Kate Flora here, sharing something I’ve been musing about this morning: memorial acts. I still wear
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 http://www.kaitlyndunnett.com/gorton.htm 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.