Posted by: jeannineatkins | May 18, 2012

Remembering … and a Little Bit of Research

Yesterday I gave a dinner talk to the Pioneer Valley Reading Council about my work, and part of my message was that all research doesn’t need to end up in that genre called a research paper. I spoke about how not having taken any history courses in college, my life writing about history began when I was in my twenties and sorted through some of my Grandmère’s things after she died. This archiving, which my uncles called cleaning, raised as many questions as answers about a woman whose accent and habits sometimes embarrassed her three sons, but as granddaughter, I was totally smitten. Genevieve brought a sense of style from Paris to New Jersey, even if she didn’t update it over passing decades: she stuck with blue eye shadow and espadrilles into her eighties, and never wore pants in her life. Here’s a picture of her when she was in her twenties, in that roaring decade.

Not long before she died, she’d told me that I might have anything from what was sometimes called her art studio, sometimes a side porch. Here are a set of her dried paints and some sketches she did of patients as a Red Cross nurse during WWI:

 

I saved paints with gorgeous labels and fragile sketchbooks, and tossed paintbrushes that didn’t brush. That kind of looking, assessing what to keep and what to throw out, pondering, seeking clues about a life, is what I do as a researcher. In my talk, I went on to suggest ways students might mix imagination, which may be as filled with treasure and junk as attics, with research.

When I spoke with some teachers who lingered afterward, I was happy that one told me, “You just gave me my June lesson plan,” but more came up to talk about their own family memories. One woman told me of a deferred need to put down stories, including one of an ancestor whose father forbid her to become a nurse, and who ended up nursing this man in his old age. Another woman told me that she recalled asking her mother about her grandmother’s stories, and being told, “They passed away with her,” and realizing she might soon tell her grandchildren the same thing about her mother. Cutting short the third time she told me, “I’m not a writer,” I said, “Just put down memories when they come to you, without worrying about language or structure. Use ten minutes here or there.”

She nodded. I hope that was a promise. Teachers are so busy caring for others, but I hope some take the chance to write when their students do, perhaps even sharing with them some parts of their real lives, which may be as important as anything on the curriculum. The first story I ever published was about going through my Grandmère’s paintings, paper fans, saved menus, and rosaries, learning from what my dad and uncles would have thrown away. So much of what I write now comes from what was saved, but often carelessly, remaining at least half-hidden. Fragile, shadowy, and important, like the short stories told in a rush as I packed books, wound an extension cord, and tried to let my colleagues know that everything they remember matters.

 

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Responses

  1. LOVE the sketches! She sounds like a wonderful person. 🙂

  2. She was a really important person to me for her passion for beauty, among other more practical family members. I wish I could show you all the sketchbooks, Rose! So gorgeous.

  3. As usual, so generous, Jeannine. And I love Genevieve in her 80’s!

    • She was as beautiful in her 80’s as in her 20’s; I keep that photograph of her with my grandfather beside this photo.

  4. Jeannine, I don’t always take time to read your words, but when I do, I am always enthralled with the wonderful thinking and this story (presentation) did not disappoint. How beautiful your grandmere was & I loved the things you saved of hers, the special parts of her life that meant something to you!

  5. “So much of what I write now comes from what was saved, but often carelessly, remaining at least half-hidden. Fragile, shadowy, and important, like the short stories told in a rush as I packed books, wound an extension cord, and tried to let my colleagues know that everything they remember matters.” – Wow, does that fit right in with what I’m planning to write about! Beautifully said.

    My mother died 2 years ago and my father, 8. Just now I am beginning to think of them as people beyond mom and dad and I SO wish I had done that while they were alive! There is so much we could have talked about. I’m passing on that thought to my 2 grown kids, to look at their mom and dad as people, and to get to know us while we’re still here.

    I went through my mom’s school things and came across her yearbook from high school. She went to Walnut Hill in Natick, MA, once a prep school, now a prestigious arts school. She said that Walnut Hill was the happiest period in her life and the pictures from that era show it. She was gregarious and outgoing and I was struck at how much she looked like my daughter in her yearbook picture. I made a copy of that picture and another of her in a beautiful dress, and hung them on the wall. That’s how I want to remember her.

    You have precious things from your grandmere, aren’t you lucky!

    • Susan, I’m glad this struck a chord. Some things do naturally get lost, and we can embrace mysteries as well as what’s saved. Your mom may never have guessed that those pictures were the ones that would have meant the most to you. I was talking to someone yesterday about a friend who wanted her mother’s china to go to a niece, but neither she nor her mom actually wanted them. I felt a bit sad, but also that the bequeathed china was nothing that they associated with this woman; they had their own ways of remembering. Generations: so fascinating! (p.s. I’m finally reading Mrs. Emerson’s Wife and love it!)

      • Oooo, would love to talk to you about that book! And to think I’m lucky enough to be mentored by that author. God is good. 🙂

  6. You are so lucky to have such an interesting person in your family. I look forward to seeing how you use your memories of her AND your imagination to create something new!

  7. Ever since I was a little girl and now decades after her death I’ve felt lucky to have known her. I never properly learned French and I’m sure was a disappointment in other ways, but when I wrote about the Curies in Borrowed Names, I was partly seeing Paris through her eyes; I loved knowing my Grandmere was not so far away tending soldiers while Irene and Marie brought x-ray machines to the front, all wearing their Red Cross veils.

  8. That is soooo cool. My Grandfather was a soldier in WWI and won the Croix de Guerre and the Legion of Honor from the French as well as being a liason officer because he spoke French. This was after he was an infantry officer, from Springfield, Mass. I have letters from him to my Aunt Priscilla from France. He’d make little funny faces in the capital letters.
    Have you read the Maisie Dobbs books? WW I nurse with PTSD becomes a detective-psychologist. I love them.

    • Wow. Your grandfather sounds amazing, and it’s so cool to know those connections. I didn’t know about that series, and just looked them up and they indeed sound like good reading. Thanks for the suggestion. (and Maisie Dobbs is a great name!)

  9. Jeannine….LOVED the paints and sketch book drawings…keeping people in the conversation…so vital…Just ran into a woman who bought a collage of mine many years ago…she told me that she still enjoys it upon her wall and always will. Wow….my thank you just didn’t even sound like…enough.

    • Those things on the wall; I hope all artists can know or guess how much they mean to the people who pass them every day. Hope you are getting lots of great comments this weekend!

  10. What a beautiful post. I’ve been delving into childhood memories as of late – trying to remember, and trying to deepen my writing. It’s funny how once I started consciously trying to remember, a floodgate of memories (and emotions) followed.
    xoxo

    • It’s interesting to think of remembering as a way to deepen your writing (or maybe you meant it as two things, but I can see how they might strand). Yes, amazing how one small detail can set everything else rolling. How cool would it be to do a remembering retreat with you!


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