Monday, June 1, 2015

Inspiration is a blast from the past

     I find inspiration in real life. Rummaging through flea markets and antique stores, examining the jumbled pieces of other peoples' lives sets my story radar pinging. How did these odds and ends come to rest, unwanted by their "families," in a junk store? A story begins simmering in the back of my brain.

    I am addicted to old family pictures. I gaze at the walls of other people's houses, memorizing family portraits. My mother practically raised me at estate sales and junk stores. I was not allowed to touch anything, but I could ask all the questions I wanted. What was this metal thing used for? Who wore shoes that buttoned up the sides? Did you have a doll like this when you were a little girl?

   The two people who encouraged my curiosity in the past would be surprised to learn I consider them the fairy godmothers of my writing.  Those two people were my Grandmother Rodman and my mom, both natural born storytellers.

The couple in the middle are my Rodman grandparents
      Although her father had been a country schoolmaster, my Grandmother Rodman's education ended at 11. However, she loved to read and never stopped learning through out her very long life (she lived to be 97). Her childhood was positively Dickensian; orphaned at 11, she lived with an "evil stepfather" and numerous half-siblings. Her older brothers had gone off to "seek their fortunes" and escape their abusive stepfather.  Murder, the county poor farm, setting off on her own at 15 to make her way in the world...all these elements were part of my grandmother's story.  As a young mother she survived the most deadly tornado in U.S. history. She told "The Storm Story" when few people talked about tragedies.  My grandmother made sense of her own life by telling the stories, over and over, always in an undramatic, matter of fact voice.

     She knew which details would make her story real for a little listener...the taste of homemade peanut brittle, the mustard color of a funnel cloud so enormous it blocked the sky, the stiff, slick material of her mother's "Sunday dress." Her stories were peopled with characters named Country and Myrtle and Ardell.  She evoked the sound of their voices, the way they stood and moved, the little quirks that made those long-dead people come alive. She was economical with her words, as she brought the events to the climax, never once saying "Oh I forgot to say that..."

   Not only could my grandmother put names to the family photos she kept in a big silk stationary box under her bed, she could spin stories about every one of them. She also told me about my father growing up in small-town, Depression-era,  Southern Illinois. My father did not tell me his own boyhood until very recently.  Learning what kind of little boy he had been, helped me understand my sometimes puzzling, taciturn dad.

Mom on the far right, her brother Jimmy and sister Agnes
   My mother would be shocked to learn that she inspired me. I was a sickly kid and missed a lot of school. Mom entertained me with stories of her childhood, first on a small family farm and then helping her mother run a Pittsburgh boarding house during the Depression. The middle child of eight, her stories seemed exciting and exotic, better than any library book. Mom prefaced her stories with, "Now times were different when I was a little. We probably shouldn't have done some of this stuff then, and you aren't to do it now. If you do, I will stop telling you stories." That was threat enough to keep me from trying some of the stunts of Mom and her family.  My uncles' trapeze in the farm's apple orchard. The Great Silverware War of Easter 1932. Their beloved maiden aunt who taught them to play poker. The first story I ever wrote at age seven was about Mom moving from to town after the bank took the farm.  My 11-year-old mother and her sister rode a streetcar back to their old home, to gather whatever they had could of what was left behind. (No, I'm not telling you what they took...I'm still working on this story.)

   Mom was a one-woman show. She imitated voices, created sound effects and even acted out the events when her vocabulary failed her.  Ironically, she considered herself shy and disliked speaking in public. Writing anything, such as a letter, was a laborious process that would go through several drafts before she would write on her good linen stationary with a fountain pen.  Since Mom wrote to at least some of her family every week, that was a lot of moaning and groaning and crumpled up notebook paper. (I learned the pain and value of revision early!)`

    Jimmy's Stars began when I found a WWII two-star service flag in a box lot of china I bought at an auction. I knew from photos that Mom's family had a four-star flag in the window of the boarding house (three for my uncles and one for Mom who was a WAVE). Looking at that flag, I heard my mother's voice recounting life on the Homefront, the terror of receiving a telegram, the peculiarity of wartime rationing. With those stories as a foundation,Jimmy's Stars was the fastest I've ever written anything...18 months. (That included lightening striking my computer and wiping out the unbacked-up first five chapters.)

  Yankee Girl is based on my own childhood stories I told my daughter. I am currently working on two books that are based on Grandmother Rodman tales.
    I'm sure that neither my grandmother or mother knew they would inspire my own books. Their stories taught me the beauty and drama of everyday life. This sense of wonder in what seems ordinary to us, I try to pass on to my own students. Over the years, they have told me about grandparents who wandered in the rubble of WWII Europe, orphaned and homeless. Of their parents as children, in refugee camps, fleeing Asia by boat. One girl's family escaped the Holocaust by immigrating to Cuba... and then fled Cuba after the Revolution. My hope is that these tales will live on in my students' writing.  I think the best gift you can give a child is a family story.

     I was blessed to be descended from two of the best storytellers ever. Thanks, Meemaw.  Thanks, Mom.

Posted by Mary Ann Rodman


Carla Killough McClafferty said...

Mary Ann, I love this post. You have given your mother and grandmother a much larger audience than they ever would have imagined. Thanks for sharing them with us.

Esther Hershenhorn said...

Thank you, Mary Ann, for gifting us with your inspirational relatives and their treasured stories!
Now I know where you got those terrific storytelling genes of yours. :)
Your Fan Esther

April Halprin Wayland said...

I am flying in an airplane thousands of feet above earth transfixed by this tributes, Mary Ann.

April Halprin Wayland said...

(...and unable to delete that extra "s" in my comment!)

jan godown annino said...

This is transcendent Mary Ann.
I want to hug your Grandmother Rodman.
And your mama.


p.s. it's also a gift that reminds me of the elder storytellers of my family - different details but similar ages/economic disadvantages/adventures & their sharing
that love of the photos of family characters kept in a special box...

mary ann rodman said...

Bless you Esther, April, Jan, and was my pleasure to share my inspirations with you. They are not the only father-in-law was also an excellent story spinner. He also had a life that was part Dickens, part Horatio Alger. I got him to talk when I was filling a family history book for my then-baby daughter...and he went wild. Apparently his own kids had never asked him about his life. I was so happy to be able to record so many of his stories before he died. Transcendent, transfixed?? Thank you all was the post I have most enjoyed writing.

mary ann rodman said... I see that my comments are somehow being directed to my daughter's email account. Will SHE be surprised! (How did that happen?)