Debbie LaChusa

Why Memoir? Why Now?

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I’ve felt called to write a memoir for more than a year.

Coincidentally, I realized I’ve been reading memoir for the past few years. Always a nonfiction reader, my previous book choices were usually in the personal development or self help genre. I read to learn, to grow, to understand life… mine and other people’s. So I suppose it’s no surprise I was drawn to memoir, especially as I’ve gotten older and have begun reflecting on my life.

After a few years of reading memoir I decided to read about writing memoir.

Handling the Truth: On the Writing of Memoir by Beth Kephart, found its way into my hands, as did The Memoir Project: A Thoroughly Non-Standardized Text for Writing & Life by Marion Roach Smith.

These books taught me memoir writing is different from the writing I’ve done in the past.

Well, maybe not as different as it first seemed. I’ve since learned that two, and perhaps three of my previous books—Breaking The Spell, The Following Inspiration Experiment, and Twin Connections to a lesser degree—are a form of memoir known as teaching memoirs, because they include varying combinations of personal experience, research, other people’s stories, and instruction. With what I’ve learned about memoir, I’d say the books are definitely memoir-ish. Of course I’d write them differently now, with what I’ve learned about writing memoir.

I got clear last year my next book would be a memoir, but that’s as far as I got.

I requested as a birthday gift, Beth Kephart’s workbook, Tell the Truth. Make it Matter. I intended to dive in and work through all the exercises. A year later the workbook still sits on my desk, begging to be opened. All I can say is life got in the way.

With aging parents and a new grandson, writing wasn’t a top priority.

As I watched dad nearing the end of his life, I didn’t feel inspired to write. Living across the country, I feared—pretty much expected actually—I wouldn’t get to see him again before he passed. I made peace with that as best I could. Still, life is anything but normal when you’re on death watch with your dad. Between that, and frequent trips to Ohio to spend time with my new grandson, 2022 was far from normal. And writing definitely took a backseat.

The juxtaposition of dad at the end of life and a baby at the beginning was an emotional tug of war.

Such disparate emotions all vying for my attention at the same time. Profound sadness battling with overwhelming joy. Is it right to feel both emotions at the same time? I don’t know. I’ve never been here before. All I do know is it amplified my desire to write memoir.

My father died in June. He was buried in August.

I traveled home to San Diego both times. I’m grateful I was able to be there when dad passed. I spent time with mom, my siblings, and the rest of our extended family. For several weeks I slept in my childhood bedroom, in the same twin bed I left 37 years earlier. I returned to San Diego for dad’s services in August, again sleeping in my old bedroom at the end of the hall, in the home my parents no longer occupy.

Staying in a house filled with mom and dad’s things, but not mom and dad, was haunting.

They moved out a year ago. Yet there’s still food in the pantry, a freezer full of Costco frozen goods, and a load of dishes sitting in the dishwasher. Photos of their children, grandchildren, and great grandchild crowd the shelves in the family room. Wine bottles rest patiently in the rack. And grandma’s vintage dolls keep watch from behind the glass doors of mom’s oak curio cabinets.

Treasures from their travels fill the house. Dad’s favorite books line the shelves of the bookcase he built when I was a kid. Photo albums mom clearly spent hours creating commemorate their cruises and trips abroad. Mom’s collection of sterling silver and handcrafted necklaces and earrings fill a jewelry box on top of the guest room dresser, and overflow into the drawers below.

And then there’s mom’s watercolor paintings. The ones she painted—she’s a nationally renowned, award-winning artist—and the ones she collected. Art framed and hung, sometimes in stacks three rows high, on the walls in every room. Upstairs, mom’s studio is full of her work in all stages of progress. And maybe the most unsettling of all: mom’s calendar, still open to July 2021, the month they abruptly left their family home of more than 50 years to move into a one-bedroom senior living apartment.

So much life lived in a house that now sits empty of its owners, yet full of the remnants of their lives.

Dad’s last few months were hard, on him, on me, on all of us. After he passed and I returned home I felt relieved. But I also found myself cycling through the stages of grief: denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance. It was an overwhelming combination of so many emotions all tangled up in a complicated mess. Everything I saw, everywhere I turned, memories were triggered, flooding in as if a dam had burst. So much to process, work through and heal, creating what I’ve learned is the perfect storm for writing memoir.

And so, I write.

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