Memory will not be restricted to the needs of memoir. Memory is not merely unruly, but anarchic.
The past is mercurial. The writer of memoir might think she has confined it to the page, even turned it into an actual book. But memory will not be restricted to the needs of narrative. Memory slips away, sprite-like, laughing, resistant to artful storytelling. Memory is not merely unruly, but anarchic.
The nonfiction writer must resist anarchy. Fiction is more malleable. The fiction writer can occasionally give into anarchy (especially in the interest of narrative energy, often aided by alcohol and fueled by delusion masquerading as conviction). Particularly with a third person narrator, fiction can shape-shift, wander off into uncharted territories. Not so for the writer of memoir who must cleave to the picketed, well-mown plots of narrative memoir, and ignore the weed-strewn lots of memory. Here in the Truly Unruly we wade through those weeds.
Amy Henderson had vanished from memory of her own sister, erased.
The photo above, briefly mentioned in my The Unruly Past, depicts the primly Edwardian family of my Mormon grandmother, Mae Henderson Johnson in about 1905. The Hendersons, English by birth, converted to the Latter-day Saints, and emigrated to Salt Lake City (and thence to Idaho) in about 1908. In this photo Mae (born 1896) looks to be about ten and Eva (born 1898) looks to be about eight. Behind them, an older sister, Amy (b. 1893) looks to be in her teens, as does the oldest brother, Archie (b. 1891).
When, in 1977, my great-aunt Eva put this photograph in my hands, she was nearly eighty, frail, widowed, and living alone in a tiny apartment in Ogden, Utah. My jaw dropped; I was stunned to see on my grandmother, Mae, [far right] the absolute replica of my own young face. Shocking. Moreover, an older sister so closely resembled my teenage self—only a lot sadder. I pointed to her, and asked who that was.
Eva seemed to strain remember. “My sister Amy,” she said at last.
“I never heard even heard of her.”
“She died young.”
That was all Eva could offer. She could not even remember when Amy had died or what of. I asked if Amy had married, but Eva could not remember that either. Amy Henderson had vanished from memory of her own sister, which is to say, erased, forever forgotten.
But the Mormons in general do not forget. Indeed, they are the Great Rememberers. Their passion for genealogy serves their religious beliefs, and their genealogical records are painstaking. My grandfather, Will Johnson, was a dedicated genealogist and at some point his handwritten records came to my father who had no use for or any interest in them. These big manila envelopes sat in my basement until it flooded in 2010 when (mercifully) they were among the materials not inundated by water. I opened them, and scanned through the charts my grandfather had created and annotated in his neat Spenserian hand. And there was Amy Henderson.
Amy Henderson had indeed married, someone named St. Clair in January 1916. No first name is given. (He is the only person in all these records to have no first name noted.) Amy would have been about twenty-five, elderly for a Mormon bride. By contrast, both her younger sisters married before she did. Mae married my grandfather in 1914, age eighteen. Eva, the youngest girl, married in 1915 at the age of seventeen.
Poor Amy, east of Kelly, north of Conrad, south of Jones.
Amy died of unspecified causes in November 1918, that is, at the end of the Great War (Armistice, November 11, 1918). Might Amy have been one of the early casualties of the Spanish Influenza that swept the world in 1919, killing millions? Would the Spanish Influenza have reached Idaho that early? My guess would be no. Did she perhaps die in childbirth? Nothing to so indicate. And yet, at the bottom of the page my grandfather wrote an odd, sad note:
“Amy Henderson St. Clair was buried at Nampa, Idaho in Kohler Lawn Cemetery. Sec B, lot 64, plot parcel 5. In 1955 no stone or marker remained to find it. Grave is located east of Kelly and between Lois Conrad on the North and Elizabeth Jones on the South. Grave space #4 still belongs to the family in the name of W. W. Henderson (est. $10 each space) Nampa City Records.”
Why did he write this? Did my grandfather think someone might want to go find poor Amy (east of Kelly, north of Conrad, south of Jones) to lay some sort of remembrance where there was not so much as a marker that she had died, much less that she had lived? Had Amy at age twenty-five perhaps run off with this No-First-Name St. Clair? Nampa is a railroad town near Boise. The Hendersons as a tribe had settled far from Boise, in and around Sugar City, Fremont County, Idaho. How had Amy met St. Clair? Was he a railroad man with a job in Nampa? As a married man he would not have been drafted when America declared war in 1917, so in all likelihood they were living together in Nampa when twenty-two months after the wedding she died.
Amy was buried in Plot #5. However, that plot belonged to a Henderson. Does that suggest that St. Clair was unable to pay to bury his wife? Perhaps unwilling. Perhaps not even present? Clearly the family absorbed the costs of her death. Presumably Amy had a Mormon funeral, and after those last words were spoken, people walked away and workers at the Kohler Lawn Cemetery filled in the grave. If someone—anyone—had paid for a stone, it certainly would have lasted till 1955. Though Hendersons still owned plot #4 in 1955, no one is buried there.
I wanted These Latter Days to rescue Amy Henderson from the crypt of oblivion.
When Eva gave me this photograph in 1977 I knew nothing of the above. I did not even know these genealogical tables existed. I only knew that Amy had “died young,” and that her sad eyes, set in a face so very like my own, haunted me.
I thanked Eva for the photograph and took it home to California where I embarked on the novel These Latter Days. In writing These Latter Days, the story of a fictional Mormon family, I wanted to rescue Amy Henderson from the crypt of oblivion.
I created an eldest daughter, Eden Douglass, born in 1890. Eden also dies young, but in an act of rebellion. Eden has ambitions that set her apart from her siblings who, for the most part, do not look beyond the Mormon church or the town of St. Elmo, California. Eden has visions of travel and adventure, and though her actual plans are unformed, she has office skills; she has poise and personal insight, knowing that if she does not leave this smug, complacent town, her hopes and dreams, her very spirit, will wither and die. At twenty-one in 1911 she acts on these convictions. One rainy night she leaves home to take the eastbound train out of St. Elmo. Flood waters have undermined the foundations of the bridge going out of town; the bridge collapses underneath the weight of the train, killing everyone on board.
In my novel Eden does not lie in an unmarked grave. Her stone in the St. Elmo Cemetery has her name, her dates, 1890—1911, and at her mother’s request, one other chiseled word,
In my novel Eden Douglass is not forgotten. Her brother names his eldest daughter Eden Louise. She too escapes on an eastbound train. She goes on to have adventures (travel, danger, love affairs, marriage, children, heartbreak, all of which require her resilience) chronicled in These Latter Days and later, American Cookery.
Amy Henderson inspired me. As did Eva Henderson.
Every time I look at this photograph I find the resemblance of Amy and Mae to my own young self deeply unsettling. Ironically I had no special affection or even respect for Mae Henderson Johnson. Perhaps unfairly I judged her to be dull, self-centered and without spirit. In any event Mae does not inform the pages of anything I have written (other than her appearance in The Unruly Past). But Amy Henderson inspired me. As did Eva Henderson.
On that same visit when Eva gave me the photograph she told the story of her own desperate flight from Idaho to escape her abusive first husband, the man she had married at seventeen. Taking her only child with her, Eva got on a train, keeping the little boy close, terrified that the husband might have discovered her absence, guessed where she’d gone, somehow got on the train, and was stalking the aisles looking for them. She feared he might snatch her back to the hell she had fled. Oh yes, there’s a story there. And I used it: the central act of the central character in These Latter Days, the lie at the root of her life, the lie that her eldest daughter, Eden, discerns just days before she takes that fateful train.
These Latter Days and The Unruly Past are available in a new Paint Creek Press edition wherever books are sold.
Fascinating stuff. I love finding out from whom we came, and when, and how. Plus, your post give us this excellent bonus line: often aided by alcohol and fueled by delusion masquerading as conviction. haha Perfect!
Love this reinventing of ancestors! No, not reinventing. Reimagining, reviving, honoring their memory using your best skill. I’m going to reread These Latter Days now.
This information adds to what we already learned reading The Unruly Past. Thank you for the explanation. I guess I will have to reread These Latter Days!
Honoring in a fictional mode Amy St Clair’s likely story is a wonderful way to give young women like her a remembrance.
These Latter Days has been on one for my book shelves with several of your other novels. Now it will be next up on my TBR list.