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Sharon Fagan McDermott: On Memory and Writing

In one of my favorite memories, I am peeking through my fingers, shivering, as New York Harbor, the heliport, the bustling-streets of New York City, and–even the skyscrapers— plummet away from my feet. I am dreadfully afraid within this glass-bottomed helicopter as we rise into a blue sky, soaring above the glittering waters of Upper New York Bay.  My larger-than-life grandfather, Maurice Roche, is next to me, smiling in his glasses and gray suit and—for the duration of that ride—without his usual cigar in hand. Instead, he wraps his big hand around my seven-year-old hand and gives it a comforting squeeze.

I am sure it is a safe assumption to write “I was wearing a flowered dress with white anklets and black-patent leather shoes, my bangs askew on my forehead, my freckles too-pronounced on my nose and my cheeks.” But my memory hasn’t actually held onto what I looked like on that momentous day. I base those details on photographs and what I know to be true back then:  for one week each summer the three older girls in my family—Patricia, Maureen, and me, and our cousin Katie were invited to stay with my mother’s parents Maurice and Florence Roche in Jackson Heights, New York. Neither of my grandparents ever needed to learn to drive in New York, and so they didn’t.  Instead they took us on many adventures, introducing us to New York’s finest transportation of those years: trains, subways, the Circle Line Cruise around Manhattan, and my favorite: those bright yellow-checkered cabs with the jump-seat in them just for children.  Grandpa and Grandma took us to restaurants where the piano player crooned songs from the 1930’s and 40’s. Sometimes, back in their brownstone after dinner, my Grandfather would teach us to play poker, handing each of us a roll of quarters with which to bet. (My grandmother was less pleased at that turn of events.) There were rules during those blissful summer visits. And one of the main rules was that we were to dress up for the week we were with them—no casual clothes allowed! So, none of us ever considered packing jeans, shorts, T-shirts, or flip-flops into our suitcases. As Grandma explained to me once; “dressing up marks our time as special and sets it apart from other ordinary days.” 

Perhaps this way of marking the days as extra-ordinary helped them to stay so vividly in my memory—at least in some respects. The day of the helicopter ride was one of the most enchanting of my life, and when my Grandpa and I hovered over our destination—the gleaming green Statue of Liberty holding high her torch—and when he told me to look down, I gasped when I saw Lady Liberty’s crown packed with people who were waving up at us. First, I stared down timidly and then waved with joyful abandon.  What remained in memory was not the pilot’s face nor the whirr of helicopter blades nor the clothes I wore that day. Instead, memory captured the overwhelming love I felt for my Grandfather. How powerful he was! And how caring, his comforting girth close to me, his scent of cigar smoke and wool in my nose. And there was one other emotion that stayed deeply with me from that day: Awe. Life was full of magic and possibility!

Memory is a persnickety, unpredictable editor. My memory prioritized for posterity the sea of emotions that carried that hour in the company of my beloved grandfather—and let go of much of the brick and mortar details of that day. As I grew older,  I began to realize that while my memory was an expert at imprinting song lyrics, or moments of emotional connection with loved ones,  or lines from poems, or information on all kinds of animals that I loved (dogs and horses chief among them), it was a little too quick to jettison the nuggets of, say, what we ate that day, or what had made me laugh so hard at the dinner table, or who attended a family party, or what year I had the mumps.

I was alarmed at how much I didn’t retain! And in the fourth grade, the year I began to really relish writing—after my teacher (whose name, of course, I’ve forgotten) told me to add more details to my writing to build a stronger essay—I asked my Mom for a diary with a key for my birthday.   Thus began my many decades-long, sustained effort of writing in diaries and journals to assist me in holding onto the minutiae of my everyday life:  the “new yellow shirt” my mother surprised me with or the fact that Terry, my year-younger brother, requested “strawberry shortcake” for his birthday dinner desert that July night. My adult self laughs (kindly) at my seventh-grade self who—although being bullied by two boys that year—never once recorded that in my notebook, but instead, wrote page upon page in looped penmanship about a suede jacket with swaying fringed sleeves worn by my then boy-crush, the handsome, swaggering Jimmy Davis.

Journals became an essential “add-on” to the limits of my memory, a kind of exterior net, catching the slippery fish of details that easily leapt from mind.  And for a time, I became equally obsessed with capturing ordinary day-to-day details with my mother’s new tape recorder, a silver metal rectangle with buttons to push for playing, rewinding, and recording.  I still have the tape, which my eight-year old self-made, recording “all the sounds of a winter day.”  On it, you can hear boot crunch, the slow skid of a car’s tires trying to stop at the end of Overbrook Drive, my own huffing breath as I run in the snow, a cardinal’s string of down-slurred whistles ending in a trill, and the more-distanced sound of the neighborhood boys in LaBelle’s corner yard, jeering and laughing in the midst of their snowball fight. When I listen to it now, I am moved by this collection of sounds in the snow of that morning; it captures the ineffable threads of how our lives are woven and reminds me how much we cannot retain as we move forward. And interestingly enough, memory triggers memory—so listening to the sounds on the tape makes my body remember how bitterly cold my hands were that day, because I could not work the tape-recorder buttons with my mittens on. I remember the biting wind as I walked up and down Overbrook seeking sound. I remember my mother, afterwards, mildly scolding me for taking her tape recorder without permission, then handing me a mug of hot cocoa she had just made on the stove. Oh the layered deliciousness of the chocolate scent, the heat thawing my hands, and my mother’s good company! Had I not recorded those simple, everyday sounds, that ordinary snow day would be another bit of dissipated history.

Through jotting down the day-to-day details of life, I grew to love the forgettable minutiae that builds our hours and years. Weren’t those details what truly built a life? (I think of Eliot’s Prufrock here: “measuring out his life in coffee spoons…”)  Though my father died back in 2003, I can still see his thick, unruly eyebrows arching quizzically.  A journal entry helped me remember 15-year old George surprising 15 year-old me with a kiss as we sat on the Seaside Beach boardwalk watching the tides move in as Yes’s song “Roundabout” blared from the Tilt-A-Whirl’s speakers.  Entries also detailed harder moments. In the surgeon’s office, the surreal carnival colors of yellow Tang and orange clownfish, swimming in an enormous fish tank as I waited anxiously to be called in for surgery to remove a melanoma. Journals became my archive of the overlooked and easily forgotten.

Yes, my memory was more colander than mahogany box.  But I didn’t want to lose all of those beautiful fragile threads while retaining just the broader strokes of my life. As a writer I was greedy. I wanted all of it. Even the small moment after the amazement of a helicopter ride with my Grandpa that wonderful afternoon long ago. I wanted to hold onto the hard rectangle of chocolate Turkish Taffy still in its wrapper, smooth in my hand. To crack it against the sidewalk outside of my Grandfather’s favorite cigar shop where we had walked after dinner. The rumbling trains overhead. My grandfather unwrapping his cigar, sniffing it, sliding the gold ring off it and putting in on my thumb. I wanted again to slide one wedge of taffy in my mouth and stuff the rest of it in my sweater pocket, to put my hand in my Grandpa’s hand for the long walk home. We had had the most wonderful day. We walked toward 88th street, my mouth full of sweetness.

Copyright 2021 Sharon McDermott

Sharon McDermott’s books include Life without Furniture (Jacar, 2018). She lives in Pittsburgh.

Upper New York Bay (Wikimedia)

6 comments on “Sharon Fagan McDermott: On Memory and Writing

  1. singsharon
    May 20, 2021

    Thanks so much. Liz! You’ve given me much to think about in your ideas about forgetting as a “gift” and sometimes a “mercy.” I really appreciate you reading and responding to my essay.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Rose Mary Boehm
    May 18, 2021

    Gorgeous writing. And, yes, my memory is a sieve too, and I need the details. For me it’s a bit late. That diary went with the winds.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Barbara Huntington
    May 18, 2021

    I find it interesting that we can share nostalgia from very different childhoods

    Liked by 1 person

    • singsharon
      May 20, 2021

      What an interesting comment, Barbara! Love the idea of sharing “nostalgia from very different childhoods.”

      Liked by 2 people

  4. lizahl
    May 18, 2021

    I love how Sharon considers memory itself as an “editor” — I hadn’t thought of it this way before! And that it (memory-editor) has priorities and preferences with respect to what it selects and what it lets go. Love, too, the whole “colander v. mahogany box” metaphor. In the last ten years or so, as I get older and, to be frank, lose more and more memories (because….there are too many?), I think, too, about the sometimes-gift of that forgetting. The sometimes-mercy of it. Thanks, Sharon, for an essay that gets me thinking & feeling.

    Liked by 1 person

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