To Write – To Remember

After Daddy was gone and Mama had retired from teaching, she began to write down her memories of her life with her husband, Walter Inglis Anderson.  As aften happens with the process of writng and remembering, her original purpose of writing a biography of the artist turned into something more complex and revealing. She could not help telling her own story, and – to some extent – that of her children and other family members. The telling absorbed her and by the time her enormous output was compiled into a small perfect jewel of a book, she was elderly and would soon be diagnosed with cancer. Yet she had her moment in the light, and the joy of living the writer’s life and being embraced by her readers.

Recently, I have been writing and remembering my mother, and by so doing revealing myself in relation to her. I pray that my own devotion to this project will be a way of honoring my mother, and also honoring the connection we had as mother and daughter. I have already published one vignette on this blog. Now here is another.


            From my birth, through my childhood, and most of my adulthood, my Mama had exceptionally long hair, and hair-washing day was something of a ritual. It happened once a week, usually on a Saturday. At least this is what I remember from my own long ago weekend hair-washings, for my hair was also encouraged to grow long and lush.

While Mama’s hair was still wrapped in a towel from being dunked, scrubbed and rinsed, a chair was placed backward against the bathroom sink and it was my turn. It was never comfortable – leaning back against the hard cold porcelain, my neck stretched and straining with the weight of my long wet hair – but my mama’s hands were good: long-fingered and thorough, yet gentle and somehow made of love. To keep me from squirming or getting impatient, she told a story. The one I recall, with some amazement, was about the kingdom of the drain devils and the various adventures of the royal couple and their subjects. Mixed with my fascination was a certain frisson of fear; for wasn’t I helplessly suspended above those very drains? There was some relief when my hair squeaked clean and I followed my Mama out to the porch, my own towel turban in place. Once there, we would set our hair free to hang long, loose and accessible to the warmth of the sun. As the story was resumed, I watched my mother’s hair take on light. The top strands broke free from the damp under-hair and rose to make a shining gold aura around her head and upper body. I never could decide if she looked like a witch or an angel.

In later years, coming upon my elderly mother, on another porch, but still with the long hair streaming and celebrating its once-a-week freedom from the careful bun, the drying strands danced silvery in the sunlight. I rejoiced at the sight and sat on the swing beside her, hoping for a story to begin. These days it was more apt to be a family legend sort of tale, but whatever it was or however many times I had heard it, I listened rapt to Mama’s golden delivery. I did love to hear of her childhood at Oldfields, when life was more simply and graciously lived, and beauty was an accepted aspect of everyday living. Present-day trips to the supermarket seemed terribly mundane compared to barrels of groceries coming by train from Solari’s in New Orleans. I could just see my little-girl-mama and her sister, Pat, in their lacy white dresses, watching with excited anticipation the opening of those barrels.

Another sort of family legend that has stayed with me and affected me profoundly is the story of Malena Gaspari, a young Jewish woman who escaped Spain by cutting off her hair and donning masculine clothing. Her remarkable action saved her life and the lives of her descendants. Her fortitude and courage accompanied me on many a journey that I was sure was of the life-saving sort. Her long ago existence in some way gave credence to my own. Any journey that I feel compelled to embark upon due to untenable circumstances seems blessed by Malena, and also by Mama who made sure that I heard her story.

When my mother, Agnes Grinstead Anderson, became a published author, she cut off the hair that for so long had seemed to be her crowning glory. She signed copies of APPROACHING THE MAGIC HOUR in a face-framing bob that gave her a strong assertive look quite different from the long familiar feminine softness of her braided crown or bun. She seemed to come into her own with her words in print, her story told and read by many. I think that during that last year (before her illness) she became her crowning glory. Her whole being rose to the sunlight of fulfillment.


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5 Responses to “To Write – To Remember”

  1. Kendall Says:

    My memory is a little different. According to my memory, which is flawed as much as anybody’s, she didn’t start off intending to write about him. I was begging her to tell her story (you remember there was a whole movement pushing women to do that in the 70s, and I was doing it and advocating it). My memory is that she started with the intention of telling about herself, for her children to see and know, and maybe others could read it too. She wasn’t sure she wanted others to read it. My recollection is that she was going to explore being Agnes, not Sissy (not someone else’s sister or wife, but herself: the question we talked about was WHO ARE YOU, other than someone’s sister, wife, mother, grandmother, friend). That was an edge for her, as it is for you and for me, now. As she wrote (and wrote and wrote), she gradually was persuaded (by others, not me) that what the world wanted was a story about him. I don’t think that was her intention, and I remember being crushed when she agreed to make it about him, and not about herself. I wept. I don’t remember if I told her of that weeping. For me, it was a great loss, that her own story was published as a memoir of him. It still breaks my heart. But I think as people read it, they see her. I think of Gertrude Stein’s “autobiography” of Alice B. Toklas. Sometimes the best way to tell about ourselves is to tell about someone we love. Maybe, now that we are older, we both see the wisdom of that. Maybe now, at last, I can put away sobbing about the subtitle of Agnes’s memoir and accept that the only way we can tell it is, as Emily Dickinson said, “slant.”

  2. leiflife Says:

    Sorry, dear Kendall… She may have talked to you of writing about her life (She needed to write about her life). But she wrote 2000 biographical pages on Walter Anderson before she began writing the vignettes which were more personal (more about her) and eventually went into the final book.

    Maybe you are thinking of the stories she wrote of her childhood at Oldfields. They were wonderful and evocative of a different time. I hope they still exist. So much that was in the vault is still being stored for us.

  3. Kendall Says:

    I have to laugh, Leif. What she may have intended before she wrote those 2000 pages might not have been possible till they were written, but she did finally get to it. I love your closing lines: she became her crowning glory…whole being rose to the sunlight of fulfillment. Finally. I am so glad.

  4. Christopher Says:

    I feel grateful to both of you for this remembrance and discussion. Approaching will always be one of my all-time most beloved and life-changing books. I love the diaries she wrote in the 1980s, where her life is so intertwined with that of family and people around her, past and present, and she relishes, as few people do, the happinesses of daily existence, ‘this bounty which turns my flawed breath to prayer,’ as a Spanish poet once said.

    • leiflife Says:

      And Christopher, I feel grateful to you for your words. You entered so fully into our world that I trust implicitly your response and your ongoing presence in my life.

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