On the wings of the black crow come the spirits of old, treasured, discarded, lost, forgotten, dearly beloved toys who have made a significant contribution to our lives.
I was twelve as I recall, old enough to leave him far behind,
but he’d spent every day with me for as long as I remember.
His fur was worn, his ear torn, but his love was true and pure.
He was my ally, my closest friend.
When I was whipped and that was often,
not saying I didn’t deserve it,
he was there to comfort me.
He romped with me in meadow and in woodland,
snugly riding in my knapsack.
He slept with me and listened to my chatter.
When I was sick with measles and with mumps
he sat patiently and waited till I was well again.
His name was Teddy,
just plain Teddy.
When my father passed beyond and my world turned upside down,
Teddy was ready to console.
When we were forced to move from the country into town,
“Toys must go,” my mother said, “you’ll play no more.”
She snatched Teddy from my arms and put him on the trash.
All I remember clearly is the fire
and Teddy on the trash heap with flames licking all around.
His beady eyes turned black and blistered as he stared in pain at me.
Through tears I watched as Teddy turned to ash.
I have other Teddies now, collector bears with moving limbs all dressed in finery.
I never have forgotten though and often think of him and the joy he brought the child in me.
If there is a Teddy Heaven and he is looking down,
he knows I love him very much, did, and always will.
Whether we loved or hated family dinners, they were an important part of childhood. Some of us ate food made from recipes handed down from generation to generation. Others of us ate dinners in which the secret recipes came off the back of boxes and one of the main ingredients was a can of cream of mushroom soup. Often when extended family gathered or we ate at our grandparents’ homes, the menu was different.
Family recipes can trigger childhood memories and can serve as a useful framework for organizing family remembrances. Cookbook memoirs are relatively simple to write and can be easily illustrated with family photos and duplicated at your local copy centre if you wish to give them as presents.
Go through your recipe file and pull your tried and true recipes (the ones you and your children loved) as well as those that were passed down to you. Make notes about any memories those recipes bring up. Are there any family stories that were handed down with the recipes? If so, write them down.
Brainstorm about the food you ate growing up, both around the family dining table and larger family gatherings, church socials, and dinner parties. If you need to do some research, contact older relatives and ask them for their memories as well as their recipes.
Don’t forget comfort food. My favourite was always bread and butter pudding.
Did your parents or grandparents survive the Great Depression or live on a farm? Did your grandparents or great grandparents come here from another country? If so, how did that affect their attitudes about and tastes in food?
What were your mealtime rituals as a family? Do you have pleasant memories of them or less than pleasant memories? What was your favourite table to gather around? How was it set and what did the room look like? By adding sights, sounds, tastes and smells to your stories, you’ll make them come alive.
Write about how you learned how to cook. Who taught you? What was your biggest kitchen disaster? Your biggest triumph? How has meal preparation changed from when you were younger to now?
Remember that you are probably writing for a younger generation of readers who haven’t even seen a flour sifter or a turkey baster. Don’t take cooking expertise for granted. When you copy the recipe directions, you may need to amplify them.
Find a way to organize the recipes by putting them into categories. You might choose to divide them into desserts, main dishes, salads and the like, or you can organize them into sections that focus on the cook in question. My own memoir cookbook has a few unique food groups: Stick to Your Ribs Vittles, Second Breakfasts, The Way to a Man’s Heart, Sunday Dinners, Celebrations, Funeral Food and Putting Food By.
Dear Heather I would like to be remembered for looking after my grandma. These are some of the things that I do for her. I get my grandma tea. I massage her back, I put cream on her legs and I help put her duck away.
I would also like to be remembered for looking after my animals. Here are some of the things I do. I take my birds outside, I give them water and I fill up their food containers
from Laura K
Susan Varley’s ‘Badger’s Parting Gift’ is the book I turn to when I want to give a small gift to someone who is bereaved. It is also the book I pull out in a Lived Experience Narrative or Writing for Wellness Workshop when I want to touch on the sensitive subject of death
I encourage you to watch this video and spend some time remembering not only the parting gifts of those you have loved but your own legacy. What are some of the footprints you will leave in the sand?
To make a footprint take off your shoes and socks and put your foot on your journal page. Trace your foot and then carefully draw in the toenails.
Meditate upon your footprint and consider some of the footprints that you have left behind, the things that people will remember you for, your parting gift. On each toe, write an impression that you have made, a footprint that you have left behind.
Choose one toe and circle it. On the sole of your foot write more information about this particular event and why it stands out.
Now make a footmark in your visual journal and write a letter explaining why you will be remembered.
Footprints also provide a great way to set goals. On the soles of your feet write about the footprints you want to leave behind. Fill a shoebox, decorate insoles, make shoes, write on the bottoms of old shoes, pull out your baby shoes….. The possibilities are only limited by your imagination.
“Anyone who writes down to children is simply wasting his time. You have to write up, not down.”
E. B. White.
“I do not believe that I have ever written a children’s book,” Maurice Sendak
“Creative fantasy, because it is mainly trying to do something else … may open your hoard and let all the locked things fly away like cage-birds.”
We do ourselves and our children a disservice if we shield them and ourselves from difficult emotions. Happily many beautiful children’s books are now helping children make sense of loss and grief. One of my favourites is Badger’s Parting Giftsby Susan Varley. Varley’s book provides concrete ways to deal with the grief associated with the loss of a loved one.
Over at Brain Pickings there is a wonderful article about Oliver Jeffers poignant The Heart in the Bottle which also addresses how to cope with the emotions associated with a significant loss.
Another thread that can also be picked up when talking about unbottling emotions can be found in the work of Elizabeth Skye. Skye. Unbottling the Tragedy of Stolen Relatives, a project she initiated, explores the use of pottery to visualize data and tell stories on missing and murdered indigenous women, girls, and two-spirit people.
In this work, Skye is consulting with families of MMIWG2 to create personalized, unique bottles representing individual MMIWG2 cases, with the aim of creating an impactful representation of MMIWG2 data, and fostering critical dialogue on this violence.
Skye is creating hand-casted bottles inspired by the shapes of liquor bottles, as a means of representing the history behind the epidemic of violence against indigenous women and girls. Colonization has led to indigenous women and girls being objectified, and like alcohol, consumed and discarded—as empty liquor bottles pollute our homelands, the grief and trauma of the violence against our women and girls pervade our communities.
The bottles created in this work are thus also a representation of the relationship between violation of Unčí Makhá (Mother Earth) and the violation of women and girls. Each bottle will have a label reminiscent of the missing person labels that historically were printed on milk cartons; this is to make the bottles recognizable as calling attention to stolen relatives, and to criticize the irresponsible negligence of federal and local law enforcement in handling MMIWG2 cases, many of which are missing person reports that they fail to adequately document or publicise. The care involved in consulting with families, hand-casting each bottle and creating personalized labels is a reclamation of the sacredness of MMIWG2, and an honouring of the unique spirit of each stolen relative. Bottles will only be made with families’ permission, and the information printed on each label will be determined through consultation with each family. Source: Sovereign Bodies Institute.
Promotional material for a conference about unbottling the vulnerabilities of cities facing the threat of natural disaster included this image of a bottled city, presumably shielded from disaster. Those of us who have read Edgar Allen Poe’s The Masque of the Red Death know that barricades are rarely impenetrable. Prince Prospero who reigned over the kingdom in this tale deluded himself when he thought you could keep out the dreaded Red Death. Even the youngest children who I read the opening of this story to know that this story is not going to end well and that the Red Death will prevail.
One way to unbottle emotions is to keep a journal and write unsent letters.
Consider how you will you unbottle some of the emotions that Bessel Van Der Kolk maintains are stored in various parts of the body?
Van der Kolk’s book ‘The Body Keeps the Score’ conjures, in my mind, the kind of scene we see on television when someone like Anthony Green is standing in front of visuals, keeping score as they come in from all over Australia.
One way that we begin to unbottle emotions in a Lived Experience Narrative Course is to undertake an extensive body scan. We systematically search, with a good torchlight, all the hidden crevices and locate all the hermetically sealed places where things which need to be unbottled are hiding, but emitting all sorts of toxins into the body.
Upon completion, we mark things on a template like the one shown here and then contemplate which hidden emotion we can unmask.
Originally I applied an exercise that involves tracing around both hands and creating fun characters on each finger tip with young students in the primary schools.
Initially, we read the classic short story, ‘The Bad Deeds Gang’ and extracts from ‘The Body’ by Stephen King. Time permitting we watched the movie, ‘Stand by Me’ which was based on King’s, ‘The Body’.
Inspired, students loved creating opposing gangs, with gang leaders not to be messed with, weaker characters who could be manipulated and so on. They loved developing stories about the characters in each gang, the family dogs who followed them and writing detailed accounts about some of the altercations that took place.
Not to miss out on all the fun I have found that adult participants in a Lived Experience Course enjoy remembering the gangs that existed in their school days. Similarly, they find it cathartic to recall the bullies who led some gangs that existed back in the day and the long term impact that some of the schoolyard relationships had on their lives.
In a recent Writing for Wellness course, this exercise was applied to effectively draw out material that could be included in any Lived Experience Memoir.
After tracing their hands I asked participants to identify, on five fingers of one hand, the people who had a positive impact on their life (living or dead) and then to identify five on the other hand (living or dead) who had created some issues for them.
Once you have identified these people you may spend some time interviewing them, writing unsent letters to share with them the influence they had, engage in dialogue (active imagination) with them, create detailed portraits or fit them into a piece about a pivotal time.
Edgar Allen Poe’s story ‘The Tell-Tale Heart’, like ‘The Woman With Hair of Gold’, as told by Pinkola Estes, tells us much about the toxic nature of secrets. Both the dismembered heart and the golden hair of the murdered woman tell their tale and eventually bring about justice.
In Chapter 13 of Women Who Run With Wolves Pinkola Estes not only spells out just how secrets can slay us but also provides tangible ways of opening the secrets.
In Lived Experience Narrative Workshops we talk about ‘airing the dirty linen’. To ‘launder’ we undertake a body scan that involves listening to what the heart and other parts of the body have to say about secrets that long to be released. Then we work with mandala templates of hearts, colouring and noting scars and secrets that are seeking to be released from the lock proof places where they have been stored. Once secrets have been identified we focus on one and write a stream of consciousness for twenty minutes. We share what we are able to share and the homework is to develop the piece further.
From experience, I know that this can lead to some exciting, incredibly diverse projects. Perhaps Australian author, Gail Bell, began like this. She is one author who has been willing to bring into the sharp light of day shocking family secrets.
I am currently listening to an audio recording of her award-winning book. The dust jacket outlines the basic story for us. “When Dr William Macbeth poisoned two of his sons in 1927, his wife and sister hid the murders in the intensely private realm of family secrets. Macbeth behaved as if he were immune to consequences and avoided detection and punishment.
Or did he? Secrets can be as corrosive as poison, and as time passed, the story haunted and divided his descendants. His granddaughter, Gail Bell, spent ten years reading the literature of poisoning in order to understand Macbeth’s life. Herself a chemist, she listened for echoes in the great cases of the nineteenth century, in myths, fiction, and poison lore.
Intricate, elegant, and beautifully realised, The Poison Principle is a masterful book about family secrets and literary poisonings.”
Having shown the group my little red suitcase, filled with a lot of photos and ephemera that was on my fridge in the house I left two years after my husband’s death, I asked them to bring along a case or a shoebox full of bits and pieces. We will randomly draw something out, spend some time closely examining the photo or item, dig deep into the well of memory and write freely for twenty minutes.