Book Talks: Marian Wernicke

I am so touched and happy to see all the friendly faces, and some faces I don’t know, but I’m very grateful to you for coming out on a beautiful autumn afternoon It’s pretty dangerous to give a retired English teacher a podium and a microphone and an hour I want all the students to know that there will be a quiz and there will be an essay question on the quiz And they’re all looking like, “What!” So anyway, what I hope is that there are some people here who are seriously considering writing a memoir It’s not exactly a practical talk, but I want to go into what a memoir is versus what an autobiography is and some classical examples of memoir And then I want to tell you the story of how I went about writing my father’s memoir, and then I hope at the end we’ll have time for questions and answers In the summer of 2001, my 87 year old father died of the effects of radiation from throat cancer After his death, I began to think about all the things that my mother and six brothers and sisters and I didn’t know about him Dad was Irish, and if you know the Irish, they have a very loose relationship with fact and fiction is more when they’re telling stories So we never knew the stories Dad would kind of hint at about his childhood We didn’t know either of his parents, they had died before my mother even married him He only had one brother that we knew kind of off and on a little bit There was a whole area of his childhood that we did not know about His grandparents had come from Ireland on both sides, the O’Shays and the Seirs in the mid nineteenth century All we had were two pictures We had a picture of his parents, and I put it over there, on their wedding day in 1909 That’s the only picture I have of my grandmother and grandfather And then we had a picture of my grandmother when she was about seventeen, with her mother and the dog and her seven brothers and sisters, so these were big Irish families All we knew was that at some point in his childhood, his mother died when he was a year old and at some point he was put in the St Joseph’s Orphan Home for Boys It was a Catholic institution in St. Louis run by the Sisters of St. Joseph We didn’t know when he was put there, so I had to do some digging That was an area of his life I really wanted to try to figure out Where was his father? When did his father die? Why didn’t his father take care of him and his older brother? His older brother was taken in by an aunt and uncle, his father’s brother but Dad was sent to the orphanage. So we didn’t understand, and Dad I don’t think my father knew! You wouldn’t remember what happened to you when you were two or three or four or five, probably So I decided to search out the life of this man, especially those early years, and also those years fighting as a Marine in World War II. He was in the South Pacific So those were the two areas I really wanted to delve into I invited my brothers and sisters, all six of them, to also contribute a little passage of some of their memories of my father Primarily my goal was to write this for my brothers and sisters and their children and their children, so it wasn’t so much to sell to others But… I would like to do that too! What we’ll do now is backtrack a little from my experience–this seems so loud, is it very loud?–and speak with you about what is a memoir It’s not really an autobiography Why would anybody write a memoir? Doesn’t it seem like the height of narcissism to think that my story would be interesting to other people who don’t know me? And why do we read a memoir? Actually, memoirs sell much better than fiction does So there is a hunger in the public to read an autobiography or a memoir

The root word is the French word for ‘memory’ We all know how shifting and impressionistic memory is If you’ve ever talked to your brothers and sisters about the past, don’t they all have a little different shading on the stories that you tell It’s because we all remember things very differently I would define a memoir as a personal, subjective account, not objective, subjective account of the writer’s experiences Their impressions of the past, those vivid and intense memories that have endured when so much else has faded away with time The writer of a memoir takes the reader back to some corner of his or her life that was particularly intense It doesn’t have to be the whole story of a person’s life A memoir is not the summary of a life, but rather a window into a life, so we have to make it vivid with scenes to come alive It can’t just be a recitation of facts We can also think of the memoir as a series of verbal photographs, scene one, scene two ‘I’m three years old, I’m under the table,’ you know, that would be the kind of thing a memoir does It’s a shaped text It’s a construction It’s not just you spilling out all the truths about your family or yourself You are shaping it, you are constructing this Usually the writer has some kind of overall theme, just the way a novel does It’s not a conscious theme that you’re thinking about when you start In my case, writing a memoir, what I was trying to do was discover the factors in my father’s early life that made him into this kind of charming, witty, but very volatile, sometimes angry man So that was my goal, to figure him out So we could say the writer of a memoir is the editor of his or her own experiences You don’t have to tell everything You probably shouldn’t tell everything You want to pick and choose what you’re doing depending on your purpose We impose a narrative shape on the sprawl of half-remembered events So we put the chaos of real life into some kind of beautifully shaped text Now, what are the tools of the writer of memoir? They’re the same tools as the writer of fiction! Description… description of place description of a time that perhaps the reader is not familiar with We have to have characters We have to make them come alive to the reader We have to have scenes We even have to have dialogue Now, the trouble with that is how do we remember what somebody said to us 35, 55 years ago? Well, we don’t. We make it up You kind of try to remember that, and then you write it as close to your memory as you can Above all, we’re trying to reconstruct what it felt like to live that life Not with abstract words and ideas, but with concrete scenes Everybody with me? So you’re really kind of like a fiction writer because you’re having to describe and draw the reader in I think the big challenge for the memoir writer is how do you transcend your own particular private experience to make it interesting and resonating for the reader? That’s the hook Not just the readers who know you and love you, but a reader in general So I thought in order to illustrate what I’m trying to talk about, the particular and the universal elements that should be in a good memoir, we could look today at some brief passages of memoirs that have become part of the canon of Western literature This is the classroom part of the talk

So let’s take your handout–I hope everybody got a handout by now–and we’ll start way back in 354 AD with St. Augustine You’ve probably all heard of St. Augustine He was born in what is now Algeria in Northern Africa His father was an official in the Roman government and his mother Monica was probably, they think, a Berber, a North African tribe So Augustin was probably black. He was an African That’s an interesting thing, we don’t usually see him painted that way in lives of the saints Monica is the model of all mothers who have unruly children because she prayed and prayed for him to become a Christian, and it finally worked When I had three teenagers, I used to get on my knees and pray to St. Monica that they would all be good Augustine calls this ‘Confessions’ Now the word ‘confession,’ as we think of it, is telling something bad you did, ‘I confessed what I did.’ But what it also means is ‘to avow a faith or doctrine’ So really what Augustine was doing was celebrating his turn to God So he’s confessing his faith He writes it in the second person to God, so he’s talking to God all through his memoir That’s what Alice Walker did Do you remember in ‘The Color Purple,’ she has the letters written to God I wonder if she read St. Augustine, I have no idea Alright, let’s take a look at Augustine and what he says ‘It is certain, O Lord, that theft is punished by your law, the law that is written in men’s hearts, and cannot be erased however sinful they are For no thief can bear that another thief should steal from him, even if he is rich and the other is driven to it by want Yet I was willing to steal, and steal I did Although I was not compelled by any lack, unless it were the lack of a sense of justice or a distaste for what was right and a greedy love of doing wrong For of what I stole, I already had plenty and much better than that! And I had no wish to enjoy the things I coveted by stealing but only to enjoy the theft itself and the sin There was a pear tree near our vineyard, loaded with fruit that was attractive neither to look at nor to taste’–so they were rotten pears ‘Late one night, a band of ruffians, myself included, went off to shake down the fruit and carry it away, for we had continued our games out of door until well after dark as was our pernicious habit We took away an enormous quantity of pears, not to eat them ourselves but simply to throw them to the pigs Perhaps we ate some of them but our real pleasure consisted in doing something that was forbidden.’ I’m going to stop there So Augustine is haunted by this time that he and a bunch of his teenage friends, probably under the influence of some substance, were out stealing the neighbor’s pears That would be kind of a funny story that most of us would tell, wouldn’t it, when we grew up ‘Oh yeah, remember the time…’ But Augustine is really philosophizing why is it easier to do evil Why is the forbidden so attractive to us? So he’s telling us this little incident that we can see, but his theme is acknowledging that his heart was moved more to do the forbidden thing And he did a lot of forbidden things, worse than stealing pears Alright, let’s skip 1500 years and go to a Frenchman. Rousseau, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, who’s writing around 1765 Notice Rousseau also calls his memoir ‘Confessions.’ Rousseau brought us into the romantic era, and the romantic era in literature and art and music was characterized by the emphasis on feeling and passion and imagination, rather than reason During the period before, the Enlightenment, reason was the main way to get to truth, but

Rousseau rejects this, and this is a very early expression of romanticism Alright, let’s take a look at this ‘I have resolved,’ he says, ‘on an enterprise which has no precedent and once complete, will have no imitator.’ How sure he is of himself! That’s he’s the only one who’s going to write like this ‘My purpose is to display to my kind a portrait in every way true to nature and the man I shall portray will be myself Simply myself I know my own heart and understand my fellow man, but I am made unlike anyone I have ever me I will even venture to say that I am like no one in the whole world I may be no better but at least I am different Whether nature did well or ill in breaking the mold in which she formed me is a question which can only be resolved after the reading of my book.’ What a great introduction I am very important and I am so different from everybody else Then he says, ‘I felt before I thought, which is the common lot of man, though more pronounced in my case than in others I know nothing of myself until I was five or six I do not know how I learned to read I only remember my first books and their effect upon me It is from my earliest reading that I date the unbroken consciousness of my own existence.’ What an interesting idea! He didn’t become conscious of his own existence until he read ‘My mother had possessed some novels and my father and I began to read them after our supper At first it was only to give me some practice in reading, but soon my interest in this entertaining literature became so strong that we read by turns continuously and spent whole nights so engaged For we could never leave off until the end of the book, sometimes my father would say with shame as we heard the morning larks, ‘Come, let us go to bed I am more of a child than you are.’ In a short time, I acquired this dangerous method, not only an extreme facility in reading and expressing myself but a singular insight for my age into the passions I had no idea of the facts but I was already familiar with every feeling I had grasped nothing; I had sensed everything.’ So see, the way for Rousseau to truth is through sensing, the sensual ‘These confused emotions which I experienced one after another did not did not warp my reasoning powers in any way, for as yet I had none But they shaped them after a special pattern, giving me the strangest and most romantic notions about human life, which neither experience nor reflection has ever succeeded in curing me of.’ I love that little scene of the father and son reading late into the night, until the larks began to sing I’m not sure that’s true You know, five years old, he would have been asleep I think But anyway, it’s beautifully done I want to say just one thing about Rousseau According to scholars who know his life, he bent the truth a lot in his memoir And that kind of brings up that issue of fact versus fiction in a memoir How imaginative can the writer be, maybe in dialogue But do you remember a couple of years ago, hte big scandal with James Frey who wrote ‘A Million Little Pieces.’ Actually, Frey tried to publish that as a novel but it was rejected by many publishing houses and when he finally brought it to Nan Talese, who’s a famous editor, she said, ‘Well, let’s publish it as a memoir, because it’s all about you, isn’t it?’ He said, ‘Well, yeah.’ So they published it as a memoir but he didn’t change the fictional parts and then he got on Oprah Remember? And then by that time, reporters had found out that he wasn’t ever arrested for drugs He made it much more dramatic So he got in a lot of trouble for passing off a fictional account of his youth as a memoir

I don’t think Rousseau got in trouble, but it kind of discredits the memoir writer Alright, let’s go on to the twentieth century to a wonderful, beautiful, I think the best thing Vladimir Nabokov ever wrote He also wrote ‘Lolita,’ he’s very famous for that But his memoir’s called ‘Speak Memory.’ What a beautiful title Speak to me, so I can write it down His memoir covers his early life from about 1903 until 1940 in a very privileged, aristocratic family in Russia before the revolution And then it does go in to some of the years they had to leave Russia and he went on to England, to Cambridge, etcetera Now notice that Nabokov, by just giving us a list of the products that they liked to use in Russia at this time, manages to convey the whole in which he was living in Russia Where the emphasis was to look to Western Europe, that’s where everything was better, that Russia was kind of primitive And the Russians, I think, at that time felt somewhat that their culture wasn’t quite up to the standards of England and France So he says, ‘The kind of Russian family to which I belonged, the kind now extinct, had among other virtues, a traditional leaning toward the comfortable products of Anglo-Saxon civilization Pear soap, tar black when dry, topaz like when held to the light between wet fingers, took care of one’s morning bath Pleasant was the decreasing weight of the English collapsible tub when it was made to protrude a rubber underlip and disgorge its frothy contents into the slop pail We could not improve the cream, so we improved the tubes, said the English toothpaste At breakfast, golden syrup imported from London would in-twist with with its glowing coils the revolving spoon from which enough of it had slithered onto a piece of Russian bread and butter All sorts of snug, mellow things came in a steady procession from the English shop on Naseby Avenue Fruit cakes, smelling salts, playing cards, picture puzzles, striped blazers, talcum white tennis balls I learned to read English before I read Russian My first English friends were four simple souls in my grammar Ben, Dan, Sam, and Ned–‘ They all had three letter names ‘There used to be a great deal of fuss about their identities and whereabouts Who is Ben? He is Dan Sam is in bed.’ It sounds like our primers that we used to learn to read ‘Although it all remained rather stiff and patchy, the compiler was handicap by having to employ for the initial lessons, at least, words of not more than three letters My imagination somehow managed to obtain the necessary data Wan-faced, big-limbed silent nitwits, proud in the possession of certain tools Ben has an axe They now drift with a slow motion slouch across the remotest backdrop of memory.’ I love that sentence ‘They drift with a slow motion slouch across the remotest backdrop of memory, and akin to the mad alphabet of an obstetrician’s chart, the grammar book lettering looms again before me.’ How many of us can remember our first reader in that way? So Nabokov is very concrete, but he’s evoking the kind of atmosphere that he was raised in And the last–be patient–memoir section I want to talk about is one of my favorite writers, Edna O’Brien I don’t know if you’re familiar with her fiction, but she wrote this memoir ‘Country Girl’ just recently She recounts a time when she and her nephew Michael returned after many years to the house in which they grew up Her parents are dead, the house has been empty, her brother inherited it but he doesn’t want it, so they’re going to have to sell it So now they’re going back to the old house I’m going to start on the third paragraph on the page ‘Nothing for it but to go inside Proudly, he led us through the back door which all these years he had believed to be locked

as once on a previous visit he had had to wedge me under the narrow gap of a window, calling as I wriggled through, ‘Are you in? Are you in?’ The kitchen had a weird inhabited quality: dirty Delft on the table as if a highway man had just passed through and had a feed And the little radio on the window sill was still stuttering, its battery having expired long before Then, into the dining room, where indeed the walnut cabinets ensconced in dust housed still another dead radio, which in times past was a matter of great pride to my parents sitting in front of it, as they might sit in front of a blazing fire There was one half of an orange curtain, like a theatre prop and some dead crows had fallen down the chimney The presence of my mother was still weirdly in everything: in the crinkles of the orange curtain, in the coal scuttle where she hid bars of chocolate, and on the cushions of boneen where she embroidered old Celtic designs, thinking they would impress me How hard she had fought to keep it all together Upstairs, a wardrobe door creaked open and shut, and propped against the wall in my father’s old room was the oak headboard with the uneven patch, whitish from the grays of his head, from where again and again he would call down repeatedly to be brought more tea In the jumbled clothing there were silk lampshades, a scroll with the papal blessing consecrating the marriage of my brother and his wife and a jovial jockey on high stilts wearing a black hardhat The ivy, the mad ivy, had come in through the windows and in some rooms the beds, with their damp covers seemed to house corpses More crows, but this was not Chekhov’s ‘Seagull’ This was Drewsborough in its dying throes I looked in the press where my brother had kept a tin of peaches that he had won in a music competition, only to find a mohaired jumper crawling with moths Across the landing in my mother’s room, the holy water fount had a residue of dried salt which was bitter on the tongue I sat on the edge of the bed The wallpaper, painted over, was now a pale magnolia and I could just discern the dipping branches on which tiny pink rosebuds hung, so lifelike on their thin stalks that I used to believe they would bloom, like real roses on the briars.’ I think she really creates a feeling of tremendous nostalgia for her home, for the loss, for the passage of time Now all of these writers, I feel, transcend their own individual lives, but all of this is conveyed to us by very specific concrete details We are made to experience their reality and we, too, become nostalgic for a past that is not ours We feel that nostalgia Now I’m going to come down from the great heights to my attempt at a memoir The temptation is to kind of airbrush the facts of your father’s life, or of our lives as a family In fact, when I told my mother, who’s now 95, I said, “You know, I’m thinking of writing a memoir about Dad, I was going to ask my brothers and sisters to contribute.” She said, “Oh, now don’t be too hard on your father,” then to her horror, when she read it, she said, “Hey, I come off as the bad person, always saying ‘go outside’ or ‘it costs money!” And my father’s the fun guy who took us out to do fun things, so she was completely shocked by how she came across in the memoir My mother was the very practical one, my father was more the dreamer So the most fun part, to me, was doing the research I felt something like a detective I had to get records I had to find out I wanted to read about St. Louis in those years He was born in 1913 So I got books on the Irish immigrant experience in St. Louis just to give myself a background Letters are so important in writing a memoir I don’t know what the future generations are going to do, because we don’t write

People used to write every day! But that doesn’t happen anymore In the 60s, my father had gotten in touch with one of his aunts, one of his mother’s sisters who had moved to California And he said, “What happened? What happened when my mother died?” So she wrote a letter Really what happened was the family kind of fell apart because of that Spanish influenza When my grandmother died, her sisters took care of the baby, according to this letter We only have this one letter to go on But then one of the sisters got sick with influenza and died Her name was Ella, and my father named one of my sisters after her Then the brother decided to go to California, get out of St. Louis He thought maybe it was bad there [in St Louis] So all the sisters then decamped to California There was no one left on my grandmother’s side to take care of my father I was so shocked when I got the records from the orphanage because his own father took him to the orphanage when he was six years old So now there’s a gap between between one year and six years I don’t know what they were doing in those years, and there was no way I could find that out But it shocked me that his father took him So then I had to do a little research into his father All we found was his birth date, his death date, and the fact he was buried in the military cemetery in St. Louis So Dad had said his dad was in the war, but I didn’t know if that was fact or fiction, but now we had proof So then I sent away to the army for my grandfather’s records Well, wouldn’t you know there had been a fire in the records, destroying all records from 1912 to 1959 But they did have his final pay voucher He served during France in WWI, and in fact my nephew looked up his division and found out that they were gassed So maybe what happened was when he came back from the war, he was not in good shape, suffering from post traumatic stress syndrome or from being gassed So his older brother, as I said, had been taken to the aunt and uncle My father, in 1919, was put in the orphanage I’m just going to read a little part of my memoir about this ‘Audrey Newcomer, director of the archives of the Archdiocese of St. Louis, looked at my father’s records Finally we have evidence about his entrance there and the copy of the old time documents makes me weep Name of the child: Thomas O’Shay–‘ Somebody’s taking a book Steal the books! [laughs] It says, ‘Daniel O’Shay, father. Kinship: one brother, one uncle, one aunt, grandfather on father’s side, one aunt on mother’s side Amount to be paid, how much and by whom: $10.00 per month by father Remarks: mother dead, father unable to get anyone to care for this boy.’ That was the saddest sentence I ever read ‘Father unable to get anyone to care for this boy The revelation to us all is that it is not his aunt and uncle who’s taken him to the orphanage, but his own father after his return from the war He left a six year old child with strangers, separated him from his brother who was living with the aunt and uncle, a long trolley ride away from where he was put I imagine the scene–‘ Now this is fiction, this is how I imagined that day ‘It is November A dark day, windy, with dried oak leaves blowing as Dan takes the boy by the hand, grabs the small valise with three sets of clean underwear, one pair of pajamas, one pair of old tennis shoes, overalls, three mended shirts and I hope, one raggedy stuffed dog Dan looks the child over The boy is dressed in his Sunday best: a clean white shirt, knickers, dark knee socks and polished leather shoes He even ties a silk necktie around the boy’s collar Tom’s dark hair falls over his forehead. Dan grabs the boy’s jacket

from a peg on the wall and they leave the flat. The child looks up at this father ‘Dad, will we ride the trolley to my school?’ ‘Yes son, I told you so before.’ Dan strikes a match but his hand trembles as he tries to light a cigarette in the wind He pulls the boy before him down the avenue as they head for the street car In the trolley, Tom asks to sit by the window, and as the car turns south on Grand Avenue, Dan sees him try to hide his fingernails, bitten to the quick They don’t speak Finally the father stands up abruptly and pulls the cord to let the conductor know they’re getting off Father and son start down the tree-lined path to the red brick building ‘It looks like a church, Dad,’ whispers the child. ‘A great, huge church.’ ‘Yes son, and the good nuns have a chapel here that you may go to anytime you want.’ ‘But will you stay with me, Dad?’ Tom looks worried ‘Son, I’ve told you now several times You’ll be staying here with all the other nice boys while I’m working You’ll play soccer and read books And on Sundays I’ll come and see you ‘And will Lars come sometimes too?’ The boy bites his lip to keep the tremble out of his voice ‘Oh yes,’ his father says quietly The door is opened after the bell has echoed down a long empty hall somewhere And before them stands a tall slim nun, her head crowned with the white wimple and diaphanous black veil of the Sisters of St. Joseph of Carondelet ‘Come in now, out of the cold,’ she says, and takes the valise from the father’s hand ‘I’m sister Mary Margaret, Reverend Mother’s secretary Welcome to St. Joseph’s Home for Boys.’ ‘Thomas, shake the sister’s hand,’ the father whispers in a strange voice The boy reaches for the nun’s hand and it’s cool and dry in his small paw Suddenly the nun crouches down, eye level with Thomas Her eyes are grey and kind and she smiles ‘Now darling, I’m going to ask you to say goodbye to your father The other boys are all outside playing at recess And after I show you your bed in the dormitory, you can go outside and play with them.’ She smiles encouragingly ‘What’s a dormitory?’ Tom looks sullen and unsure ‘It’s a big bedroom for lots of boys just your age!’ Sister glances up at Dan over the boy’s head His eyes are full of tears He bends down to the child and hugs him roughly to his chest He buries his face in the boy’s hair, smelling its clean sweetness ‘Now Tommy,’ he begins, ‘you’ll be a good boy, won’t you? I’ll see you soon and I’ll–I’ll bring you a treat.’ ‘I don’t want a treat,’ the boy says stubbornly ‘I want to go home with you, da! I’m big! I can stay by myself! I hate it here, I know I will!’ His voice rises in the tall parlor, knocking against the stiff wooden furniture ‘Please Da!’ Sister moves swiftly, takes the boy gently by the arm and hands him the valise ‘There now Thomas, be brave and don’t make daddy worry Let’s go see your new friends.’ She guides him quickly to the door and Tom looks back over his shoulder at his father, his blue eyes blazing in his small pale face and then the child and the nun disappear behind the solid wooden door Dan stands alone in the room twisting his tweed cap in his hands This is how I imagine the day And so begins my father’s journey into a cold world, a world in which he has to make his way alone with strangers, knowing that he’s only half an orphan He’s still got a father and a brother, lots of aunts and uncles, but in the end, as the records state, there was no one to care for this boy.’ One time my father did tell me–he always claimed he loved the orphanage, the nuns were great, he had a library, he had violin lessons… you know, it was a very orderly life, and he was there from first grade through eighth grade But he told me one kind of, I thought, interesting story He would go home on a street car to his aunt’s house every Sunday night and she would give him a nickel and send him back down the street Now this is winter in St. Louis, so imagine this seven year old kid, eight year old kid So one time when he went back, he said he didn’t want to back to the orphanage So he ran to the house next door and knocked on the door and asked the lady if he could come live with her So much for it being wonderful But I think they did the best they could And there were a lot of kids there I met a lot of people whose parents were there who would… like, during times when people

were poor or they were down on their luck, they would put the child there temporarily So after eighth grade, then he was allowed to live with the aunt and uncle, because then he could go to work, he could help out, he could caddy at the golf course He went on to high school My parents met in 1937 My mother was a senior in high shcool and for many years they had told us the same story: they met on the tennis courts Interesting to my mother, they had met just a year after his father died My father had never told her that She thought his father had died when he was much younger But let me just read a little of my parents’ meeting because it’s typical of my father ‘If my father’s life were a movie, the summer of 1937 would be the point of the hero’s change of fortune.’ This is one story we children heard over and over, how Mom and Dad met My father’s early life would be portrayed in black and white, or maybe in sepia tones of melancholy But the scenes from the summer of 1937 would burst into technicolor My mother was 17, just graduated from Loretto Academy in south St. Louis, where she had taken a street car from her home on Barrett St. in north St. Louis My mother said she was always afraid of the nuns, but as soon as she and her friends left school in the afternoon, they lit up cigarettes, blowing the smoke defiantly towards the window to shock any of the nuns who might be watching All that summer after graduation she had begged her mother to let her go to Webster College, a school for women in leafy suburban Webster Groves However, her mother, always very practical, insisted that she take a year’s course in typing, shorthand, and book keeping at Rubicon Business School ‘After all,’ my grandmother explained, ‘none of my mother’s brothers had gone to college, so why did she think she needed a college degree?’ So on a late summer afternoon in 1937, Margaret and her best friend Sue and a boy from across the street headed to Fairgrounds Park, two blocks from her home on Barrett Street Just recently, when I was talking to my mother, I asked her what she had been wearing that day ‘Oh, I made myself a pair of shorts and a halter top,’ she says ‘What? I didn’t know you could sew And Mom, how could you play tennis in a halter top?’ We both start laughing, and I realize I don’t really know my mother very well after all these years Tall and slim with long brown hair styled in the pageboy of the day, she must have been quite a sight walking under the elm trees on a hot summer afternoon dappled by sunshine towards the tennis courts Suddenly, their group noticed a handsome dark haired guy in his early twenties sitting on a bench nearby He was dressed all in white: shirt, shorts, and tennis shoes, and he was fiddling with a tennis racket Beside him perched a Scotty dog As the three friends bounced the ball around, the young man approached and asked if they needed a fourth for their game My mother says she was worried since she thought his play would be far superior to theirs, but he was awful It was probably the first time Tom O’Shay had played tennis, but he faked it as well as he could Why, I wonder, was he sitting there dressed up to play tennis Was he hoping to pick up a girl? Somehow this whole scene is typical of my father He would dress the part and then con his way into seizing an opportunity Later, he walked her home and met her mother and some of her brothers who were hanging around on the front porch And so it begins: my mother, at seventeen, meets the man she will spend her life with, for better or for worse And my father finds a big Irish Catholic family that will become the warm funny family he never had as an orphan child.’ They were married in ’42, which was the middle of the war, and Dad was already in the Marine Corps by the time. Then they went out to California And sometime in the three months while he was in training, I was conceived Then he was sent out My mother tells kind of a funny story about the day he left, she was so distraught, he was going on a ship, he would down in the south Pacific, he’d probably get killed, she already knew she was pregnant. So she went to see Casablanca She came back home and went upstairs, and all of a sudden she hears rocks against her window, and it’s Dad down there She goes, ‘Tom, what are you…?’ He says, ‘My ship didn’t go out today, I have one more night.’

She goes, ‘No, now I have to say goodbye all over again!’ She was so upset he came back! It wasn’t at all a favor as far as she was concerned Dad, in his typical way, joked around about the war but it was a very bad thing They were on a little tiny island called Vella Lavella, up in the Soloman Islands The Japanese were in caves You’ve seen those movies, Marines had to come in and go through the jungle During that time my father got malaria And the way I know all this is I sent away for his records Luckily the Marine Corp records were still there For twenty bucks you can get your parents or grandparents–if you’re a family member–and they sent me a huge envelope It was this high! Filled with every evaluation, every order he got, and my brother said to me, ‘Marian, what are you going to do if there’s something bad in there about Dad?’ I said, ‘Well, I don’t know! I’ll just have to read it.’ But it wasn’t bad. It was very interesting He became extremely ill with malaria They say more Marines suffered from malaria than ever got killed or wounded in the war Malaria doesn’t go away They had a treatment called Atabrine at the time Anyway, Dad got quite sick I’ll just read a little bit of that ‘Finally, after fighting malaria for three months on the island, my father landed at U.S. Naval Hospital #4 in Wellington, New Zealand–‘ So they took him on a Red Cross ship and took him to sick bay ‘He was in bad shape, both mentally and physically Malaria had taken its toll on his spirits and he was suffering from combat fatigue, sleeplessness, nervousness, weakness He had lost thirty pounds since the fighting began at Vella Lavella The doctors in New Zealand ordered intensive malaria treatment, prolonged rest period and reassignment of duty By mid-January of 1944, his condition had improved and the malaria smear was negative Be February of that year, the report says, ‘The patient has improved generally a great deal, is very active and alert now, and shows real interest Malaria smears remain negative Weight: 158 DIscharged to duty this day.’ But also the psychiatrist report said that Dad was depressed and thought that his training–he was made second lieutenant by this time because he was older–he felt he was not a good enough commander leading his men into battle That sort of shocked me I never thought that’s how he felt, that he was responsible for too many guys getting killed ‘There’s one of Dad’s stories that I remember from this time in New Zealand, involving a girl.’ Now remember, my father’s married and I’m already born ‘A very pretty young woman named Nora Evidently, during my father’s recuperation, he was invited to parties and teas at the houses of some well-off New Zealanders I have no idea how he met these people Of course, we have to remember this was war time and most young men were away, so a handsome dark haired Marine officer would have been quite welcome at parties There’s a picture of Dad with Nora.’ He sent this to my mother ‘Standing on a long, well-manicured lawn, and on the back Dad’s handwriting: Nora, New Zealand, 1944 When I asked my mother about this picture all these years later, she says, ‘Oh, I think he was in love with her.’ ‘What? Well weren’t you afraid he wouldn’t come home?’ ‘Oh,’ she laughs, ‘I knew he’d come home.’ I don’t dare ask any more, and imagination takes over My father, never a perfect man, was a devout Catholic his whole life Was he tempted, so far away from home? Recovering from terrible illness and stress to have an affair with Nora? In the photo, she looks happy. They both do Lonely, still frail, did my father grab at some immediate happiness while trying not to remember a certain tall girl who waited for him back in St. Louis, bending down to hold the hand of their baby girl as she toddled along side her Somehow, I don’t believe he was unfaithful to my mother My parents joked about Nora from time to time, with Dad always saying ‘I should have married Nora down in New Zealand!’ So I don’t know what happened This is his story and I’m sticking to it Well, if you want to hear the rest of the story about this man, you’ll have to buy the book

But I would just like have a little final reflection I had come across a quote by a Jesuit priest who teaches philosophy at Fordham He says, ‘Part of being human is to reveal, manifest or express ourselves to other persons, to make manifest our story The story of each person is what gives us our identities and enables us to relate as a person to others The memoir writer self communicates and if the memoir is artful enough, it transcends the limits of the self and reaches some kind of universal, human reality that the reader can relate to.’ Flannery O’Conner said, ‘The writer operates at a peculiar crossroads, where time and place and eternity somehow meet The problem is to find that location.’ And the other day, I came across this line from a poem by Elizabeth Bishop that summarizes what the memoir can do ‘Life, and the memory of it, so compressed they turn into each other Which is which?’ Thank you so much