A Childhood Moment

By Rose Osborne

Rose produced this essay in my recent workshop on Flash Memoir for the Association of Personal Historians.

The sky was so vast and blue in my hometown of Parkes, Australia. Mum was very strict when I was a young child of around five years, and on sunny days would usher my younger brother and me outside so our young spirits could soak up the natural environment and soothing air.

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I didn’t mind as the sweet clean country air sent a sense of freedom and exhilaration deep into my soul, a sensation that has stayed with me all my days and becomes activated whenever I visit the country.

My mother cooked three hot meals each day for her growing family in those days. The kitchen produced such a complexity of smells from the casseroles, roasts, cakes and scones that at times, to my child-self, I could not distinguish one smell from the other and the intense moist cooking heat just drowned all my senses.

Apart from being a confusion of odours, Mum’s kitchen was hot, humid and noisy. The noise from the Sunbeam Mixmaster droned out the screeches of the old washing machine thrashing our clothes into a submission of cleanliness and the radio blasted Mum’s favourite songs into her personal hemisphere. Mum would sing along in her sweet but very high pitched singing voice as if this was the hook that ensured she stayed securely perched in her imagined reality.

One day things were a little more chaotic than usual. My brother was obsessed with American cowboy and Indian stories from our newly acquired television. He raced around the house like he was riding a wild Australian brumby stallion over rugged bush terrain, conquering its strength and agility with his own imagination and shooting everything in sight with his toy gun. This day he leaned towards the baby in the high chair as if he was delivering one final fatal shot and the baby screamed one of those high-pitched piercing sounds that only babies can make.

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A tightness rose in my chest that extended itself deep into my very being. I held my ears as if I could physically stop the battleground noises from entering my head. The room spun frantically in unison with the quivering decibels of sound around me but never touched my pounding heart and moist prickly skin. The sensation of feeling like a statue inside a tornado stripped and disempowered me. I felt helpless and alone.

Mum’s self-control broke. With one frantic emotion-charged action, she thrust her trusted worn friend, Mr. Broom, behind my brother’s and my small bottom and physically swept us out the door into the backyard as if we were dust on the shiny linoleum.

I raced for the swing Dad had built me. The swing was mine and mine alone – Dad said. The two upright poles of the swing were tall and straight and reached into the blue expansive sky like they were capable of carrying anyone anywhere. The strong and thick ropes held the little seat that would hold my small frame and I clung to their strength, their furry feel making me feel secure and strong.

The higher the swing reached, the louder I would sing, ‘Que says sera, sera, whatever will be, will be’. My young voice carried into the heavens and captured the essence of tranquillity and my world became soft and peaceful, the air sweet and mesmerising. I looked up into the cloudless sky and thought ‘how beautiful are you, how safe and gentle’.

I pulled myself back and forth until the swing reached even greater heights, my legs stretched forward and backward under me and I was in complete unison with the universe and its symphony orchestra of serenity and calm.

(c) 2016 Rose Osborne.

Rose lives in the beautiful Sutherland Shire of Sydney, NSW, Australia. She runs a medical and health content writing service and a life history writing service, Write My Journey.

 

 

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A Language Problem

By Dorothy Ross

In 1961, many young people were clamoring to join President Kennedy’s newly established Peace Corps. Not I. I took a job as an intern at a stock brokerage on Montgomery Street in the heart of San Francisco’s financial district. Like most trainees, I started in the research department.

West Coast financial firms opened early in the morning to be ready when the bell sounded on the New York Stock Exchange. The first hour of the day found everyone in the office nursing steaming coffee mugs while reading the Wall Street Journal.

Dorothy Ross in San Francisco, 1961

Dorothy Ross in San Francisco, 1961

I was expected to memorize the stock ticker symbols of all the Blue Chips on the Dow, beginning with ATT. And I had to get used to hearing stock prices quoted in eighths. Did you know that one-eighth of a dollar is twelve-and-a-half cents? Quick now, how much is seven-eighths? It isn’t easy, is it? The Dow switched to the decimal system around the year two thousand. Stocks had traded in multiples of eight for more than two centuries. The research librarian told me the units were based on the silver “pieces of eight” of Spanish colonial times. Interesting, but it didn’t help me to remember eighty-seven-and-a-half.

The research department had no desktop computers, of course. The data on profit and loss, price-earnings ratios, dividends and yields, was all listed in big Standard and Poor’s directories–endless columns of numbers in fine print. I had always loved research, but not that kind of research.

And then there was the language problem. I had worked hard to eliminate my Bronx accent, replacing it with a manner of speaking that sounded vaguely British. Some people in California had trouble understanding me. And, I struggled to decipher their West Coast vowels.

I said app-ricot — they said ape-ricot

I said Nevahda — they said Nevaadda.

Even my name was a problem. I was used to hearing Darathy — they called me Doorthy.

I was living the old Gershwin tune. I wasn’t ready to call the whole thing off, but I did have some comical encounters before I came to terms with the regional differences.

A customer called the office requesting information on “Organ Power.” At least that’s what I thought he said. I assumed they were Wurlitzer competitors, manufacturers of electric organs, but I couldn’t find anything under that name. I went back to the phone and told the gentleman there was no such company listed on the exchange.

“Young lady,” he said, “I’ve held their stock for many years. Look again.” “Can you spell it for me?” I asked.

Very slowly and distinctly, like a cheerleader with a megaphone, he spelled out, “O-r-e-g-o-n.”

“Oh,” I said. “You mean Ar-a-gone.” I pronounced that state’s name in three distinct syllables.

The man laughed and said. “You must be new here, Doorthy.”

(c) 2016 Dorothy Ross

Dorothy Ross is a native New Yorker who worked on Madison Avenue before moving west in 1961. On the Davis campus of the University of California she served as an editor and program director. Diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease in 2007, she now volunteers with her local PD community, organizing events and writing about the challenges of living with that condition. 

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A shout-out to “Creative Nonfiction” for “Picturing the Personal Essay”

Creative Nonfiction is the clubhouse where the cool kids hang out–a virtual place for people like us, who value true stories well told.

They “pursue educational and publishing initiatives in the genre of literary nonfiction,” to quote their About page, via a magazine, publishing imprint, annual conference, writing contests, and more. I subscribe to their magazine, and every issue is a treasure…a beautiful, tactile, ink-on-paper, reminder that writing well is a goal worth working hard for.

Trolling their archives recently I came across “Picturing the Personal Essay: A Visual Guide” by Tim Bascom, which originally appeared in  Issue #49, Summer 2013.

If your writing is feeling a little like this–

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And you’d like to learn how to give it more of a feeling of structure, like this…

stairs

or,

whorlsor, maybe loops

then here you go. Read Picturing the Personal Essay: A Visual Guide. Comment here. Let’s discuss.

 

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Balloons Are for Kids

By Kay Frazier

My friend hadn’t had a proper birthday party as a child. At 45 years old, she organized one for herself, complete with five friends, cake, and balloons. Each of us got to take one balloon home. Mine was silver, an unusual color for a balloon.

I boarded my city bus for home, thinking about the balloon’s fate. I was going away for the weekend. The magical shine of the balloon would rest in my apartment, unappreciated, and its joyous spirit would gradually leak and it would sink, hopeless to the floor, to be tossed into the garbage when I returned home.

I sat down across from a young girl and her mother. The girl’s eyes widened at the sight of the balloon. She couldn’t take her eyes off it.

Finally, she blurted, “Balloons are for kids!”

I paused, pondered this briefly and then solemnly said, “You’re right.”

I turned to her mother and asked, “Can I give her this balloon?” She smiled and replied, “Yes.”

With great ceremony, I handed the balloon to the young girl. The shine of the balloon was reflected in her eyes. Her whole body smiled.

My stop came. I got off the bus and went home. I don’t know if I remained at all in the little girl’s thoughts or if her mind was completely filled with thoughts of the balloon. I don’t know how long the balloon lasted. I never saw the girl again, but I’ve thought of her often and the joy and splendor shared through such a small, ephemeral thing.

(c) 2016 Kay Frazier, all rights reserved.

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Kay’s essay exemplifies what I think of as “Flash Memoir”–brief essays that capture a small moment of time, but invite contemplation. They work in a “flash,” like a lightning bolt that suddenly illuminates a landscape.

What memory of a moment has stuck with you, that begs you to write it down? Send me your “flash memoirs” for possible publication on True Stories Well Told!

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Three Happy Hair Days!

By Nancy Malvin

I’m not very good at picking my best/worst anything. Actually, I find it nearly impossible. Given that as my norm, indulge my short list of times I was happiest with my hair. (Interestingly, in describing them, I found they all coalesced around a central theme.)

  1. My high school senior picture
  2. Being guest of honor at a business function
  3. Summer 2014

Happy Hair Day 1: My high school senior picture

The flip was the classic teen hair-do of the times (mid- to late 1960s). The style varied in length (landing anywhere between the bottom of your ears to the top of your shoulders) and where it was parted (none, center, or on either side), but there was one constant: its shape. It poofed out from the top and then flipped up at the bottom (a shape similar to a ladle hanging on the side of a punch bowl).

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In junior high, the poof was more exaggerated, usually obtained by teasing. (Trying to describe that technique ate up too many words. Besides, I googled it and was astonished to find it’s still used, although it looks less obvious.) Over the years, the poof became less poofy and more straight. Those of us unlucky enough to have missed out on the DNA marker for straight hair wrapped it around cylindrical items (e.g., curlers—with or without bristles—even soup cans) to achieve what nature had denied us. Heavy doses of hairspray might also have been needed if your hair was inclined to spring back to its natural state.

The more closely I managed to make my hair conform to the “ideal,” the prettier I felt. The day I had my senior picture taken was one of those days.

 

Happy Hair Day 2: My early 40s

My hair was shorter, the flip was gone, and the tools had improved (blow dryer and a brusMalvin-hair-2h instead of a bonnet-styled dryer and curlers). My look had changed, but it was still fairly classic, only instead of a classic teen style it was now that of a typical business woman in her 40s.

 

This picture was taken at a business event where I was the guest of honor. It was another day when my hair looked exactly the way I wanted, only this time in addition to feeling attractive, I also felt competent and confident.

 

Happy Hair Day 3: Forget the hair (my early 60s)

Every day, for at least a nanosecond, my level of confidence unconsciously rises or falls based on the last glimpse of my hair as I step away from the bathroom mirror. Is that because as a child, I learned from my mother that my hair was my best feature? (I was proud to have naturally curly hair, oblivious to the fact I never made the distinction between it being my best physical feature and it being the best part of me.)

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So what would happen if hair was not in the picture? I wasn’t brave enough to shave it all off, but I did get it cut really short.

I loved it. What freedom!

 

That would have been a great place to end this hair saga. It would also have been dishonest.

Yes, at first I was thrilled with my really short hair-do. But then a strange thing happened. Those around me didn’t say anything about it. I’d expected (hoped?) to hear, “How cute!” or “It’s adorable!” or even, “Wow, that was brave of you!” What I got was – nothing. Did I look so ridiculous that they were too embarrassed to even mention it? I stuck with it for the rest of that summer, then gradually let it grow a bit longer. (I have started letting its natural curl and wave have their way more often.)

Sarah’s writing prompt led me to re-examine my whole “hair” thing. When I started trying to describe how I looked on those good hair-do days, I kept trying to use shortcuts by describing who I looked like: the pretty, popular teenager; the confident, classy business woman; the pixie-ish, vibrant older woman. I realized I’d used my hair to project the type of woman I was trying to be.
I don’t believe I am unique in this. The way we wear our hair is part of our identity, and I don’t think I can or even want to eradicate that part of me. What I am working on is feeling more congruence between how I look on the outside and how I feel on the inside. And when I accomplish that? Those are really good hair days.

P.S. My first hair-do.

(c) 2016 Nancy Malvin

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I recently posted a writing prompt: “When were you happiest with your hair?” Thank you, Nancy Malvin, for playing along! Readers, be my guest–send your happy hair stories–or horror stories!

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Book Review: Deborah Wilbrink, “Time to Tell Your Personal & Family History”

Deborah Wilbrink of Perfect Memoirs knows how to get to the story, and shares that skill with readers in Time to Tell Your Personal & Family History, which she published in January 2016. The book is equally useful to the personal historian or the individual wanting a do-it-yourself approach to family history or a personal memoir.

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Several attributes set this book apart on the growing shelf of books that serve the increasing interest in preserving personal and family history.

This is the first book I’ve seen that goes “multi-media” with companion songs . The lyrics are in the book. The original songs, in an Americana-Folk-Bluegrass style that reflects Deborah’s Nashville location, are available for download. The songs were written by Deborah and recorded by Nashville musicians.

Through her tips and her clients’ examples, we learn to tell difficult stories, apply a structure, blend in creative artforms, employ objects as prompts, and share lessons learned without being heavy-handed about it. In the concluding chapter, Deb shows us how connecting with other people helps you learn the skills you need, get the job done, and celebrate completion together.

I particularly like the way Deborah incorporates excerpts from her clients’ stories to illustrate the topic of each of the six chapters, and not just because I’ve been thinking along the same lines for the next book I intend to write.

Time to Tell is an engaging experience from  a knowledgeable author, filled with practical tips and inspiring suggestions. Because of the stories included, this book would make a good gift for Mother’s Day or Father’s Day. There’s plenty to entertain a loved one and lure him or her to consider writing or recording a life’s stories.

The book is available from the Association of Personal Historians store here.  You don’t have to be a member to buy. Your book will ship from Amazon, but your click will help support APH.

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A Happy Hair Story

by Dorothy Ross.

(a response to the prompt, When were you happiest with your hair?)

Was I ever happy with my hair? Certainly not when I lived in New York. Manhattan’s humid weather reduced my wavy locks to a nest of coiling curls that could not be woman-handled into anything approximating a current hair style. When I first moved to Gotham, every day was a bad hair day.

Then the ad agency where I worked landed the Clairol account and I could have my hair colored at their midtown laboratory, professionally, as often as I liked—for free. So my dirty-blond hair was soon dyed ash blond, then strawberry blond, and in a brief, disastrous experiment, even Marilyn Monroe platinum.

Because the artificial coloring helped tame the ringlets, I grew my hair long for the first time since leaving school. I set my hair every night, using stale beer as a straightener and winding the sticky strands on big fat pink rollers to restrain and re-train my curly top. If the squishy rollers were not dislodged in my sleep, I could start my day with a smooth, Jackie Kennedy bouffant bob. The finished look required a daily ritual of back-combing for volume and a liberal misting of iron helmet hairspray. Big hair, with not a strand out of place, was a lot of work.

Ross-Hair-1I was happiest with my hair when it grew long enough to be smoothed into a French twist. I finally felt like I was in control. Never the pony tail type, I was certain the upswept style was more sophisticated. I considered taking up smoking, sure that a cigarette in my hand would complete my cosmopolitan persona. But, smoke made me choke, so I never got hooked on tobacco. I settled for lofting a martini in that idle hand. Very elegant, or so I thought at the time.

This picture was taken in 1960, shortly before I left New York City. Without the Clairol stylists to tame my wayward locks, my hair became unmanageable soon after I arrived in San Francisco. Frustrated in my attempts to coax the unruly mop into something resembling a pageboy, I resorted to my naturally curly short cap. But during that interlude when it was long, blond, and straight, I really was happy with my hair.

(c) April 2016 Dorothy Ross 

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