Monday, October 24, 2016

Memoir Seminar - Writing about a character, part 2.

At the final memoir writing class on Saturday we read our 250 word character treatments including the setting of a scene. Very difficult to do in such few words. The new element we tried using is dialogue which I have NO talent for whatsoever. KB gave us all kinds of tricks and tips and perhaps with practice I could learn to use it. Here's the dialogue I added in to my story....


I was eleven that day at my “nest of aunts,” the home my Grandmother and aunts won in the Catholic church lottery. The old stairs creaked as I followed my little Auntie Pearl’s Mary Jane shoes up the sagging treads to her bedroom. Her grey hair bobbed as she pawed through the sheets in the dresser drawer she slept in and I could smell traces of Evening of Paris cologne and mothballs. Standing up with a washcloth in her hands, she looked me directly in the eyes with a wild expression. At 50, she was the same height as me and although an apron covered her little girl’s clothing, the contrast between her child’s body and wrinkled face was freakish. 

“There’s faces in my knees,” she croaked in her hoarse voice, rubbing hard on her skin. I knew something was wrong. 
"Stop that Pearl!" I said, feeling panicky as she was starting to bleed. I snatched the cloth from her. 
"Give that back," Pearl said, her face red and angry.  

Terrified, I shouted downstairs to where my relatives were chatting and enjoying the weekly Sunday-after-mass-ritual, drinking tea and exchanging stories, "Grandma—come quick. Pearl's acting nuts!"

Pearl had Turner’s syndrome and had never grown physically after the age of 10. Fiercely protected by my well-meaning family she’d been kept safely in the nest but without an education, relationships or a job, save using her prodigious memory to store all the family facts. Some families had a bible for this purpose; we had Pearl.

It’s no surprise that her excellent brain provided her an escape from her sterile world; she created a new world of her own; one where she imagined herself a beauty queen with lovers and musical talent and faces on her knees. Mental illness, an uninvited guest - Mr. Tetched, Mr. Peculiar, Mr. Nutso - had moved into the nest and my playful Auntie Pearl had become my Crazy Little Aunt. Instead of fun and games with my family those Sunday afternoons after church, we learned now of schizophrenia, shock treatments and lithium.

First version is below: 

Even with her little girl's clothing covered by an apron, Auntie Pearl's wrinkled face looked freakish in contrast to her child's body and Mary Jane shoes. That Sunday after mass, she was waiting for me at the door of my "nest of aunts.” Quickly, she led me up the stairs to her bedroom, which smelled faintly like Evening of Paris cologne and mothballs. Her head of bushy grey hair bobbed as she looked through her bed sheets in the large mahogony dresser drawer she’d taken to sleeping in. Auntie Pearl was always fun but today she was different. "There's faces on my knees," she said in her throaty voice, rubbing her skin vigorously with the face cloth she’d found. Standing up, she pulled a necklace out of her pocket and thrust it into my hands. Pearl was the only adult I could look directly in the eyes. I was 11 and Auntie Pearl was 50. I knew something was wrong.

Pearl was born with Turner's syndrome and despite my families fervent prayers, she didn't grow past the age of ten. Permanently trapped in a child's body, she was fiercely protected by our well-meaning family and kept safely at home. With no education, job or relationships, she had become our families "rememberer" keeping track of every event—year, date, time and even the weather. Other families kept a Bible for records; we had Auntie Pearl. 

Looking back, it's not surprising that she mentally abandoned that limited life and escaped to a different world—one in which she was a beauty Queen, with suitors and a very special talent on the piano. Like an unwanted family member, mental illness had moved into the “nest” and changed it for good. Sunday talk from then on was about lithium, thorazine and shock treatments.

Little Auntie Pearl had become my Crazy Little Aunt.

1 comment:

  1. i love reading about aunt pearl. can't wait to read about the others in the next.