Echoes from the Prairie
Preview of Memoir Selections from the Forthcoming Publication
October 27, 2012
By Lynn Burlingham
(an excerpt from her blog: www.lynnburlingham.com)
A group of thirty people gathered at Signs of Life in Lawrence, Kansas, on October 27th to listen to short memoirs from Echoes from the Prairie. Eight of the twenty-one authors in the book offered selections that evening. I was among the presenters.
First up was “Roadmaster,” by Charles Higginson. Delivered in a dry, direct, tongue-in-cheek manner, this is a story about riding out the adolescence of one’s child, with patience. This particular story centers around a father-daughter conflict over a car. With this storyteller, readers immediately know what they are going to get and begin to smile. “If you have children of a certain age, you know that as time passes you occupy different spots on a spectrum of attitudes. You begin as the Fount of All Wisdom. As your kids come to realize you’re fallible, but usually on the mark, you become a Person Worth Listening To. And then, for a while you become the Idiot Oppressor. With luck, after several of those magic years, you slowly move back in the other direction.”
“Three-Hour Cruise” by Judy Graverson-Algaier is a descriptive account of getting stuck in a desert in the United Arab Emirates on what starts out as an ordinary afternoon family jaunt. “Predictably the wind had died down, and without population there was little noise. We were so far out we hadn’t heard the ubiquitous adhan, the haunting age-old call to prayer that arose skyward religiously at sunset, even in many places deep in the desert. Other than the occasional gronk from a distant camel, or a whisper of the occasional breeze, it was silent.”
In “Jen’s Addiction” by Jen Nigro, the author uses first person narrative to bring the reader inside her mind as a child, then switches to her adult voice to look back in time. “No one else in my family seemed to notice the chill I felt, nor did they comment on my attachment to the vent. This was good on two fronts. One: I didn’t have to compete for resources. And two: it gave me plenty of time to perfect my heat habit, uninterrupted.”
“Tell Me a Story” by Deronda Ashley starts out in the style of a children’s book, with a certain safe ring to it, then weaves back and forth between the author’s grown-up perspective as she looks back at her childhood, and her perspective as a child growing up in Phillipsburg, Kansas.
“Grandma, tell us a story about when you were a little girl in the olden days,” the grandchildren begged.
We went to Martha’s Café with Daddy, my aunts, uncles, or friends. I would stand in the seat and eat butter pats until someone spotted me and took the dish out of my reach. They always told me, “No!” But butter tasted so good!
The next year the pats didn’t taste so good. “Why don’t these taste the same Mama?”
“It’s not butter anymore. It’s Oleo margarine.”
In “Van Welden’s Drugstore,” we are introduced by Sherry Williams to a known place, her father’s drugstore/pharmacy in Kalamazoo, Michigan, which was originally owned by her grandfather. Sherry’s story shows us how the store gave her a strong sense of identity. I liked her description of its offerings: “things anyone might need, like rhinestone jewelry, baby bottles, vaporizers, alarm clocks, heating pads, thermometers, Chanel #5, lipstick, and face powder. Shelves along the walls held items like pencils, notebooks, lined paper, shampoo, packaged home permanents, toothpaste, vitamins, cough syrup, aspirin, band aids, Caladryl, dye, mouse traps, coloring books, paper dolls, toys, and silly putty.” A child’s fascination with these sundry things, the accounting of items (the mark of an observant drugstore owner’s daughter), and the pride she felt at seeing their family name on the store are evident.
“Angels and Goblins” by Kathryn Schartz gives the reader a sense of the author’s religious grandmother, a Southern Baptist, and her grandfather, whose own concocted religion was a mix of ideas from hymns and poems. (He would drop Grandma off at the church door.) Grandma’s religion and homemaking skills brought the comforts of traditions such as “how to make dolls out of hollyhock blossoms so the petals resembled beautiful evening gowns,” while Grandpa instructed through stories of goblins who came after recalcitrant children. As Kathryn sets out into the world, her own set of beliefs evolves, but she never forgets the comfort of her grandparents’ solid routines.
“Boxes,” a short memoir by Lynne Ellis, details the important place of boxes in the author’s big family. In their house, boxes were used for holding things. They were organized by category: boots, wheels, costumes, good clothes, mittens and gloves. Much later, boxes come to symbolize moving out of her marriage house: boxes packed with pain. Folded within that pain, however, is also the memory of a box that one of the author’s eight siblings gave her for holding her own things, a precious box in this turbulent household. The story ends with a box containing letters from others and notebooks in which she wrote to help herself heal after her divorce. This box of notebooks is SOMEWHERE, she tells us, letting us know that she’s moved on.
In “Uncle George,” I introduce George F. Kennan both as my uncle and as a world-famous diplomat. I give background on how he came into my mother’s Norwegian family and won them over. I then move forward in time to his death and what the New York Times had to say about him. I recount his role with my mother and what his family gave to our family. I zero in on what he gave specifically to me in deed and words, and end with how he showed his love and affection for me even at the very end of his life.
One woman who attended the reading came up to me before she left and said, “What struck me about this reading, which I enjoyed very much, was the common thread of all you writers being survivors.”