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Archive for the tag “memoir writing”

Grapefruit. Kristofferson.

images If you met me on the street, you might never guess that I once popped a contact lens right into Kris Kristofferson’s breakfast. And you might not guess how graciously he responded.

Our conversation went something like this:

Me: “I’m sorry! That is my contact lens on your grapefruit! Would you like me to bring you another one?” My finger, a few steps ahead of my brain, had already darted downward as I spoke, plucking the lens from where it had landed, right in the center of the sunny pink half.

Kris: “Oh no, that’s fine. I don’t mind.” Smile. Eye-twinkle.Unknown

It was 1976, the year he starred with Barbra Streisand in the rock-glamorous remake of A Star is Born. I was working for the summer in the restaurant of a downtown Seattle hotel. Kris was in Seattle for a concert with his then-wife, Rita Coolidge. That summer I served breakfast to Linda Ronstadt, the Doobie Brothers and Kris and Rita. My uniform was a blue polyester pantsuit.

I did not see A Star is Born that year, probably because it came to Seattle after I left in the fall to spend my junior year in England. But I knew a gorgeous actor/songwriter/singer when I saw one, even one who chose to sit alone in the back of a casual hotel restaurant, rather than order his grapefruit and cereal from room service.

Scenes from our lives, whether we’ve told them a hundred times or never at all, have a way of burbling up when you least expect them. I have repeated the contact lens story many times. I now have to explain to younger people that back then, we wore hard plastic lenses, which frequently popped right out if your eyes were dry, which mine often were after getting up at 4 a.m. for the breakfast shift. And not only did the old hard lenses tend to pop out, they were expensive. I cried the first time I lost one and couldn’t find it, because it would cost 70 dollars to replace.

What’s interesting to me now, as a memoir writer, is that I have never written the tale of Kris and the contact lens. I used a version of it once, long ago, in a short story I never finished after my writing group gave it a big thumbs down. I remember one woman called it “popcorn: tasty, but not satisfying.” I knew what she meant, but not what to do about it.

I think what was missing, in that short story, was the character that was me. On the outside, I was a friendly, 19-year-old breakfast waitress who needed to earn money for college. On the inside, I felt fat, plain, shy and more convinced every day that I might never ever be attractive to any man.

But wait: something important had either just happened, or was about to happen. That very summer, I had my very first boyfriend, who also worked at that very hotel. It was such a big deal. Being told you’re beautiful, by a boy? A VERY big deal for a girl who’s never heard it.

So here’s the question: did the grapefruit encounter with Kris happen before or after I began this belated blossoming? Was I the awkward girl still packing the freshman 20 or was I the young woman who had just been told for the first time that she was beautiful?

Memory is like that. It gives us juicy morsels, but not always the recipe.

Last week, I finally watched A Star is Born for the first time. The film is very mid-70s—plunging necklines, coke spoons and all—but it holds up. Streisand’s voice knocked my socks off. Kristofferson plays a great gorgeous, alcoholic train wreck.

MI0000096020 And his smile took me right back to the grapefruit incident.

Here’s what I remember that might offer a clue to who I was at the time: I was able to smile back. To laugh a little. To do something other than flush bright red and want to die. It wasn’t the most mortifying moment of my life. It was delightful. Kris treated me like a normal person. And I responded like one.

And at the time? That was a whole new way of being.


I’ll be reading with other authors from Into the Storm: Journeys with Alzheimer’s at Ravenna 3rd Place Books in Seattle on Thursday, May 1st at 7pm.


DSC00865She “made us move bigger than we actually were, with a courage and physical confidence we didn’t yet possess,” wrote Jennifer Homans in a recent tribute to the great ballerina Maria Tallchief, who died in 2013. Maria Tallchief: what a graceful name for the daughter of an Osage chief who grew into a dancer known all over the world for her long-limbed, dazzling, powerful presence. My own memory of Maria Tallchief is not of her on stage—I was never so lucky—but of the sound of her name as spoken by my mom. She said it gratefully, joyfully and with wonder: as in, can you imagine how thrilling it was for me to see Maria Tallchief on stage in Butte, Montana? How lucky I felt?

I think she saw Tallchief in Swan Lake. It must have been the late 1940s, when my mother was in high school. Butte, her hometown, was in a pretty happy mood then: World War II had brought Butte’s copper mines—a vast honeycomb underneath what had been known before the Depression as the “richest hill on earth”—back to life. My grandparents bought their first house, a tiny bungalow down on the flats with a stamp of a yard where you could coax a little grass and a few trees to grow: paradise, after a dozen years in the treeless tenements uptown.

The Depression had been very hard on Butte, and on my mother’s family. And so this ballerina, whose talent was to be bold, strong, courageous, to exude confidence from her outstretched arms and atop her pointed toes; who wasn’t a hothouse flower of the east but a daughter of an Oklahoma tribe—no wonder she made my mom and all of Butte, Montana swoon.

We memoir writers like to imagine such scenes. It’s a way of understanding something about our parents’ past—which is our past, too. Because when you hear your mother or your father talk about the events that shaped their young lives, you absorb their truths. For my mom, the truth of Maria Tallchief was this: Seeing a beautiful dancer dance to beautiful music is a gift beyond description, a way of lifting your spirit beyond daily life to somewhere else, some other realm. This is what matters about art. This is what is worth remembering.

As a child, you take note of what memories make your mother’s eyes light up. You file it somewhere; you understand that if you should ever get a chance to see ballet, you will do so, and you’ll do it with reverence.

As an adult, you remember your mothers’ shining eyes as you stare at the New York Times Magazine’s stunning photo of Tallchief in a 1948 performance of George Balanchine’s Orpheus. You long to call your mom and hear the story again, but your mom is long gone, and so you go down the rabbit hole of the Internet and find nothing about Tallchief’s performance in the late 1940s in Butte, Montana. Did it happen? Are you remembering wrong? Perhaps your mom saw Tallchief in the late 1950s in Seattle, or on the Ed Sullivan show in the early 1960s.

But the truth remains, a truth that transcends remembered or forgotten facts. You grew up with a mother who treasured encounters with transcendent beauty, and so you too learned to treasure such encounters.

And this is why the Times’ Lives they Lived” issue of the magazine, which comes out at the very end of every year, is such a rich reading experience. An ode to Maria Tallchief moved me to remember my mom and to write. For you, it might be the photo of James Gandolfini’s Cadillac. Or the tributes to Abigail Van Buren, Joyce Brothers, JJ Cale. Or you might find that the story of someone you’ve never heard of—87-year-old marathon runner Joy Johnson, for example—lifts you out of your everyday life for a few minutes, like a ballerina on a stage in Butte, Montana did for my mother, more than sixty years ago.


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