My first memory is of an open coffin in the living room of my great aunt & uncle’s home. When I reminiscence about my childhood, I recall many happy events held in that home. In the coffin lay a beautiful woman, who I discovered later was my great aunt’s sister. As an adult, when I discussed this memory with my momma she said, “Cheryl, you couldn’t have remembered that, you were only 8 months old at the time she died.”
Yesterday when I opened my sleepy eyes, my grandmother Bertha’s smiling face greeted me. I felt her papery thin skin and smelled her familiar Jergen’s lotion scent. She leaned down and placed a soft kiss on my forehead. I then stumbled to the bathroom and stared into the mirror at my pillow-creased face, where I fully expected to see the mark of her lipstick kiss on my forehead. Alas, it wasn’t there. Grandma Bertha’s been dead for over forty years, yet my memory of her is still very much alive.
As a child growing up in the southern most part of Louisiana I have many memories of people who I never actually met in the flesh. There was the deceased cousin, whose place setting sat empty at every family gathering. There was my grandmother, who spoke to her babies every time she climbed the steps to her house (they were buried under those steps in shoe boxes). Then there were the many conversations I overheard; on one occasion it was between my momma and another relative cooking in the kitchen. My momma said, “Would you get the sugar for the peas? You know Aunt Elizabeth will not eat peas without the sugar.” Aunt Elizabeth was the lovely lady, laid out in my great aunt’s living room when I was an infant.
Do our memories shape how and what we write? For myself, I say yes. I have attempted to create stories that did not include the specters that float along the pathways of memory in my brain. Those stories were laborious and never quite right. Was my first memory the proverbial nail in the coffin, for the type of stories I would write? I like to think so. Southern Gothic is my preferred genre.
One of the first laws of writing is to write what you know. I know dead people. They walk beside me daily. Well, at least in my memory.