for keeping a diary, something he did from the time he was a young man in the late nineteenth century. He had only an eighth grade education but when he was in his seventies he decided to write his autobiography. He wanted “some famous writer” to turn it into a real book. He had to make do with me. If you go to you’ll find The Life of a Plodder (his title) as edited by me early in my writing career.

Lea Wait: In my own life I have many memorials. The cameo broach my grandmother’s mother gave her on her 18th birthday, and she gave me when I turned 18. The stone my mother found on a beach that she always believed was an Inuit carving and would bring good luck. It’s on my desk. Also on my desk is a miniature milk glass iron that legend says my great-grandmother’s best friend threw to her on the ship’s deck as she left England for Boston in 1878. And many other things. Two of my characters have physical memorials, too. Abbie, in Stopping to Home, has a carved eider duck that was her mother’s, and sometimes touches it when she needs to find strength. And Noah, in Seaward Born, keeps a small wooden boat in his pocket that his father made for him. Both Abbie and Noah are now orphans, and those possessions tie them back to when they had families; to when they felt loved.

Vicki Doudera: Personally, I have so many objects reminding me of other people (photos, cards, outgrown clothes, cute Halloween costumes, the list goes on…) that I classify much of it as clutter of the emotional, sentimental type. I’m on a quest to pare all this down, but as the Beatles sang, “You know it don’t come easy.”  The things I do treasure? The pasta bowl, made by my grandmother, that we serve spaghetti and penne from. Her dress that she wore to Vermont’s Governor’s Ball. My great aunt’s pedal sewing machine that came from our version of “the farm.”

My character, Darby Farr, is just beginning to grapple with objects from her painful past, having been in denial when the first book opens. In Book #4, the one I’m revising this month, she finds a long hidden stash of objects that belonged to her Japanese mother. I loved writing the scenes in which she fingered the silk obi, gazed at a faded photograph, and wondered at the significance of a string of straw flags. But is she in danger of becoming an emotional clutterer? I think not. She lives a spare life — perhaps the kind her creator sometimes pines for.

Barb Ross: My house, too, is full of memorials. Needlework by both my grandmothers, a portrait of one, my grandfather’s Princeton letter sweater. A pair of bloomers some now unknown ancestor wore to her wedding, and a christening gown of equally mysterious origins. Those are stored in a box with a sixpence that generations of family brides have worn in their shoe and still do. I hauled a very uncomfortable Victorian couch all the way from my parent’s home in Pennsylvania to our house in Boothbay. My ancestors were interior decorators and my guess is we only own the thing because some client in the Gilded Age reneged on buying it. It’s incredibly uncomfortable. But it’s in so many family photos, now from three different centuries, i couldn’t leave it behind when my parents downsized.

I do try to keep it all down to a dull roar. As my brother says, “It tells you something about the country we live in that we have to be constantly obsessed with getting rid of stuff.” When my daughter worked for O Magazine, she took me to Oprah U in New York City at the Javits Center. A friend and I heard Oprah organizer Peter Walsh speak. I expected a sort of a “clean your closets” exercise, but it was much more of life philosophy type thing. He said, “if you’re keeping stuff because it reminds you of the past or because you might use it in the future, you’re not living in the present.” Advice I mostly try to follow, though I won’t be getting rid of the items listed above anytime soon.

Kate Flora: If Peter Walsh is right, I certainly don’t live in the present. But I figure that’s okay, because writers are always living in an imaginary world anyway.  Pictures of places are very helpful, though, for making those imaginary places feel real.




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6 Responses to Memorial Acts

  1. Sarah Graves says:

    Funny, I kept looking at this post and thinking, “Oh, I don’t know anything about that, I don’t have a thing to say about it.” And then this morning I woke up and read the post again and realized that hello, a main subplot in the book I’m working on now resolves on account of a memorial object.

  2. Deanna says:

    I am so happy to know that I am not alone saving things from family. Dee

  3. Carol-Lynn Rössel says:

    Living in the present, I do think, is vastly overrated. I grew up in a waterfront house my maternal great-grandfather built on Southern Staten Island. When Mom died, and the house came to me (I gave my brother half; must have been some mistake in the will) the house per se, and the attic and the basement were filled with things pertinent to generations past. Nobody got rid of anything. It might, to these depression era survivors, become useful. My father taught me that lesson and I learned it well. At least half this house in Maine is stuff from the house on Staten Island, which we sold – I still feel horrid about doing that. Each room has something that triggers a memory. Stuff that my daughter finds ghastly I smile at and embrace. I fear for it when I’m gone as she is of the (vastly overrated – did I mention that) get rid of it if you haven’t used it for a year. Hey, some things I haven’t used for twenty years all of a sudden are just what I need. This happens all the time. She especially dislikes one of my favorites: a gold-painted art deco/nouveau naked lady smoking stand my parents got as a wedding present. I put a plate into the part that would have held an ash tray and use it, DAILY, to hold my glass of hot tea in a ‘podstakan’ – Russian glass holder (I’ve a dozen) from Soviet days I got in antique stores in Arkhangelsk. It’s like living in the past, perhaps, but also I think it’s revering it. Except for electronics (I’m an audio engineer type), I like old stuff – like my rotary land line phone. I write characters who live in the past. Surprise.

  4. MCWriTers says:

    Sarah…I wish you’d give us a hint…but I guess we’ll have to wait ’til the book is done, right?

    Dee and Carol-Lynn…I think most (many?) of us have things we treasure. Sometimes even things I didn’t care for as a child become precious. I have a ridiculous pitcher shaped like a cow??? Some of our things end up in books; sometimes, it’s things we learn about from other people that adorn the houses and wall of our characters.

  5. sandy gardner says:

    I found this very interesting. I have my father’s old watch and lighter for his cigars. And a couple of photos. Other than that, it’s all in my memories. But I guess I treasure other people’s (families’) histories. We bought a 175 year old farmhouse a few years ago. (rather than downsizing as most of my friends do as they get older). I love the fact that it has so much history — some members of the previous families — including the original farmer’s family from the 1840s — still live in the area.

  6. sandy gardner says:

    I found this very interesting. I have my father’s old watch and lighter for his cigars. And a couple of photos. Other than that, it’s all in my memories. But I guess I treasure other people’s (families’) histories. We bought a 175 year old farmhouse a few years ago. (rather than downsizing as most of my friends do as they get older). I love the fact that it has so much history — some members of the previous families — including the original farmer’s family from the 1840s — still live in the area.
    ps I realized that I, too, used a complicated mother/daughter relationship in my first mystery. Though the mother is nothing like my real one.

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