Three years into teaching memoir I met a woman who never lived the life she wanted.
Marge was a regal woman with a commanding presence, a deep, gravelly voice, and neatly swept back silver hair. She was new to the retirement community where I taught memoir Thursday afternoons for the local community college. Her eyes were clear but she seemed a little confused, like she couldn’t quite believe she had moved somewhere to live her last days, like she was really that old.
Marge said she had no idea how to write. But there were some obvious signs that she wanted to: she had come to a memoir class and she carried a new legal-sized pad. After class, I suggested she write about her college days, since she had mentioned them; she had said she hadn’t written anything since her days at UC Berkeley in the 1940s.At class the next week she read her first story. She wrote about learning that her year-old daughter had Tay Sachs and wouldn’t live two more years. She was pregnant. Chances were this next one would have it too. She got an abortion. Right after that her husband was killed in a plane crash. “It was the worst time in my life,” she said. She’d had an abortion, become a widow, and then her daughter died. “Why would anyone want to know all that?” I assured her they would.
In 1999 I was still learning how closely memoir is related to self-esteem. Who would want to know about little ol’ me?!
I encouraged her to continue writing. The next week she wrote about remarrying and with that second husband adopted three children. He died of a heart attack in his early forties. She remarried a third time and found herself raising three young stepchildren along with her three teenagers. “I raised six kids,” she said, wearily. “If I hadn’t had so many, I’m sure I would have done something with my life.” She reeked with pain, her eyes just a little too big and bright for my comfort.A few weeks later I met one of those daughters. After class she confided in me that her mother had bone cancer and would have no treatment. Marge brushed it off, her daughter told me, didn’t believe the cancer was going to get her, but I could see it already was, spoiling her from the core of her frame and collapsing her collarbones first. Her chest was caving in from the outer edges. And it didn’t escape me: She’d let everyone and everything press on her for her whole life.
“I see these female newscasters today,” she told the class at the next meeting, “and I think, If things had been different in the 1940s, I could have done that.” She had never told anyone this before. A few weeks later I overhead her saying to one of her classmates that she would have loved to be an assistant to an anchorman. “Marge,” I interrupted. “I thought you wanted to be the anchor!” “Oh,” she smiled. “I don’t know.”
Marge missed four or five writing classes, then came back one day in a wheelchair, with a hospice attendant at her side. Her collarbones jutted out at an odder, even more pronounced angle. “I wanted to come back one more time,” she said in her gravelly voice. Her hair was neatly combed off her face, but her eyes looked deeply tired. “I wanted to thank you for everything.”After she left, I wondered about Marge. What did I give her? At least I had given her a sense she had something to say and people who cared to hear it.
What will her children know about the woman who was their mother? On top of the desk in her room Marge must have that pad of yellow lined paper filled with about eight handwritten stories. She ran out of time to write more. She never wrote about that greatest desire, her road not taken, the thing she never even spoke of until three months before she died. She could have been an anchorwoman. Maybe even the first.
But because she wrote even a little about her life, her kids will know something of the woman they never really knew. How she took the streetcar from downtown Los Angeles to Venice beach during the Depression when poverty drove the family to the only place they could legally hunt: the ocean. About life at Venice High School in the 1930s. About UC Berkeley in the days when living with her husband and two roommates won her a few inches in the school newspaper in a story about communists and renegades on campus. Imagine! Kids taking roommates and living together. Radical.
I wish Marge’s spirit lightness. And I count my blessings for the work I do.