I pulled a book off the shelf: What If? Writing Exercises for Fiction Writers by Anne Bernays and Pamela Painter. I bought it several years ago, with the intention of working my way through it, chapter by chapter. I did one blog about the first chapter, “First Lines,” then closed it, put it back on the shelf and never looked at it again until today.
I don’t remember being resentful or mad about it, like I’ve become over the 30-day Creative Fire journal. I just quit. There is a strong possibility that I am just a quitter when it comes to goals I set for myself. I could make quite a list of examples, if I’m ever called upon to do it!
Anyway, paging through the writing exercises in this book, I came across several that grabbed my attention. They don’t seem to have an answer in mind, but rather just suggest a topic, very open-ended, and say “write for twenty minutes on it” or “fill one page.” It seems like a pretty good book; I’m going to give it a try.
In a chapter titled “Who Are You? Somebody!” the authors draw from an essay by Richard Hugo, who suggests that in a world that tells us “individual differences do not exist” and that “our lives are unimportant,” writing teaches that “you are someone and you have a right to your life.” They then offer several topic suggestions. The first is this:
List in detail all the places you have lived…
That’s where I start.
3678 Hunt Road, Lapeer Michigan was my first address. That’s where I spent the first eighteen years of my life, in a house that my father built with his own hands, right next door to my grandparents.
The land was a wedding gift to my Mom and Dad, from my mother’s parents. They could not stand the thought of their only child moving far away, so they gave them a place to make a home. In the year my mother graduated high school, the yearbook predicted that “in 10 years…” she would be “married and living on a farm on Beaver Island raising a half-dozen children.” Instead, she got married the August after her graduation, but stayed close to home. My mother was born in the little cottage that stood on the lot to the right of our house; she was raised in the house on the other side of ours, and spent the rest of her life in her own home between the two.
I’ve traveled farther from my starting place than my mother ever did, but I’ve always held it close to my heart. Any memories of place, though, start with the address next door, where my grandparents lived.
My grandparent’s house was a story and a half, cottage style, with a stone foundation, and curved cement steps leading up to the front door. Flat, colorful rocks were embedded in the cement, and formed interesting patterns on the surface. Cedar hedges stood on either side of the door. A snowball bush sat beside the driveway.
On the far side of the house, there was a separate, flat-roofed garage, and a small orchard beyond: three apple trees, one pear. The back yard had a grape arbor with benches inside, a garden spot and a big willow tree. On the side of the house closest to ours, there was a fenced area enclosing a cesspool where the washing machine drained.
A neatly trimmed hedge divided front yard from back. A birdhouse anchored the large flower bed in the front yard. It perched on top of tall, ladder-like trellises that enclosed climbing roses and were surrounded by peonies and other blooms. Huge elm trees provided shade and created a park-like setting. A white bench sat under the big trees. It was constructed of flat panels, much like a church pew.
That’s the description, bare. It doesn’t speak to the feelings, the deep-seated memories, the warmth. The sound of the wind when it wheeled through the branches of the willow tree…the quiet shade provided by the grape arbor…the flowery shelter of the igloo-shaped snowball bush…the feel of trudging through deep autumn leaves…these stay with me. Grandpa Ted would sit on his white park bench when the weather was mild, and we’d wander across the yard to talk to him. I never remember a time when he wasn’t glad to see us. We were always welcome there.
The crackle of drying leaves underfoot, the smell of autumn fires or the springtime scent of peonies in bloom can, after all these years, still transport me right back to that place and time.