Memoir: Why We Read about Other Lives

I’ve fallen into a vast pool of delicious memoir reading lately. My novels from the library are returned unread and those on suspended hold remain so as I read memoirs instead. My list of memoirs on suspended hold grows too, until, for the first time (I didn’t even know it was possible) I’m told I’ve reached my hold limit. I knock some of the novels off and add a seventh memoir. I choose the recorded version when one is available so I can “read” two books at a time.

Reading—or wanting to—threatens to interfere with house, garden, and grounds work and Airbnb preparations, to say nothing of writing my own memoir. I discipline myself to create space for it all in the nooks and crannies among visiting Mama, driving to Seattle each week for two days with the littles, and my small job. And on the occasional blue sky day, as the season  s l o w l y  circles back toward summer, the itch to get onto the back roads and trails tickles me. But there are the responsibilities. And the garden! And the books!

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What is the fascination with reading about ordinary people’s lives? Why has memoir surged in popularity in the past two decades?

I have learned about growing old in America from observing my mother and from professionals on the subject. I have learned about the challenges of being a caregiver from being a caregiver. I have come to understand—or at least accept—rather than just lament, my thorny relationship with my mother from reading memoirs. Each one contains gems of “Oh! That’s me!” recognition. I learn new ways to handle a situation, those that generally drive me to drink and hair tearing, when I see it through someone else’s eyes. I feel less alone when I when I realize mine is not the only crazy-making mother and I am not the only earth scum daughter.

Two years ago, as I compared care of my number three grandson and my 98-year-old mother, I wrote in this blog that there is not a book called “What to Expect in the 98th Year”; but actually there is, it’s just not all in one place. It’s scattered throughout the pages of memoirs. The characteristics don’t track as well as they do at the beginning of life, of course. As the years stretch out, the age at which food doesn’t taste good, bowels don’t work, muscles stop working, and brains go haywire varies. But if we live out our own life expectancy to its natural conclusion, we all become “old” at some age, be it 68 or 98.

Speaking of life expectancy, there have been an inordinate number of deaths and goodbyes around me lately. Last weekend I attended a memorial service for a high school classmate. This weekend I will join Mama and my sister to say goodbye to our neighbor of 50 years. In three weeks, Rebecca and I will join our sister and cousins in Michigan for a last goodbye to our uncle who anchored my father’s family to the age of 106. The mothers of two friends (one of whom I’ve never met), with whom I’ve shared kinship through mothercare, died in the past few days. And this week my cousin’s son unexpectedly left us much too soon.

As these dear ones return to the earth, new life is springing up. Rebecca and I got Mama out into the natural world on Easter, where the sounds were birds and water fowl rather than walkers bumping into things and old people whining; where the scent was green and fragrant rather than of food for the masses and soiled incontinence pants. (She enjoyed it in spite of her misgivings and caveats about going.)

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The perennials are reluctant this year, but they are gradually overpowering the cold. One of my bleeding hearts is blooming, one of the hostas has broken ground, one of the Lenten roses has shy blossoms, and the fern fiddleheads are unfurling above the terra firma.

I’m growing new life too. My Airbnb should be online this weekend. I was an overachieving goody good and inquired at the county public works office about rules and regulations, which clearly no other Airbnb operator has every done. “Doing it right” cost me $200 plus the cost of the carbon monoxide detectors and additional smoke alarms I installed this week throughout the house. I’m picking up the signed permit today and scheduling an onsite safety inspection.

The third phase of my garden path is half done, circling around to meet itself, as I have done as I approach the end of year five in my childhood home. When the path is completed and the Airbnb is online, I can move on to hiking, and to developing a writing circle for women to unearth on the page the extraordinary in their ordinary lives. And here we are at memoir again.

We post on Facebook and other social media and some of us blog—each offering a tiny memoir. We are desperate to share our lives with others, to connect with humanity, to be known. We read to learn not only from professionals—who often haven’t been in our shoes—but from those who have been in the trenches. We do it all to get off the freaking island on which our busy lives have stranded us. Thank you for joining me here week after week.

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For a list of the memoirs I’ve been reading, head over to my website at Writing Down the Story.com.

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8 thoughts on “Memoir: Why We Read about Other Lives

  1. I love nothing more than seeing a book list from a favorite writer. Understanding the source from which others draw from is fascinating ; who inspires those who inspire us. Thank you for sharing.
    Congrats on the Airbnb ! I feel like I want to get the W.W.G.D. wristband as a reminder that setting priorities takes discipline and that there can be a big payoff if done with the right mix of love and diligence. I hope it is successful beyond your wildest dreams !

    ( Love the photo of you three. It makes me happy just looking at it ! )

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Hi Gretchen,

    In all of your perusing did you ever read Madeleine L’Engle’s Summer of the Great-Grandmother? It’s another memoir of sorts by the author of A Wrinkle In Time. I’ve come to enjoy her non-fiction works just as much as her fiction. Anyway, Great-Grandmother is a reflection on the final summer that L’Engle’s mother is living with the extended family as she deals with the later stages of dementia. It’s very poignant. Also, I believe I was reading it when I first ran across your blog posts about 4 years ago…I picked it up right about the time that my favorite aunt was diagnosed with aggressive Alzheimer’s.

    Between L’Engle’s words and yours I’ve begun coming to terms with the perpetual sense of loss that comes with growing up and growing old–both for the watchers and those experiencing things first hand.

    Thank you again for being so candid in this space.

    Regards,
    gheeta
    (from Salt Lake City, UT)

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    • I have not read that, Gheeta, only her trilogy. And it’s not among the six pages of her titles on the library website. 😦 I will look elsewhere for it. Thank you.

      Living in my childhood home, there is indeed, such a sense of loss mingled with the memories. Bygone days. It’s brings me to my knees some days. It’s very odd. “They Left Us Everything” is helping me get in touch with the desire to find my mother here. I find I have almost no memory of her from my childhood, it’s so clouded with the present. Maybe it will come when she is gone. I hope so. Thank you for your thoughts. I value them always. Gretchen

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