A life sentence with mortal punctuation: part 1


First: A note about memory, frame, and fiction

I have my memories, but as I get older, I don’t know that the biological hard drive that is my brain hasn’t been corrupted, that the memories reflect the reality that was, or reality as I want it to be.

My memories have also been informed by family stories and sometimes the latter influence the former, so again, I can never be certain of their veracity.

Thinking about this, I remember the academic and theoretical concept of “frames” from my undergraduate studies, now also more than 20 years in my past.  Everyone has their own frame of reference, influenced by their experiences and education, family and individuated world view.

Even if one attempts to be completely truthful, one’s truth can run counter to reality.

The writer cannot express anything but through the filter of their frame.  In this sense, all written work, whether scientific, academic, journalistic, historical, or honestly fictive, has in it the element of fiction.  It cannot help but be influenced by the frame of the writer.

Mathematics may be the only purely objective writing, but even there, unknowns and chaos creep in and beg interpretation.

This is just my opinion, but I wanted to get it out there as a way of saying that even though I write from memory and experience, I am writing a story.  It is my story, but not having time travel at my disposal, I cannot say that this story, based on real life events, is any more “real” than a movie based on the true story of X.

How it all began (yes, I’m really going there)

So, it’s October, 1969, and my mother, nine months pregnant, walks to her regular doctor’s appointment.  Her doctor’s office was at the top of Regent Street hill, and for those of you who don’t live in Sudbury, that’s a really big hill, of San Fransiscan dimensions, even.

The doctor enters the exam room and says, “I didn’t expect to see you.  I thought you’d have your baby by now.”  My mom shrugs and says that everything’s going fine, “but,” she says, “I’ve been having these really strange cramps all day.”

After a brief assessment, the doctor tells her to call her husband and get over to the hospital post-hasty: “You’re in labour, woman!”

My mom’s never been the kind to thrust the agony of my birthing at me.  I don’t know how long she was in labour or how painful it was.  I just know that it was the first, and only, occasion when my maternal grandmother, sober her entire life with that notable exception, got stinking drunk 🙂

Early memories

The only things I remember from my infancy are images.  Moments.  The colourful, plastic Fischer-Price mobile that hung above my crib; a tin, battery-operated locomotive; and this memory, which became a poem:

infant crawls

mother says she was crawling by six months and walking
by eighteen. situate her chronologically as you wish
any month and day in 1970.
reaches linoleum and drags
legs forward.  pivots onto buttocks.
suddenly sees black shoes and white tights,
spill of turquoise dress over thighs.
a contemporary picture reveals the dress in question.
shirred bodice, empire waist, short sleeves poofed and gently
cinched around chubby arms.  her hair is short and blonde, lovingly
held in place by two plastic pink barrettes in the shape of bows.  her baby
teeth are coming in.
fridge holds her attention for a moment.  then something moves
—brown shoes—ma ma.
though she was beginning to speak, her words were
carefully articulated.  not mama, but ma ma; syllables
spat out, exhaled along with breath.
low like this, ma ma is brown shoes and white-pink
calves.  ma ma is also round-white-pink, brown curly, and
long-white-pink ticklers, but they are all ma ma.  they all smell
of comfort.
the brown shoes were around for years, with large, square,
brass-toned buckles.  nylon-sheathed legs above them truncated by
fall of blue dress: straight, simple, homemade, with short sleeves.
horn-rimmed glasses frame hazel eyes and permed, dyed hair.  mother’s
smile was shy and kind.
chubby arms lift hands to grasp.  frustratingly ma ma seems to be between
wriggling grabbers, but cannot be touched.  “ma,” she says, and “ma.”  two
world-shaking clomps later, the long-white-pink lifters bring her up to the
round-white-pink ma ma and pudgy fingers tangle in curly brown.
this is my memory.  i do not ask my mother if she
shares it.

©2012 Melanie Marttila

infant crawls era Mel

‘Dis be me 🙂

Something I don’t remember

My maternal grandmother had a massive heart attack that required a multiple by-pass (not sure how many, just that they had to take the vessels from her leg).  In the wake of the ordeal, she was in a kind of fugue state, conscious, but not talking, not interacting.

My mom was allowed to bring me in to the intensive care unit.  Normally, a baby wouldn’t be permitted, but it was thought that either it was time to say final goodbyes, or that I might somehow remind my grandmother that she had a reason to live.

Fortunately, the latter happened.  My name was the first word she uttered in days.  I have no idea how old I was when that happened.  It’s funny sometimes the affect we have on others, whether we know it or not.

My grandmother was given a dim prognosis: months perhaps.  She lived to see me graduate high school and did not pass away until I was in university.  More on that in a later post in this series.

Grandpa

My first encounter with the spectre of death was the passing of my paternal grandfather.  When I was three, my grandfather was up on his carport roof, shovelling snow, and had a massive heart attack.  I was carefully sheltered from the event.

That year, the local television station broadcast “The Santa Show” which read children’s letters to Santa on the air.  The big Christmas news Santa reported that year was that Rudolph was sick and might not make his annual flight.  In trying to explain the situation to me, Mom told me that Grandpa was in the hospital.

“With Rudolph?” I asked.  Yes, with Rudolph, she said.

Only days later (I think), I was set to play in the snow while my father climbed up to clear that same carport roof.  The job had to be completed.  As he descended, the ladder slipped on the ice, and he fell, calling to my toddler self for help.

Understandably, I thought Daddy was being silly.  Patiently, through his pain, he convinced me, who’d never gone anywhere alone in my brief life, to go to the next-door neighbour for help.  I was frightened out of my wee gourd and Dad had to keep encouraging me to keep going.

Neither of us knew, entangled in our own drama, that Grandpa had died.

I only know this because my mother told me: Grandpa was a man of few words.  He loved to garden, and grew straw flowers so he could engage in dried flower arranging in the winters.  When he watched me, he sat in his chair, often reading the paper, and let me play quietly with his Salada tea figurines.  I still have the wolf.  It sits on my bookshelf along with other memorabilia.

I hardly had the opportunity to get to know him and he was gone.  Dad ended up with a fractured pelvis and was in the hospital over the holidays.

Truthfully, neither event had much of an impact on me, though I always thought that I’d let Dad down when he fell, not that I could have done more than I did, being three and all.  I got used to not having Grandpa around, and life went on.

I think that when you’re very young, death can’t be understood.  It’s therefore far easier to accept.  Absence becomes the new normal.  There’s no introspection or grief, and the grief of others is equally beyond understanding.

Perhaps these early experiences do have a lasting effect.  Maybe the trauma lies dormant, only to surface at a later date and hijack our lives.  For all the time I’ve spent examining my life, I can’t say.  I don’t feel any connection between these early experiences and the person I became.

What about the stories of your lives?  Do you have a memory of a death from your early years?  How did you react, or not?  Can you connect the experience to some trait or tendency that you embody today?  Have any of your early memories inspired your creative work?

Next week:  My first near-death experience and what came of it.

Until then, writerly peeps.  In the meantime, mine your memories for creative gold 🙂

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6 thoughts on “A life sentence with mortal punctuation: part 1

  1. A wonderful post, and adorable photo!

    I’ve shared memories of growing up on my blog, even written about death.

    Death in the family HAS inspired my writing. I’ve done a series about the mysterious death of my maternal grandfather, and how I think it may be a cover-up, I’ve told the story of discovering the fate of a long lost maternal aunt, discovering her grave and paying her a visit.

    I have done a writing exercise in which I wrote about my “first experience with death”, and one where I wrote about “A year after your death.”.

    My first memories of death revolved around that of my godfather, a man whose faith was Eastern Orthodox. Emotionally, the death of my mother was the one that got to me, notthat of my dad. Him we expected. Mom and I took the bus to the county morgue in LA to get his ashes, and carried them, in a small lunch bag, on the bus back to the cemetery. Solemn as the occasion was, we had a hell of a time to keep from laughing, and telling our fellow passengers what they were sharing the bus ride with. 😀

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  2. Oh Melanie, it’s so strange how we do or don’t remember something. I remember watching For Whom the Bell Tolls with my grandfather and being ushered to bed before the end of the movie and I remember grandfather telling my mother that I should be allowed to stay up to see it, but I was figure skating competitively and 5am was going to come up very soon. He had a stroke that evening and died and I haven’t ever been able to watch that movie again. I wrote about my grandfather quite a bit during Jane Ann McLachlan’s memoir challenge last spring and posted it on my blog. My critical mother, who will read it, corrected me all the time, but then most of my memories of grandfather are supported with stories my grandmother told me about him. My how one distorts things. It was very eye opening to write those memoirs.

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    • Thank you for sharing your experience with your grandfather, Veronica. Who’s to say that the way your mother remembers things is any more valid than yours? Objectively, could either be 100% accurate? You remember what you do in the way that you do for a reason. Honour those memories and the loved ones in them 🙂
      I must have missed Jane Ann’s challenge (was it before April?). I guess this is my memoir, or part of it anyway. Thanks for stopping by and commenting.

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  3. Thanks for the post. So well written. I don’t have those kinds of early childhood memories. I have a couple of memories from when I was around five years old, but that’s where my story begins.

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