Pat Milligan’s “Case of the Glamorous Visitor”

by Memoir Mentor on February 29, 2012

My spring teaching term began last week, and what a joy it is to be back in the classroom with a lively group of senior-age students dedicated to writing stories about all the interesting things they’ve seen and done during their long and fruitful lives. Pat Milligan hit the ground running in the first class with this marvelous story full of lush description of her hard-working grandmother and a mysterious, glamorous visitor who spends a summer with the family and captivates a young girl’s imagination, until….

by Pat Milligan

The prospect of a guest brought forth a frenzy of house cleaning. Nanny spent that warm June morning in 1945 cleaning Uncle Louis’ bedroom. She washed the insides of the tall windows that looked out on the narrow alley and the yellow brick duplex next door. She wiped the window ledges and the molding, the door, and the small mirror. She polished the dresser and replaced the paper in the bottom of the drawers. The scent of ammonia and lemon oil masked the antiseptic odor of the room. Then she grunted as she turned the heavy mattress over the box spring of the old bed.


She did not ask for help from her grandchildren as she took the bed-clothes down the narrow stairs to the kitchen. There she pulled the clothes washer with its attached wringer to the sink, connected the hose to the faucet, and filled the gray enamel tub with water and Fels-Naptha soap flakes. The wringer was the dangerous part, as the unwary or inattentive laundress could catch her fingers on the ever-rolling pins. We knew the procedure from watching, not from helping.

“Go play,” she told us if we offered help. “You’re only young once, so go play.” Meaning we should stay out of her way, the directions left us happy enough.

Later, back in the kitchen, I asked the same question one or the other of us had asked throughout the morning, “When is she coming, Nanny?”

“Probably sometime this afternoon, I imagine. Your Uncle Louis said it would take time for her to leave the hospital and get her few possessions together. Can’t you girls find something to do?”

In the living room I searched the desk for some penny postcards and a pen. Gwen took a big brown envelope from the bottom drawer and spread my pictures of movie stars about her on the floor. Most were black and white photographs with autographs.

“I like this one of Elizabeth Taylor,” she said. “And here’s one of Margaret O’Brian. Do you think I look like her?”

“A little. She’s about the same age as you.” I didn’t have to turn around to look, for I had memorized them both. Gwen’s hair was brown and short with bangs that fell into her eyes. She had a cute little nose, but it got into everything, and she could never stop talking.

“Who are you writing to now?” she asked.

“Jon Hall, Maria Montez, and Turhan Bey”

“Ugh! Turhan Bey. He’s so ugly.”

“I think he’s – uh – exotic, and you don’t get an opinion.” I said, addressing the card to Culver City, California. “And don’t get my pictures messed up.”

We both jumped when we heard a car door slam and ran to the windows.

“Here she comes,” yelled Gwen toward the stairs where Nanny was remaking the bed and finishing her cleaning. We ran to the front door as a yellow cab was pulling away. Standing on the curb, a tall, thin, blonde lady collected a few leather bags and a large handbag. When she saw us, she seemed startled, and suppressed a small cough with a white handkerchief.

Gwen and Patsy, a bit younger than they were in this story.

“I’m Ramona,” she whispered. “You must be the nieces.”

“I’m Patsy. This is Gwen.”

“We live here,” Gwen reported, moving to the porch.

Nanny’s wide girth blocked the doorway. “I see you’ve met my grandchildren. Welcome Ramona. We’re glad you’re staying with us for a while. Come in.” She moved aside and Ramona dropped her bags inside the door as if she were not sure she would remain and might need to claim them soon.

“Are you sure you have a room for me?” she asked. “Louis said it would be all right.”

“His room is available until he comes home from the hospital. Then we can make other arrangements for you.” Nanny reassured her. “Now come into the kitchen where we can have coffee.” Nanny turned to us. “Girls, take Ramona’s things upstairs.”

We raced up the steps and raced back again. We didn’t want to miss a thing. We were called the Misses Big Ears for a reason.

Seated at the yellow kitchen table, we watched Nanny pour three inches of cream from the neck of a milk bottle into a small pitcher next to the sugar bowl. She got two glasses from the cupboard and poured two cups of coffee. I spooned Ovaltine into the glasses of skim milk. Ramona took half of the cream and two teaspoons of sugar, stirring them into the fragrant coffee. We sipped our Ovaltine and listened, our attention feasting on Ramona.

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‘Tis the Season to Write Romantically

by Memoir Mentor on February 5, 2012

I bought my husband a Valentine a few days ago, just like I’ve been doing for the last four decades. Yep, we’ve been together that long, and even though it has been that long, I still want him to know I love him in that way. He shows me in multiple ways that he still feels that way about me. We are lucky, I know, and I don’t take our relationship for granted.

My husband has a romantic side. He likes the Los Angeles Lakers AND Jane Austen and isn’t embarrassed to be one in only a handful of men in the theatre to see a Jane Austen-ish kind of movie. He’s also a generous and clever gift-giver–both clever in the kind of gifts he chooses for me, and clever in the way he presents them to me. I’m sure that store clerks who help him with his purchases wish they were so lucky.

I have lots of stories I could write that illustrate his romantic side. Why would I want to write them? Because I want our children and future descendants to know that we loved each other in that way.

Often our children only see us as fuddy-duddy parents and can’t visualize us having a life before they came into the world. I suspect you know what I mean. I’ve taught personal history writing for the last 15 years, and the majority of my students tell me they’re writing their stories because they want their children to know what their lives were like before they became parents. Writing stories about the romantic aspects of our lives is one way of expanding our children’s vision of who we are.

So write that romantic story. Here are a few story ideas you might consider:

  • Follow my lead and write a story that illustrates your spouse’s romantic side. When I gave this assignment to my class last year, I was greeted by a blank stare…followed by some mumbling…followed by some derisive laughter. “Now listen, folks,” I retaliated, “not everyone’s a hearts and flowers kind of person.” We then discussed various ways spouses show affection, like cleaning the house when you’re sick, or praising you to their children, or always looking nice for you, or watching a Jane Austen movie with you when they’d rather watch the Lakers…that kind of thing.
  • Write about an adolescent “crush.” Reveal your awkwardness and all the embarrassing details. Be real, and your family will see you in a new light.
  • Write about your first kiss. Who cares if it was a bomb. (Mine was!) Write about it anyway. Be sure to put your story in its setting. Let readers SEE where the deed was done. Was there music playing in the background? Johnny Mathis set the stage for my big dud…”The Twelfth of Never.”
  • Write about your first date–or any interesting/crazy/embarrassing/romantic date you had. Teens don’t date anymore. Show your children’s generation what it was like in “your day.”
  • Write about a marriage proposal. Be as specific as you can. Who said what? How did you feel?
  • Write about your wedding day. Think of some interesting, fun, or surprising incidents that made the day stand out so your story is uniquely yours. Keep it personal…and romantic.
  • Write about your honeymoon. One of my students, an 87-year-old widow, wrote about her wedding night in surprising detail. Yes! It was a lovely story, written sensitively, and with great love. Her children will read the story and be happy their parents loved each other so much.

Now, whatever topic you choose, I recommend you do the following:

  • Write honestly and personally. Reveal your feelings, your disappointments, feelings of awkwardness, embarrassment, silliness. Show the real you.
  • Use lots of detail–about people and settings. Where did incidents take place? Let us SEE it. What were you wearing? What did other people look like? Add “sense details,” if appropriate–sound, smell, sight,  taste, and feel.
  • Create scenes, if possible. Don’t just write a summary. Try to remember what was said, and re-create conversations as you remember them, capturing the emotional truth of the experience.
  • Snag readers’ attention from the get-go. Some experts advise beginning in the middle of things. Too often we feel like we need all kinds of back-story before we get to the interesting part. Don’t do it.
  • Don’t be in a rush to get it finished. Write a rough draft and let it sit for a while. You’ll soon think of things you’ll want to add.

That’s it. I think you’ll enjoy this writing assignment. Get into the spirit. Play some Johnny Mathis, or whoever rocks your boat. Browse through some old photos albums. Then sit at your desk and put it all down on paper.





A Winter’s Tale

by Memoir Mentor on January 19, 2012

Shakespeare wrote one…a story he turned into a play he called A Winter’s Tale. I bet you have a few winter stories you could tell. Growing up in Southern California, I experienced few WINTER winters. However, I did spend some winters in Utah during my college years and learned what it was like to trudge through the snow to classes on frigid mornings. Later, after I married, I shivered through three Boston winters when my husband was in law school and believed I was getting frostbite every time I gripped my car’s steering wheel. Nevertheless, most of my childhood winters were primarily bathed in California sunshine.

I thought about this recently because I had lunch last week with a new friend who moved here from Utah. This is her first California winter, and when I joined her at the restaurant, she was wearing a wool sweater and slacks, even though the temperature outside was in the mid-80s, hot even for California standards. “I know I look ridiculous,” she said, when she greeted me, “but it’s January. I must wear my winter clothes.” From there we gabbed about the different ways each of us experienced winter during our childhoods.

I can’t think of too many stories from my past I would label specifically winter stories, because I always seem to think a winter story should involve snow. I have a vivid memories of what my brothers and I called “going to the snow,” the two or three occasions when my parents took us to the Angeles National Forest about an hour north of Los Angeles. These excursions always began with us rising before the sun did and pulling on our outer clothes over our pajamas–because we had no real snow clothes–and driving to Frazier Park. If it rained in the winter in Southern California, it likely snowed at Frazier Park, where the elevation was around 4700 feet. We kids loved those snow trips, sledding down the gentle slopes on cardboard squares, drinking hot chocolate from thermoses. We sometimes brought Kool Aid or Tang with us and sprinkled it on the snow. We thought we were pretty clever when we scooped it into cups and fashioned our very own snow cones. By midday, we drove home to the mild climate of Manhattan Beach, where we lived a few miles from the Pacific Ocean.

I have a number of winter stories related to my years in Utah and Boston that are specifically related to snowy weather–driving in scary, treacherous conditions, being snowed in, etc. One favorite sweet memory involves rushing to the hospital one snowy night in Boston four days before Christmas to give birth to our first child. We brought our baby son home in a Christmas stocking on Christmas Eve. A frightened new mother of 21, I walked into my apartment to discover my husband had bought and decorated a Christmas tree in my absence. That’s a story I definitely need to write.

Now, what about you? What winter tales do you have to tell? I’ve made a list of a few ideas to jog your memory a bit. When you get a moment this week, light the fireplace, don some comfy slippers, and make yourself a mug of hot chocolate—even if you do live in California—and let your mind drift back to a memory about…

  1. A time you were snowed in
  2. An accident you had in the snow
  3. Chores associated with winter
  4. Snow fun—skiing, sledding, ice skating, making a snowman or a snow fort
  5. Winter in a warm climate. What you like about it. What you dislike about it
  6. The winter blahs
  7. The clothing of winter. What you liked, what you didn’t. Snow suits, the sweater you had to have
  8. Winter cooking
  9. Mishaps due to the weather
  10. An important event that occurred during the winter
  11. Going to school in the snow
  12. Preparing the house or yard for winter

Good luck,
Memoir Mentor

PS: Those are my cute grandkids in the photos, in Park City, Utah, and that’s my dog Emma sniffing the shovel.