Considering the date, it's not surprising that I'm feeling nostalgic for the power of storytelling as I launch this site. I wrote and published the following vignette as a tribute to my mother. I hope you will enjoy it--and feel motivated to compose your own.If you, like me, seek to make meaning of your life via memoir, follow the advice of William Zinsser, who cautions us to "think small." The sage wisdom he offered in "How to Write a Memoir" helped me to appreciate that a heartfelt story can evolve from the purchase of a humble salad bowl set. Perhaps even more liberating, Zinsser gives readers permission to omit unnecessary details, such as a sibling, in the quest to tell our stories.
from "Married on a Monday—7 ½ Years Later—and other Quirky Tales of an Academic Storyteller"
I lost my first battle with annuity accumulation in a discount store.
It was an overcast May Saturday in the 1970s. Restless, we were looking for something to do. Actually, Mom was looking for a nap and Dad was happy to oblige her a few hours of solitude. With Mom lying atop her orange velveteen bedspread, we headed out to Dad’s favorite shopping haunt, Sears Surplus.
This stop was spurred by our desire to purchase a Mother’s Day present. In truth, shopping for Mom was our foil. We—Dad thirty-one and I ten—loved the hunt for a bargain. You might know our quest and its creative logic: spend twenty to save five. Poor seven-year-old Veronica—now evenly yoked with a frugal actuary—had no desire to part with her hoard and found no pleasure in our exploit through aisles of fire salvaged gadgets and irregular clothing.
Sears Surplus was located in what is now a seedy shopping mall that warehouses neon signs and carnival rides, a kind of island for misfit memorabilia that Flint’s Sloan Museum would not or could not house. In its heyday, the Dort Mall hosted a village of specialty shops like The Vogue, which had survived the great migration from downtown Flint. By the time Sears Surplus occupied the space of its “anchor store,” however, the mall was lucky to retain a risqué lingerie shop called Raquel’s, a greasy spoon, Rincon’s racquet shop, and a military recruiting office that nabbed more than its fair share of fresh faced boys hoping to “be all that they could be” anywhere but Flint.
A $25 saving bond burned a hole in my proverbial pocket. I had sold (and bought) 103 cheap seascapes and black velvet prints to secure the honor of 3rd place in Fisk Elementary’s annual poster sale. The concept of saving the bond or of building wealth eluded me then (as it unfortunately has for much of my adult life). My dad was not quick to remind me that the bond was actually only worth a little more than half of its face value when, beaming, I approached him with the glass salad bowl set. There was no chance that mom would mistake its purpose: “SALAD” was boldly stamped on the “momma” bowl and its four satellites. When Dad inquired as to how I intended to pay for my find, I quickly recited my rehearsed lines (for I had been scheming to spend it somewhere, somehow, for the last year.) Dad was no match for my determination that day. You see, he had two weaknesses: finding a good deal and securing my mom’s happiness.
I proudly carted the box home where I lovingly wrapped it with paper in a sort of quilt-like fashion. (I did not have enough matching paper to cover the whole thing.) While the paper was inadequate, my technique was sound. Mom’s first job was as a wrapper at Smith Bridgeman’s, and she had skillfully and patiently taught me how to professionally present a gift. After returning my tools to their appropriate location in the kitchen (another lesson modeled by mom), my package and I found her sipping coffee on the patio. Then, a day early, I eagerly watched as my mom carefully peeled back the paper, unpacked the box, and smiled.
. . . . .
I’m sure that a gift of a plastic back scratcher would have been greeted with that same reassuring acknowledgement. And, I know that it was not all for which she had been dreaming. It did not convey the beauty of a diamond or the restful reprieve of a cruise. No matter. My mother was proud of me. She saw her instruction in the neat corners and carefully trimmed edges of the packaging. . . . Mostly, she understood my joy in giving her a store-bought present. (Hey, it was the 70s; we thought polyester was a divine improvement upon cotton.)
Later that evening, I saw her proud smile droop into a worried frown: “Oh no, He’s going to tell her about the bond. I’m in trouble now.” I stiffened and waited. But mom withheld her scolding. Like the many wise women who preceded her, she held these worries close to her hear and prayed.
. . . . .
While I must admit that I have given her too many reasons to fall upon her knees over the years, I dare say that she understood then as she understands now that my unwise buys are often the result of a deep and abiding desire to bring joy and comfort to others.
Much to my mother’s chagrin, I have yet to master the art of delayed gratification and wealth accumulation. That failure has caused me and continues to cause me great pain. I still remember the sting I felt that Monday morning when dad cashed the saving bond to redeem the $13.71 I had pledged toward my purchase. Despite that, I have never forgotten my mother’s smile, and I recapture that moment each time I indulge my eleven year old. You see, I share my father’s passions in life: I love a good deal, and I adore my mother.
Commentary: In recreating my life with words and images—some as vivid as if they occurred yesterday—I hope to inspire the same nostalgia, even if woven within a painful lesson, in my own daughter as she grows into a woman.