Committing To Memories

At Towson University, students young and old take the first steps as writers by putting their life experiences into words.

January 13, 2000|By Carl Schoettler | By Carl Schoettler,SUN STAFF

The woman is very young and the bitter memory barely a week old when she sits cross-legged in a Towson University classroom and reads to a rapt audience the memoir of her miscarriage.

"The thought of having a baby and a loving husband to share it with was more intoxicating than any drug. I walked around in a cloud for days.

"Until I saw blood."

She sees more blood the next day at work. She goes to the hospital, filled with disbelief and dread. She loses the baby.

She awakens the next morning, after sleeping 12 hours. She measures out three scoops of Colombian beans for coffee. She looks out the kitchen window at a small soccer ball.

"As I look," she reads, "a four-year-old boy runs to the ball, grabs it and tosses it into the air. He has on blue overalls and a striped T-shirt. His sandy blond hair catches the sun and he turns to me and smiles.

"I blink and he's gone."

The story's over. Misty Golden, 20 and a student in Diane Scharper's class in memoir writing, has read her "Final Memoir," a kind of term paper for this course. Her classmates murmur appreciation for the story and sympathy for her loss. About two-thirds of the class are women.

The writing of memoirs flourishes now that the turn of the century, the season of nostalgia and remembrance, is upon us. Best sellers "Angela's Ashes," now a movie, and " 'Tis" are memoirs. So is "Girl, Interrupted," also a new movie. Baltimore's Artscape will publish a Memoirs Project Anthology in July, with entries due March 7.

Scharper traces memoir writing back to "The Book of Job" in the Bible and enlists as memoirists such worthies as Walt Whitman and his "Song of Myself" and St. Augustine with his "Confessions."

"The earliest in this country was a memoir," she says, quoting Jay Parini, the poet. "A woman captured by the Indians about 1675."

The Enoch Pratt Library catalog emits 2,129 entries when you tap in "memoirs" -- from Memoirs of a Princess, Marie von Thurn und Taxis, to Memoirs of the Philadelphia Society for Promotion of Agriculture, Memoirs of a Soldier of the Tsar Against Napoleon and Memoirs of a Vietnamese Colonel with Ho Chi Minh, Memoirs of a Gay Jew in Nazi Berlin and Memoirs of the SS Kommandante at Auschwitz -- and the extremely popular Memoirs of a Geisha, soon to be the next blockbuster movie of Steven Spielberg, which is not a memoir at all, but fiction.

Which raises the question: how "true" must a memoir be?

"The memoir is sort of emotionally true," Scharper says. "It's telling you the truth as I see it and I remember it. It may not be the way you remember it. But it's my memoir."

And neither the memory nor the writer has to be very old, as Misty Golden's memoir shows. Scharper's class includes twenty-something women who recall schoolgirl friendships or men their first guitar and people 60 and 70 years old who write of their experience in the Depression and World War II or an escape from Nazi Germany.

Jenny Terzano and Angie Dragos, both seniors in their 20s, write very different stories about their close bonds with girlhood friends and the loss of those friendships. But their endings are remarkably similar.

"I want Heather to know more than anything," Terzano writes, "that the closeness of our friendship will never be replaced."

And Dragos closes her memoir: "Jessie was my best friend for eight years. Still today, no one else will be able to fill the place I have saved for her in my heart."

George Culbertson, 73 now and a "Golden I.D. Student" at Towson, remembers his father and a very different time.

"In 1927, my father invested the proceeds of his closed wood-working business in the great Baltimore Trust Company. He felt at the time that his investment would not have been safer, but he was wrong. This was the largest bank in Maryland and they paid better than average interest on their deposits. Depositors were given beautifully printed certificates with borders that resembled money."

The Great Depression struck in 1929. The Baltimore Trust closed and never reopened.

"Unfortunately, these certificates no longer represented money."

His father lost everything.

"At one point Dad did not earn a single day's wages for six months," Culbertson writes. "I can remember him gluing Cats Paw rubber soles on our shoes that had worn holes through to the insides. . .

"We did everything we could to survive. We gathered scrap wood and newspapers to build fires in the furnace. We looked for coal fallen along the railroad tracks. . .

"We walked three miles to get a haircut for 18 cents. Later, I got a job setting duckpins in a bowling alley and earned three cents a game."

His father didn't find a steady job until 1932. But in 1933 he bought a five-year-old Model A Ford with faded paint that you risked busted knuckles when you cranked it to start.

"Mom patched up the worn seat covers with needle and thread," Culbertson writes. "Dad patched the fabric roof where it leaked at the edges."

They dubbed the car "Emma" and they kept it until 1939.

"Emma took us to many new and exciting places."

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