By Howard R. Wolf
A friend of mine, like many retirees, is trying to write a memoir of his life, but he’s not sure if his journey contains a central theme. He can’t think of one experience that will stand for all the rest.
Raised on a wheat farm in Kansas, valedictorian of his high school class, a graduate of Amherst College where he studied philosophy, he won a fellowship to spend a year at the Sorbonne, returned to Cornell for his Ph.D., and then began a career at a small liberal arts college in Connecticut.
During his years of graduate study, he spent summers working on a fishing boat in Provincetown, learning how to sail, and courting a young woman he would marry. She had inherited a cottage on an island off the coast of Maine, so they spent many summers there; my friend strolled the shore, probed the deep, and wrote incomprehensible articles.
During the academic year, he and his family have lived in a large house, built in 1821 and restored. Many of the exposed beams remain original, and the floor planks are held in place by handmade nails. He’s not sure what century he belongs in.
He has enjoyed all phases of his life in the diverse places where he and his family have lived, but is finding it difficult to locate the point where time and place cross to where he could say: “This is it, this is my life!”
As someone who has lived and worked in many places, I see what he’s up against. Raised in Manhattan, I went away to college, and spent a year in Europe as a chauffeur for a lonely uncle who was in flight from a past in which he felt abandoned by friends and relatives.
It was a hard year for me, trying to console an affluent person with no permanent address, but I did get to see the great monuments of Europe, a grand, if problematic, tour.
I then went to graduate schools in New York City, Boston and Michigan before joining the English department at the University at Buffalo. Over the years at the university, I managed to spend six years teaching overseas, in Turkey, Malaysia, Hong Kong and South Africa.
Can I find myself in any one of these places? Can you find yourself in any one place?
I have a memorabilia shelf that holds some of the small objects that remind me of those faraway places: an ostrich shell from South Africa, a porcelain Buddha from Hong Kong, a floral fan from Japan, a Turkish shadow-puppet (Karagoz), an inscribed letter opener from Malaysia.
What’s on your mantelpiece?
Can any one of these souvenirs tell me if my life story has a plot and central theme?
What about yours?
The meaning of a life emerges through the act of writing about it so that a sense of unity emerges. It’s an act of re-creation that takes imagination.
Get out your notebook, look around your living room and garage. See what it all suggests about your life.
If you’re not into woodworking or knitting, you may find that this “hobby” will yield a story for your children and grandchildren, and the result may give you something to do if you’re housebound during a polar vortex – a fireplace of memory.
Howard R. Wolf, of Amherst, is the author of a collection of travel essays, “Far-Away Places.”