Years into writing a memoir of my mother and my aunt, I visited their alma mater, Bryn Mawr College. The archivist and I had emailed and spoken by phone, and she had helpfully set up Ellen and Sally’s files, as well as files for their mother, Helen, and their good friend Juliana, also Bryn Mawr alums. I had no clear agenda in looking at their files, other than a vague hope that I might find out something more about Ellen’s “n.b.” (her abbreviation for nervous breakdown) that made her grades plummet in her final semester. She managed to graduate on time, and cum laude to boot, but I still don’t know exactly how the “n.b.” manifested. All I found, though, was a note in her own hand on an alumnae survey, that she dropped her honors status “due to illness” in that last semester.
What I did find, though, was certainly interesting. Not exactly anything new, but more evidence of what I’d already gleaned, and more delightful words in the familiar voices of these women whose words I’ve been living with as I write this memoir. They are writers, I realize, again, real writers who care about how they use words, though they didn’t aspire to anything beyond using their words for whatever task lay before them to express their ideas just so.
They wrote such beautiful sentences. There is no question now why I am a writer, and why my siblings also write so beautifully and naturally, publishing, or not, in their various fields. It’s not that it’s genetic; it’s that we grew up in a whorl of beautiful sentences. Our home life was many things, not all of them benign, but one thing it was was extraordinarily articulate. It was not possible to have an unformed thought; all came out in carefully though unconsciously constructed language.
And often, of course, that very language obscured deeper layers of meaning. Not everything was expressed. Language served to conceal as well as reveal experience. Being articulate didn’t translate into great insight, particularly about the inner life, more particularly about anything unpleasant.
More to come.