Writing is my hometown, or what I imagine a hometown to be, where the names of people and places are remembered. I can return to my younger self, the way most people revisit the swimming holes, playing fields, classrooms, bars of their youth. I grew up in the military, lived in seventeen houses by my seventeenth year, and have no old neighborhood except memory.
When I was in elementary school I organized a birthday party for a dark haired girl who was poor. I wanted to give her a comb for a present, because her hair was always tangled, but my mother convinced me that a small emerald green scarf would be more appreciated. I can still see that girl, on the playground every day after the party, wearing that splash of rich green on her ponytail or tied around her neck. But I don’t remember her name.
If my parents maintained relationships with the parents of my childhood friends, then names attach to some memories. Photographs help. Jeanne Quesnell and I were in Brownies together; she stood a head taller than me when we were both nine. Our troop photo is proof. I didn’t like being seen with her, but our mothers socialized, fathers were in the same squadron. She liked to joke that we looked like Mutt and Jeff together, and I hoped that none of the popular girls would think I was her best friend.
One Saturday afternoon, Capt. Quesnell took Jeanne and me to see the recently released “Love Me Tender” starring the love of my young life, Elvis Presley. I remember sitting next to handsome Capt. Quesnell and have no memory of where Jeanne sat. As the final tragic scene rolled, in which the now dead Elvis sang the title song and his ghost face covered the screen, I looked at Capt. Quesnell through my tears and saw that he was trying hard to suppress laughter. I hated him. My next memory of Capt. Quesnell is the day I had to spend playing Barbies on the floor of Jeanne’s room because her father’s plane had exploded at the end of the runway, killing him instantly. I thought he deserved it.
Writing helps me know myself better. I was the girl who put together a birthday party for the poor girl. I was also the girl who thought a good man deserved a fiery death because he failed to share my sentiments. I know myself to be large-hearted and caring, also judgmental and disdainful of those who don’t agree with me.
Grace Paley, a writer who knew her neighborhood, said that it is the writer’s responsibility to get it right. While writing gives me a way to return to my past, it also dares me to get it right for the characters who don’t share my point of view. Writing challenges me to make beloved neighbors of my enemies and tell their stories well. I believe writing teaches me how to live.
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