So much of our lives and our relationships are narrowed down or broadened by our perspective. Like artists who can paint the same scene in multiple ways, we also view life from our individual vantage points. Vantage point is all about the perspective where the artist is standing in relationship with a vanishing point in a far horizon of sand and sea or a great land mass with clouds in even greater mass. Or it might be an eagle’s eye or yours in a small hand mirror.
How you choose to see things is much like a movie director’s or photographer’s, in which you decide your distance in relationships afar or pulled-in closely, so close you can detail another’s profile, eye or ear, a lock of hair. Let’s examine three stories.
For you see, I like telling stories, the true kind, not the lying kind,
nor the fictional kind.
I see that in my granddaughters as they all have been lost within their individual imaginary worlds. Sometimes they’re side by side with sisters or cousins, placing 4″ Belle, Cinderella and Anna figures in the Veggie Tale castle and Sophie’s Pet Salon.
They’re each creating narratives and actions—fiction threaded through their nonfiction from their life experiences, melding them with movies enjoyed in much much fantasy.
I’m drawn to the nonfiction kind.
According to Ramsdell’s essay, “nonfiction expressions are numberless.”
Yes, we tell stories to explain ourselves.
Stories have the power to illuminate to another what events and relationships have been layered into our lives to build upon our todays, affecting our tomorrows.
Our stories carry through our lives and illustrate who we are now because of where we’ve been.
They offer relevance to our truths, kinship to our causes, establishing us as firm believers in its remedy.
Telling our stories explains us, and if we’re listening to others, they connect us.
We imagine our lives in its instant shots (maybe selfies?), scenes and sequences. We live them–these stories of ours and others–in the long-shot up to an extreme close-up shot.
Initially we usually don’t care to pull in too close, not sure if that person is the real deal perceived. When we do, sometimes we decide to pull back our zoom lens from this awkward intimacy, the candid reality we’re not sure we can handle.
Our Snapshots in Life
In Sharry Wright’s essay “Snapshot,” she shares just that—a snapshot—two run-on sentences, one per paragraph. It’s a scene I’ve relived during National Lampoon’s Christmas’ many reruns during the holidays. (Quick disclaimer: I’ve yet to watch it from start to finish.) In Wright’s tale she describes her big crazy family in its time—fifty years before—and with the same distance now and then— arm’s length, as in a looong arm’s length. We readers are behind her watching over her shoulder distantly. A ceiling view perhaps?
It doesn’t take much to spur her thoughts to that day: a flight of stairs does it. It was the Christmas when the usual happened, “Great Uncle Earl said the blessing in his Baptist deacon’s voice,” and the unusual “Great Aunt Velma (seventy-two at the time, [she describes] my mother’s mother’s sister) got up from the dining room table.”
And a gloriously set table it was.
To the narrator’s frustration before the food could be served, Great Aunt Velma had to take a snapshot of the turkey. In jest, Wright shares the calamity of Aunt Velma opening the door to the basement, not the closet where her camera was stored, only for Velma to fall down those stairs to her death. Emotionless, this hungry preteen opened the phone book for the number to call for an ambulance.
Wright’s detachment allows us to see this as a comedy with caricatures of relatives we’ve experienced in our lives, at best, or a National Lampoon movie, at worst.
A How-To Deal with Death Narrative
In Lisa Harris’ “Writing the Sharp Edges of Grief” we approach distantly with a twenty-year old. Harris goes with other volunteers from a youth outreach program to express her rehearsed condolence to comfort a high school sophomore. Nile had just lost his father to cancer. Harris is sure, even though she’s never experienced death, she knows just what to do. She’s studied Kubler-Ross’s five stages of grief in her Psych 101. She notes a facedown paperback of On Death and Dying. Oh, yes, she knows all about that book.
She’s disarmed though by the boy’s mother’s friendly greeting, cheerfully walking the group of friends back to her son’s room. The son Nile also acts as though all is well. So have they already cycled through those five stages? Conversations flow easily. Observant Harris pulls in the camera’s eye to a close-up of the trashcan with its overflowing wadded-up tissues: signs of grief.
Harris writes, drawing us closer to her thoughts and emotional response, “I had knocked on Nile’s door expecting a cliché, expecting flowers and cards, shaky hugs and tears. But Nile’s grief was not public, not a thing to be shared with his youth leader.” She had come to comfort a hurting fifteen year old, instead finding crumpled tissues and with it the depth of empathy.
Harris cycles through her epiphany. Words and concepts from a Psych 101 textbook fade away to allow lives with flesh and blood to engage themselves. With this she journeys into her early years as a mother and trying to understand waves of grief—the faraway waves that roar closer to slap her in the face.
When her daughter Jessica is in the fifth-grade, they both face a tragic death when a classmate of her daughter’s is murdered by a psychotic mother. We enter Jessica’s room with Harris to see a shrine set-up on Jessica’s dresser. For those few sentences we journey through our own blundering explanations to our own children and our attempts to explain mental illness while questioning children dying violently. Sometimes we find no words. We are simply there for the other.
How Memory Connects Us
In Lori Jakiela’s “Holy” I’m drawn into my own experiences with my mother’s voice interweaving throughout this complicated scene. Jakiela’s mother is dying, and within this morning baking lesson, we find a grown daughter pulling her mother in close only to push her away again.
Her mother worries about her daughter’s soul, she worries that her daughter won’t know how to make a nut roll. A good, no, great, nut roll. We’re pulled in close to Jakiela as she clutches her cup of coffee, “instant, too much cream and sugar, the way my father liked it, not me.” With her father gone five years, she now has to grasp, possibly clutch, her mother and her impending death.
Only her mother’s words, her dictates aren’t the ones Jakiela needs. With this I relate in ways, in the what-could-be’s, like the relationship I have with my daughter but always wanted with my mother. As with Jakiela’s essay we’re drawn through time that pulls us close even when we don’t want to draw near.
“When I die, I want to be wearing my new pink chiffon,” my own mother instructed, usually out of the blue when a lull in the conversation leant itself to such planning.
“You’re not going to die!” I’d say, having already forgotten her former requests for her burial gown. Jakiela’s mother had reasons for her hourglass sand to be pouring. I never thought my mother did.
It’s been almost twenty years since my mother’s death. I believe I pulled out her ecru lace gown. A spray of yellow roses covered her already selected casket in her prepaid burial site.
In 1954, my mother was pregnant with me when her mother died. Until this year I had never connected her disconnection with me, and why she clung to my older brother. He was the child who had sat at her mother’s kitchen table in Wilmot, Arkansas. He had established being the apple of both their eyes.
I was the baby who cried at night when Mother wanted to. So Mother kept that death with her, her grief private. The world at large saw her as a strong brilliant woman, whose crumpled tissues I found in her bedroom the many times she wasn’t there.
Dr. Heidi Harris writes, “Mother loss can leave a hole that looks much deeper than you might at first believe. And, ironically, the one woman who might help you out of that hole is the one buried in the hole itself.”
The good news for me and you is in Psalm 68:6 “God sets the lonely in families . . .”
And it was in my twenties when Mother and I both developed a deeper relationship to the Lord. When she died, I knew I would miss her, but I was at peace, realizing she was no longer in her physical battle. I also knew I had worked to have the best relationship possible. I certainly meant well. Does that count?
Wes Hilliard– a dedicated man of God and minister in Van Buren (and my husband’s cousin) shared a THOUGHT FOR THE DAY that goes well with this post.
Elisabeth Kübler-Ross, a pioneer of the hospice care movement, said, ‘People are like stained-glass windows. They sparkle and shine when the sun is out, but when the darkness sets in, their true beauty is revealed only if there is a light from within.’
May the Light of Jesus shine through your broken and stained glass today!
“The light shines in the darkness and the darkness cannot overcome it!” John 1:5.
“You are the light of the world!” Matthew 5:14 — Jesus
P.S. I must explain this is not a regular post. I have enrolled at UALR in two graduate courses in the same master of arts degree I received back in the 90s. In this assignment we had to blog our responses to three essays we selected from a designated magazine and respond to them in light of some of our previous readings.
Check-out the Art page, especially if you know Cary & Rita Sills who are missionaries in Guatemala.
Please take a minute and learn about BACA–Bikers Against Child Abuse here: I don’t have a direct link. Press onlyinark.com then go to the Homegrown tab.. There’s also an article about Tipton & Hurst where my daughter gets to play with flowers (and does much much more:) also on the Homegrown page.
12 thoughts on “Up Close and Personal? Or So Far Away?”
I am moved by your connection between your birth and your mother’s grief. While I don’t have that kind of insight about the disconnect that I experienced with my mother, maturity has finally allowed me to not take it personally.
I know, Pam, and that becomes part of our healing, doesn’t it! As children we used our playtime imaginations to wield some power in narrating our imaginary stories colored by that always-present reality something is amiss. Looking back, we can realize it was more about them and what they had experienced before us and then during our formative years. We both chose to mature into who we are and hopefully be sensitive to others who also lived through that pain. Thank you for reading. It means a lot. You’d like this class and professor.
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Hi, Ann, I applaud you for your introductory “For, you see, I like telling stories, the true kind, not the lying kind, nor the fictional kind.” It drew me in, it made me trust you, it invited me to read more. Your review of “Snapshot” identified two of the author’s successful techniques: two run-on sentences, one per paragraph–truly literary snapshots. Thanks for pointing that out. I appreciate, especially, how you related to the author of “Holy” and then shared your personal loss of your mother. I lost my mother when she was only 57; I was 32. Somehow, though I knew she was dying, I never really connected that she would soon be gone. Somehow mothers. Don’t. Die.
Thank you, Mary. Even being 32 is young to lose your mother. I was 43 and Mother was 69. That is young to me since I’m 62 now and think about all the living I have to live, the time to be with my family and get those dreams realized. At 32, like me, you probably still had a lot of questions about life and family history. If you haven’t read Dr. Harris’ blog, do so.
I love your bravery, and I love how you have book ended this blog post. You said at the beginning “We tell stories to explain ourselves. Stories have the power to illuminate to another what events and relationships have been layered into our lives to build upon our todays, affecting our tomorrows.
Our stories carry through our lives and illustrate who we are now because of where we’ve been.” I truly enjoyed your reviews on the other works, but your connection with “Holy,” and how you connect it to your mother’s death, her mother’s death, the relationship with the two of you, and now your relationship with your own daughter made this assignment seem more than just a review of three pieces- something Dr. Harris probably wanted. I have yet to experience the death of my mother- thank the good Lord- but I might have felt more empathy reading this than I have had in the past.
I also want to thank you for the “two run ons, one paragraph” catch as well. I had to go back through once or twice, but I did notice the technique and how it worked.
Thank you for your notes.
Keep up the good work and keep writing.
AJ, I had to read your response twice and teared up each time. Thank you. You are young and gifted. Those who read your writings are moved. So thank you and you keep writing.
When I read the opening lines of your blog, I knew that I was in for something different. Your connection with “Holy” and how you’ve written about the death of your mother in relation to it makes me long for the same sort of perspective when dealing with my own fathers death. I know these things take time. I want to thank you for adding your perspective to this piece and sharing some of yourself with us, even though it was most likely difficult. I’m sorry for your loss.
Thank you, Haile. I am sorry for your loss. It is a mixed bag, death is, and how we love and miss them. And I suppose, we’re saddened by the ending of a life. When my mother died, I knew we had developed into the best relationship we could have. When my estranged dad died a few months later though, I was saddened he chose to never be a “father.” His loss and mine. But we do work to have better relationships as a result. Writing helps, so does sharing.
Thank you for this blog, Ann. I struggle with death as well, both in the remembering details of pre-death persons and in dealing with my own mortality. I remember a quote a long time ago about having children being an act of bravery because you were creating people who were mortal and would be here on earth for such a short while. I haven’t written about either of my parent’s deaths since I have had my own children.
I see so many connections between our experience and writing. I look forward to walking this path with you, even if only for a few months.
I do, too. The ending with my mother memory came as I typed my review. Writing can be a healing thing, can’t it!
Yes, it can. Chuck Anderson’s Writing and Healing addresses this issue head on. 🙂
I’ll have to get that. He was my graduate advisor in the 90s, and he made Rhetorical Theory relevant!