Memoir Writing


Writing a Parallel Memoir


When Roxie, a member of our memoir group, said she wanted to hear my version of the memoir Bill had just written for the group about a business trip he and I had made to South Africa, I was resistant to following up on her assignment. I am long past needing to correct someone else's account of any given situation, since I have come to understand that everyone experiences each moment differently from everyone else-and so all accounts are "true." Different, but true. As I have aged, I have learned that there is no one thing that happened at any given event. There are at least as many versions of the story as there are people who are witnesses to the event-usually more versions than people. I have no problem with Bill's story of going to South Africa being different from mine. He went on a different trip altogether. It's that simple. In this instance, there is not much difference between what I remember and what he remembers of that trip, at least not in this telling of it. Mine might be different next time I decide to tell it.

Her suggested assignment called up visions of the grammar school "what I did on my summer vacation" assignments we received every fall upon returning to school and of the inevitable blank pages those assignments presented me with--pages I could never think how to fill. From my perspective, then, we never did anything during summer vacation worth writing about-and in those days I worried about my life measuring up to other people's lives. I was afraid that the writing of it, would not open for me a window into my past from which I could relive that instant, and re experience who I was back then which is what I really want from the writing of a memoir. I find that wonderful expansion of a moment that happens when I start with some long ignored memory that bobs up from time to time to remind me of some past thing that makes me smile.

I find that when I write about that specific moment that comes floating into my area of recall-say that magic morning in early spring when the willow trees, just barely showing green, were brushed with fog, and I was feeling very important because the art teacher had asked me to run home and ask my mother to send over some supply she'd forgotten to bring for the art project of the week an every expanding connection to my forgotten past. When I start to write at such a point, I remember things I had long since forgotten. One thing after another, like a magician pulling colored scarves out of mid air. I think of it as a form of mental calisthenics-and they do say your mind is like your muscle mass-use it or lose it.

Being a compulsive student, I found myself unable not to do the assignment that Roxie offered me, even though I thought for sure that what would happen was that I would not be able to find my way into a different interpretation of that memory when I brought my older self back on the tour of those remembered things. To my surprise, I found myself finding "my way back home there."

What I am looking for when I do a writing exercise is a way to find a chink in the "forget it all" armor of my mind. It has been my experience that if I can find a little window to be in that past for a few minutes, that memory brings back so many associated experiences, and somehow, when I have completed a little sketch of what it was like then, I have a clearer idea of who I am now, and use it to defend myself from the internal nag that is forever yammering on about the things I should have done better back then.

But, there are some things I have never told anyone about my trip to South Africa with Bill. It may be true that I have never told anyone about my trip to South Africa. It is not the sort of thing that fits neatly into your average conversation. And so I decided to give Roxie's assignment a try.


Example: Trip Report - South Africa

Westinghouse had sold a generator to the University of South Africa. They very much wanted Bill to go over there and start it up. It was somewhere he had never been, so Bill was interested in going. But there was this to be considered: our daughters were appalled that their parents, who, right in the middle of a worldwide push to get South Africa to abandon apartheid, were even thinking about going to South Africa. The students of the University of California were protesting the investment of University Funds in South African gold. The Olympics had refused to let the South African Teams compete in the contests in Seoul. And we were considering going to South Africa? Horrors! What a bunch of sell-outs we were.

So Bill talked to his nephew John, the New York writer and vocal guardian of all things liberal. John is also an avid traveler, so he could see the gig Bill's way. He did a little research and found a way around the dilemma. It was not in the interest of the people to leave South Africa in the dust, industrially. When the government there came to heel, the people would need to have access to the current century, which clearly meant they needed to build silicon wafers. So, from that perspective it would be all right if we were to go-just as long as we hit the tarmac explaining that we stood for liberty and equality and wanted them to stop doing that apartheid nonsense.

That didn't quite feel OK to me, so I called various groups at Berkeley and Stanford. Pretty much, that seemed to be the party line. I suppose the students who were so involved in correcting that social wrong could also understand a person not wanting to miss out on the opportunity to go to someplace as exotic as Johannesburg.

So we made the reservations, and off we went. The route we were obliged to take was sort of a higgledy piggledy one. We flew across the country to Newark, where we arrived sometime around midnight. Our flight didn't leave until midday the next day, so we took a jitney over to the local Holiday Inn. As it turned out, that particular Holiday Inn catered primarily, from the feel of things, perhaps solely to black people. I rather imagined that we were the only white people in the hotel. The people at the desk warned us not to go out of the hotel. The patrons, who were just wandering out from a fancy dress ball, stared at us in disgust. I wasn't sure if it was our skin color that was wrong, or that we were rumpled and underdressed. In any event, we locked all five of the locks on our door and didn't sleep well. I worried that we had set ourselves up for two whole weeks of feeling like a pair of horses that had somehow wandered into the wrong stall. The person who'd checked our luggage through to Johannesburg when we'd left SFO had assured us that since we were going to South Africa, we would not be allowed to leave the airport in Nairobi, and would therefore have to sleep on benches there.

From Newark we flew into Frankfurt, I think. It may have been that we flew into Heathrow and then on to Frankfurt. It's been a long time. Somewhere in Sandy's house are all my notes from back then. At any event, we wound up in Frankfurt with not quite enough time between planes, so we had to practically run through the airport. Frankfurt, at the time, was a tough airport to find your way around. I believe we had to take a bus, or perhaps a pneumatic tube of some sort, from one terminal to another. Once in the second terminal, we had to take a set of successive escalators to get to our gate. There were all these bright blue-eyed children, in blue uniforms, somehow reminding me of the Hitler Youth Corp, and at the same time, sine they were no older than my grandson, Malcolm, who was, at the time, driving his car recklessly, reminding me of him. Each of these young Germans was carrying an Uzi. It was not a comfort to think of live ammunition in the hands of a teenager just feeling his oats.

The plane to Nairobi was the first Airbus I had been on. That particular one was extremely comfortable, for which I was thankful, thinking ahead as I was, of the night we might have to be put up at the halls of the Nairobi airport.

We watched the world go by under our wings. The Alps, the Mediterranean Sea, and then just at Sundown, we were over the Sahara Desert, which is mighty impressive from the air. From where we sat, it was vast waves of white sand. And then quite suddenly, the sun went behind the earth and it was dark down there below. It is quite a long flight from Frankfurt to Nairobi. We arrived in the early hours of the morning, tired and with a long wait for our next flight. By the time we had cleared customs, everyone else had cleared out. I always think of the Nairobi airport looking like the halls of Brackenridge Hospital when I was a student nurse. Those same long dark halls with institutional beige walls. There were no benches on which we could spend the night.

And then that tall stately woman appeared. A fellow traveler. We asked her if she knew where we could find some place to sack out for the night. She suggested we go to a hotel-that was what she was doing. She thought there was no problem with us leaving the airport. She pointed our way to a traveler's aid booth and disappeared. They found us a hotel nearby and loaded us into a limo. The thing about Nairobi is that everyone is very gracious. The limo driver told us the name of those trees-you know the dark ones you see in PBS nature shows about Africa, the one's with the spreading arms? On PBS they are always accompanied by a giraffe. In Nairobi they grow along the highway between the airport and the hotel. They do not waste their water growing grass in the desert. The parkways are verged with red shifting sand and the occasional copse of those National Geographic trees. At least that's the way I remember it.

The hotel the limo took us to what was a historic hotel. The kind where you expect to see George Raft, or Lauren Bacall in the lounge. I wish we would have had time to find out the history of the hotel. It was all fancy wood and silk wallpaper. In shades complimentary to the desert environs. Amenities beyond belief. And an abundance of gracious staff persons. All of them with the one thought in mind: to make us comfortable. They all assured us that we should sleep easy and not worry about the morning flight. They would see to it that we got to the airport in plenty of time to catch the plane. Which they did.

Johannesburg is like any other city you've been to. The terrain around Johannesburg reminded me, for all the world, of Oroville California. Except, I was told, the hills around there weren't hills at all, but slag heaps from the mines. Gold and Diamonds.

We were met at the airport by the plant supervisor, a Mr. Crook, who lapsed right into talking about the question of apartheid. There was the problem of the neighboring countries, which were very poor, and the problem of those poor trying to slip over the border and take the jobs away from the South Africans. This is why identification was necessary. So, he made it possible to get the needed conversation about how we didn't encourage that form of people management. All nicely out of the way. A civil open discussion. Neither of us having any hope, whatsoever, that any opinions were going to change.

The Holiday Inn in Johannesburg was quite the most elegant Holiday Inn I've ever stayed in. It was a massive structure. The design was pyramidal in form-terraces and flowering vines. There were smartly dressed yardmen who went out everyday and trimmed every bush, picked up every fallen leaf, and skimmed twigs out of ponds. The lawns were closely sheared velvet.

We arrived in South Africa on a Saturday. Sunday, a group of men came to the hotel to take us to a native dance exhibit at the local park. As it turned out, there had been a rock concert earlier in the day at the park, which had not broken up when it was supposed to, so the native dance exhibit was canceled. There was some down-played concern that there might be trouble. A quick change in plans, they decided to take us to a nearby park, which was the site of a gold mine that had been mined out and was now something of a Knott's Berry Farm. While some of the men went to retrieve the cars the rest of us strolled the park where the Native Dance Exhibition was supposed to have been. There was a bit of a zoo there with assorted animals. Outside one of the cages was a man-clearly one of the dancers from the canceled dance exhibition. He was all dressed in animal skins and horns of some wild beast or other. He was a University Professor. What remains is the image of this handsome, highly cultured man-the ultimate in elegance-wearing this beautiful costume of exotic animal hides, and a voice like pure velvet that spilled out really wonderful information that has long since vanished from my mind. Only the scene remains and the regret of not having seen the dance.

The transportation arrived and we moved on to the Gold Mine part of the park, where we had some version of barbequed something or other on a bun. We saw gold being poured into bars and were offered to take a bar of gold of a certain size home with us, if we could pick it up. The bar was large and gold is heavy, so we missed out on that.

We were then taken down into an abandoned mine. We were warned that it was a fifteen-minute ride down the elevator. In theory, I could have stayed above ground and waited while Bill went down with them. That didn't really seem an option. However, as the little elevator groped its way down the long shaft, and it grew hotter and hotter in the tiny, flimsy-seeming car, I began to wonder why I hadn't thought that staying above ground was a real option. The guide told us about the miners who worked these mines. Since it took so long to get down to the gold, the workers stayed down their whole shift. The walls of the mine were white washed-I think he said to keep the dust down. So many questions a person doesn't ask. I never asked the guide how anyone found gold fifteen minutes down from the surface of the earth. The ceilings of the mine tunnel were very low. Even I had to watch not to bump my head on the cross beams.

It is very dangerous in mines-especially one so deep. When this mine was active the miners were of all nationalities. Dutch, Swahili and well, I forget the rest. Being able to communicate was of the utmost importance, because of the various ways the miners could get trapped down there. The guide said that Africans had been developed as a blend of all those languages by the people who ran the mine so miners could communicate. Or maybe it was required that they talk that language and not their own so people didn't get paranoid about people talking in a language they didn't understand. Something on that order. The mine tunnels were cramped enough. There were places where the sides of the tunnel had been excavated, where a vein of gold had been followed. Those people had to work on their hands and knees. Here and there, were ladders leading up to shafts-that had been made-so that should the elevator fail, or should there be a cave in between the mining and the elevator, the miners could, perhaps, climb up those ladders to safety. I have never been so glad to see sunlight as I was when that little elevator finally jiggled its way up to the surface again.

Every day a fine limousine with a smartly clad chauffer came to drive Bill and the EPI engineer to work. The hotel we stayed at was in a posh area of Johannesburg. The University where the generator was being installed was near Pretoria. I think it was a forty-five minute drive. I had my days to myself. There were terraces and gardens for me to stroll in. I had the advantage of having all the T.V. channels in English, so I could watch some TV to get the feel of things. At that time there was a township the government wanted to close down. They wanted to put in an industrial park.

A lot of the air time was aimed at the residents of that township.

It would be good for their children if they were to be moved out of the city with its unhealthful air, and all the other city-related problems. The government was offering various schemes to encourage the people of the township to make way for the industrial park. Most of the schemes involved taking out a loan to buy a house-back in the home track. The announcers on these programs intended to encourage the township people to move on, always spoke as though they were speaking to someone who did not have a very complete comprehension of English-or anything, for that matter.

The newscasters spent a lot of time talking about the Olympics that had just finished in Seoul and how the banning of South Africa's competition had been so unfair to their fine athletes. There was a move afoot to organize an Olympic competition outside the international arena to give their athletes a chance to display their talents. I can't remember if they ever found enough interest among the other nations to justify the proposed counter Olympics games. I was certainly amazed at how much that refusal to allow them into the Olympics meant to the South Africans.

It was OK for me to walk over to the shopping mall which was a few blocks away. The houses along the boulevard were well back from the road. They were sort of Glory of the Old South Southern mansions on Steroids-each one larger and grander than the next. There were Jacaranda trees, all purple and massive, towering over three to four-storied houses, and probably with a good football field spread to the branches, all lacey with leaves and flowers. Rubber trees. And flowering things, the likes of which could only be seen in Disney cartoons. Barefoot women strolled along the broad sidewalks with zippered suitcases balanced on their heads. I supposed they contained the ironing they had taken home to do. They stepped aside and into the gutter when their paths intersected mine. Our eyes did not meet.

The mall was quite large. By all measures, the finest shopping center I had ever seen. Four black policemen in crisp uniforms and armed with automatic rifles were stationed by each entrance. They went through my purse and did a respectful pat down to make sure I was not bringing in guns, I suppose, or contraband of some sort. Inside the glittering stores went up the scale from Goochi Bags. Jewelry and fine stores of all sorts. In one gift store there were umbrella stands made from Black Rhinoceros legs. Black Rhino leather is a stunning gun metal gray and Black Rhino briefcases are simply stunning. If they weren't endangered, I might have checked the price tag. At the far end of the mall, I found myself going through another check point with the guns and the pat down. At that end of the Mall was a hotel, fancier than mine. But the hotel lobby was the only place you could get a cab. I needed a cab. My head was reeling from all the glitter, and the knowledge that this was just the rack department. There were surely folks who were too fine for this place.

The thing that surprised us about the Holiday Inn was that there were quite a few black people who were guests there. A fairly large number of the diners in the restaurants were people of color. Elegant, dignified, people of color. When we went to the restaurants, it was always a problem for the staff. Americans want water with their meals. Americans might even want ice water. So, they always asked-and they always had to go to the bar to get the water for us-and each time it came in a different shape of bar glass. Each time the waiter made the bantering point of the problem, it was this American nonsense about water with the meal. I do believe that we had water in England, and France, and Germany and I know for sure that the Italians make that big fuss about whether you are going to have your water plain or gassy.

At supper, there was always the mind boggling buffet that ran all down the long side of the restaurant. At lunch when I dined alone, there were choices of little tea rooms, or tea sandwiches on patios.

Once I made a mistake which caused the cashier in one of the gift shops to snicker at me-and possibly continued to do so from time to time all day. I picked up a newspaper and handed it to her. She said with a smirk, "Do you read Africans?" "Oh," I said and traded it for one in English. She had a good laugh over that. Africans looks a lot like English when you just glance at it. Well, it made her day anyway.

In the hotel room there was a pamphlet that spoke in glowing terms of life in the townships. Great places for people to live. If I wanted to go see for myself, all I had to do was speak to whoever was arranging my tour, and, I would be taken on a tour of a township. I told Bill I would like to do that. He wasn't too sure that would be a good idea. We had been warned repeatedly that I should not take the bus. If I wanted to go somewhere the chauffer was at my disposal. At first I thought the question of not taking the bus was that they didn't realize I knew the difference between a bus for whites and a bus for blacks. But, I soon realized that wasn't the problem at all. They were blowing up buses. White buses and Black ones. Not a good idea to take the bus.

Bill took the brochure about the tours of the townships to work with him. They [should this say EPI?] said they would look into it. That was the last we ever saw of that brochure. But they did organize for me a day with the chauffer. The plan was that I should go in to work with Bill, and then once he was off to work, the Chauffer would take me to see whatever I wanted to see.

One day the chauffer took me to Pretoria. I went along with Bill and the EPI guy. We dropped them off at the University and the chauffer asked me what I wanted to see. He was quite the distinguished well spoken man. I told him about the brochure and the town ships. He decided I needed to see the Capital Building. The Capital Building is one of the ugliest buildings I have ever seen. It is Gothic in nature and made of the ugliest of red bricks. When we drove around the curving drive, a fleet of olive drab half tracks roared past us. The driver took a little side street and parked just beyond a giant rubber tree. We watched as fully armed troops wearing flack jackets ejected themselves from the back door of the half tracks. After a little bit, we drove on. I am not in anyway sure what that was about. Heidi had asked me to bring her back some South African cloth. I assume she wanted some native craft work, and asked the driver if he knew where I could find some. He took me to a regular cloth store, and not to disappoint him, I bought a couple of pieces of cloth for her from that crowded little shop.

The driver decided that I needed to see the museum. On the way there, he pulled to a stop a couple of times along the highway, and pointed over a ridge, and said, there-there is so and so township. I would have needed a telescope to see anything. I did not learn what his politics were. I didn't bother him with the requisite mention of my not approving of apartheid. There were a lot of school buses parked at the museum. Phalanxes and phalanxes of neatly clad black children wearing hot blue surge uniforms in all that heat marched toward the museum.The driver told me that all the black children there went to Catholic Schools or no school at all.The uniforms were very expensive, and being made of wool quite warm in the summer. When we got out of the car, the driver walked three paces behind me and to the left. When I got ready to cross the street, he took my arm and guided me safely across the street. They do that English thing of driving on the wrong side of the street, so it wasn't just a courtesy him steering me across the streets.

At the museum you have to pay an admission. The man at the window told me the price for me and the price for the driver, which I paid and he followed me in. The first thing I saw was an group of taxidermic ostriches-massive big things towering over my head. I learned that the driver owned a ranch out in his home track. He raised ostriches and was going to retire there.

The next thing that I remember seeing was a rock that had a bass relief carving of a charging rhinoceros. It was far and away the most amazing piece of art work I had ever seen. The rock itself was, as I recall, granite-perhaps two or two and a half feet by three feet. Maybe a little bigger than that. It was incredibly old. Someone had carved that thing thousands and thousands of years ago-and still it was not a small image of a rhino. It was a full sized rhino charging out of that small stone that you could have set on your dining room table. Alive and dangerous for all this time.

The next day I bought a book from the snickering woman at the gift store in the hotel. It was by James Michener and about South Africa. I took it to my room with full intention of reading it. In the first chapter of his book Michener and his research team decided to set up whatever was to come after by talking about the history of South Africa. Something I would be interested in. They chose to start with the ignorant political activist who must surely have been some misbegotten pigmy who made that carving as a-what they thought it was supposed to be, was-was some sort of act of political trouble making. I put the book aside and never read it. That's how angry I was with his lack of respect for what was clearly, purely art. Perhaps a capturing of the sacred. Not political rhetoric.

One of the things that always came up in conversation was, "would you come back to South Africa?" And while they were all very nice, there was that ever present problem of the inequality. And so you smile and nod-and think, not on your tintype. The South African University people had arranged for us to go on a safari when the job was finished. One reason we couldn't do this was because there was malaria in the jungle out there and we would have had to take that same malaria drug from which Bill had developed a rash from taking it when he was in India. He stopped taking it when the rash came out. Later we read-good thing-that if you get the rash after taking the drug, the next thing you do if you keep taking it, is die. The other reason we couldn't go was that we had to get out of there.

On the flight back, we had a stopover in Nairobi. There was not enough time between planes to go to the hotel. This time we waited in the low dark halls for our delayed flight. (There might have been enough time to have gone to the hotel and gotten some rest.) There were lots of American tourists all of whom had been on Safari. A woman who had very young twins at home. Her husband had organized this trip for her because she needed to be away from the children. It seemed that she didn't agree with this. And then there was that Catholic priest who wouldn't shut up. He used to go to Mexico on his sabbatical. But he needed more inspiration from the poverty of others so now he was going to Africa.

We had arranged a stop over in Germany. It was autumn there and the Germans do know how to do October. But that's another story. We weren't going to be in Germany but for a couple of days... so we checked our luggage into "Left Luggage" at Frankfurt. Back in those days there was this incredible thing you could do: Leave all you bulky suitcases, and tool boxes with an attendant at the airport and pick them up when you were ready to get on to the next place in your itinerary.

And so when we finally got back to Heathrow and went to change our luggage from one airline to the other there was a problem. Heathrow has never been my favorite airport. There is something so stern about the attendants at Heathrow-it's not an English thing-the people at Gatwick are fine-but this particular Heathrow event was a bit over the top.

When we brought our luggage to the transfer point it had to go through an x ray device. They clearly didn't like what they saw. And so they called us over and asked Bill to open the suitcase, while they sidled over behind a massive cement pillar. When it didn't blow up, they came out from behind the pillar with a print of the offending scan of the suitcase that showed a dark mass they couldn't make out what was. It was, a zip lock bag of bolts, which was what it was. They thought it was a hand grenade. I am at a loss why it was OK for Bill to reach in and take out this device, while they needed the protection of the cement pillar. O.K. you could say, they thought it served him right carrying around contraband like that-but what about all the other people on our side of the counter? Shouldn't some thought have been given to their well being?


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