Friday, September 13, 2013

A Glimpse into the Extraordinary and Glorious Life of my Grandmother, Mildred Holderfield Smith Lane, who Arrived on Friday the 13th, 1918 -- 95 years ago Today

I started to write about the life of my grandmother -- Mildred Verlette Holderfield Smith Lane -- and frankly I was overwhelmed. For one thing, I wrote an entire novel about a young woman raised in a house of prostitution during the Great Depression, The Madam, which was based on my grandmother's early life, but her life expanded from there -- wildly and beautifully and sometimes magically. I can't begin to explain it -- not without starting at the very beginning of it all, which I may do one day, for the family.

And so here I am just going to post photos of this amazing glamourous woman -- wise and wily; she loved deeply. She lived wildly. She was so stunning that, even in old age, people would stop her in the grocery store just to tell her how gorgeous she was. She was shocking and also spiritual. She was called up on stage once to sing with Mel Torme. She had a gorgeous voice and played the piano -- good honky tonk -- and, damn, she could cook. She loved poodles -- had five at the same time during my youth -- and next to her bed there was a picture of a priest -- a man she loved.

She married at fifteen -- my grandfather -- and had my mother at seventeen. They grew up together, my mother and grandmother -- their love for each other inexpressibly deep. Truly, a love to behold.

My grandmother lost a baby at birth, a boy, and when she was out of her head from medication late in life, she mourned him. The loss never left her.

After my grandfather died, when my grandmother was heading into her forties, she found herself independent for the first time in her life. She went wild. Eventually she fell in love with the grandfather I knew -- Hiram Lane, a double amputee from World War II -- a character in his own right. They had many great years together -- her poodles, his handguns, Ancient Age, fine Southern food. In the pictures from this time, you'll see the two of them singing to each other, shot after shot. He passed away when I was eighteen.

My grandmother had a wonderful companion, Howard, whom she'd known all her life, and he was there with her until the end. She was terrified of dying, but I can't even begin to describe the grace of her ending.

By God, she lit up every room she walked into. Her soul could not be contained.

[The photos that follow aren't in chronological order. But here's a glimpse -- the tiniest window -- into a brilliantly lived life.]

This is her father, Henry, beloved in the family
though not one to hold a job long.
He took the fall for my grandfather
and did 18 months in jail.

My grandmother and her second husband.
Pool-side in her 40s.

My mother's first husband, my biological
grandfather, Glenn, on the left (cigarette)
and my grandmother's half-brother,
Lee Irving, on the right.
My mother as a little kid
with her mother (on left, hand dainty)
and aunt at the beach.
Mildred and Hiram.
A dreamy shot that would have
been a good album cover in its day
taken by Hiram.

This is Ella, her mother, as a young woman,
wearing a paper dress
she made herself.
My grandmother on the right,
in the white headband.
She's so young but this is likely
shortly before she was
to be married.

Thursday, September 12, 2013

"Memory is a net."

According to the plane ticket wedged in the book, I was flying from Fort Worth to Hartford when I came across this, "Around 1960, a young psychologist named Sarnoff Mednick thought he had identified the essence of creativity. His idea was as simple as it was powerful: creativity is associative memory that works exceptionally well." 

I shut the book. The lines struck me as immediately true and absolutely how my creative process conducts itself and how I operate in the world. It lines up with my lectures on craft and the way I structure my creative writing workshops -- which begin with heavy memory exercises to build texture -- and my reliance on the quote "Memory is a net." (Olive Wendell Holmes) This quote goes on: "one that finds it full of fish when he takes it from the brook, but a dozen miles of water have run through it without sticking." Those fish, though, they are the things your brain has kept -- sometimes beyond reason or rationality -- but, in their essences, those memories are kept because of psychological resonance and they often have some sensual grip. They're ours. They shimmer and gasp in our hands.

This associative memory isn't like other kinds of memory skills -- the memory for trivia, for formulas, for collected data that needs to be applied. No. This associative memory is the reason why, when you're in a room of writers, you can shout out any word and ask for a story. Shout out, "Doorknob!" and a room of writers will start sorting through all their best doorknob stories -- places they were locked into and out of, the first one they saw made of crystal that reminds them of their first understanding of wealth or want. 

(The book is Thinking Fast and Slow.)