The Story of our Lives

Last year my husband bought me volume one of Mark Twain’s autobiography, a book of 736 pages in small type.  Two more volumes are forthcoming.  Most everybody knows that Mark Twain refused to have his autobiography published until 100 years after his death.  One reason was because he didn’t want to offend anyone still living, so he said.  The other reason was because he didn’t think it was even possible to capture his life in words.  He wrote:

 “What a wee little part of a person’s life are his acts and his words!  His real life is led in his head, and is known to none but himself.  All day long, and every day, the mill of his brain is grinding, and his thoughts, (which are but the mute articulation of his feelings) not those other things, are his history…These are his life, and they are not written, and cannot be written.”

How can we tell the story of our life except through our own interpretation, and doesn’t that interpretation keep changing?  So many events are lost to me, and the ones I remember look different each time I think of them, as if I’m seeing them through different lenses.  Yet each time they seem so real, as if I were living them again.  I understand what Mark Twain meant when he wrote about his life on the farm:

“I can call back the solemn twilight and mystery of the deep woods, the earthy smells, the faint odors of the wild flowers, the sheen of rain-washed foliage, the rattling clatter of drops when the wind shook the trees, the far-off hammering wood-peckers and the muffled drumming of wood pheasants in the remotenesses of the forest, the snap-shot glimpses of disturbed wild creatures skurrying through the grass,—I can call it all back and make it as real as it ever was, and as blessed.”

I have only to close my eyes and I am in my grandmother’s kitchen again on East 98th street in Manhattan, sitting at the table as she brought me a soft-boiled egg with a pat of butter in the cracked white egg cup.  I can hear the horns honking and the sirens screaming, I can smell the steamy pavement and feel the stillness of the summer air as I hung out the window and watched the traffic.  Yes, I can bring it all back to me, but I cannot write so you can see it the way I see it because it goes beyond words.  The feelings of my life are my story, are my history.

I have this picture of my mother when she was about the age my daughter is now.  My father captured her in a pensive moment early one morning as she sat by the window in her robe.  I wonder what she was thinking?  Her expression makes me think that she was deep in thought about her life.  I wonder how she interpreted that life?  What history was she writing in her thoughts and feelings?  We think we know the story of a person’s life, but we only know some facts, and even  those can’t be trusted.  History without feelings is empty.

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About Coming East

I am a writer, wife, mother, and grandmother who thinks you're never too old until you're dead. My inspiration is Grandma Moses who became a successful artist in her late 70's. If I don't do something pretty soon, though, I'll have to find someone older for inspiration.
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51 Responses to The Story of our Lives

  1. Al says:

    Your mother struck quite a pensive pose in that picture. Black and white photography gives shots like that an ambiance that color would never capture.

    I agree that we often fail to learn about our parents inner selves. We see them first as provider, then as authority, eventually as counselor and often too late, an unheralded sage. But the memories count for a lot and like you, I’m thankful for them.

  2. pattisj says:

    I would imagine Twain’s autobiography would be a great read. That is a sweet photo of your mom. Memories of grandmas are some of the best, even if we don’t have many of them.

    • Coming East says:

      It is a good read, Patti, but slow-going. It’s not something that you can’t put down. I have lots of memories of that grandma because we lived near her when I was growing up and she didn’t die until I was married and had all three of my children.

  3. yen says:

    Beautiful post and picture of your mom, Susan. It was sweet of your dad to capture this pensive moment.

  4. Leah says:

    You could write an entire story about the photo of your mom. Really inspiring picture!

  5. sliceofshanghai says:

    The picture of your mother is beautiful, and your writing is just so inspirational!

  6. Dor says:

    This post is so lovely and reflective. It immediately took me back to another time too that can’t really be put into words. I have nominated you for The Sunshine Award Susan. The details are on my blog post entitled “Sunshine Coming My Way.” It’s for bloggers who inspire. You do.

  7. notquiteold says:

    I love the photograph, and I love the ideas. I look at the nuance of interpretation this way: that I will never run out of material, because I can write the same story many times, and it will always come out differently.

  8. winsomebella says:

    Mark Twain is one of eight people I would add to the table if I could have my ultimate dinner party. What a mind he had. No wonder it took so many pages to capture it. This post is beautiful, as is your mother in that photograph.

    • Coming East says:

      Thanks, Bella. I’d love to have met him in person, too. I’ve been to his house in Hartford, Connecticut, a couple of times, and I used to teach a unit on him when I was an English teacher. Meh has always been one of my favorite authors.

  9. Amy says:

    The photo of your mother looking out the window is poetic, and she is beautiful. I echo what you said, “Yet each time they seem so real, as if I were living them again.”
    I often wonder how people feel when they go through what they have to.

  10. judithhb says:

    Thanks Susan. I have decided to re read the autobiography – it is many years since I did so.
    I often wonder what really went on in my parents’ lives; those lives apart from their children. My parents shared none of this with us. I don’t know what my mother’s hopes and dreams were or my father’s. I only know the part of their lives they did share with us, love, laughter, safety and warmth.

  11. Huffygirl says:

    What inspiring thoughts Susan. Makes me want to write something just as good, just as thought-provoking. For me though, those writings seem to come only when a whiff of inspiration passes by. I can’t seem to just conjure up some good, thought-provoking piece whenever I want to. And if I’m not looking out for that moment of inspiration, I might miss it and not get it back later.

    Great photo of your mom – the old black and whites are the best!

  12. You are so right. We find as writers, (don’t we?) how hard it is to put true heart into words; speaking for myself, it’s a great challenge, and even when it seems to work, it’s never really right. Eulogies are great demonstrations of this. Amazing that Twain managed to get so many pages out of himself… though one wonders if that’s just because it took so much searching for words to get it “right.”

  13. Margie says:

    Isn’t it wonderful how a photo can have so many interpretations! It is morning here and I am hungry, so I see the woman in the photo thinking about what to make for breakfast.

    • Coming East says:

      Funny, Margie. That would be more like me, but my mom would have been in the kitchen if she were thinking about food, plus she never had tomthinkmabout what to make for breakfast. She always seemed to have it under control.

  14. At the start, I was thinking of quoting Mark Twain’s words..but as I read through the whole post..I found this more striking —> “We think we know the story of a person’s life, but we only know some facts, and even those can’t be trusted. ”
    Do you offer any writing workshop? If you do, I wish I can attend your classes.
    The photo is very profound and beautiful!

    • Coming East says:

      Ha ha! What a sweet comment, LTF. Yes, I offer free writing workshops right here in my home, accommodations included, and I will only accept one participant—you! Let me know when you are coming.

      • I really like that line. I even put that quote on my Facebook status and on my twitter too! 🙂 WOW!!! I am honored to be your student and can’t wait to start the class. Now I have one big problem – find ways so I can go to your place and start my writing lessons with you. 🙂

      • Coming East says:

        I’m honored, LTF! As for the writing lessons, youmdomjust fine on your own, but start putting your pennies in your piggy bank and savemformthat airplane ticket. I’m getting your room ready.

      • I will! Thankee! 🙂

  15. E.C. says:

    You have such a great writing voice. Your thoughts and commentary compliments Mark Twain’s thoughts so well.
    I love the picture of your Mom. She’s a beautiful lady. I wonder what she was so deep in thought about. It’s an amazing gift your Father gave you by taking the photo and then sharing it with you. Heirloom treasures from the heart are the best kind. 🙂

  16. So well-written, Susan! The photo of your mother was the perfect accompaniment for this post too. Mark Twain is one of my favorite authors and that first quote you used is exactly what I’ve been thinking about lately (just not in as eloquent prose as Twain’s words!). I find myself wondering why I was so busy with my own life that I didn’t take more time to ask about my parents’ stories. And now that they’re both gone, I wish I had. Maybe it’s just the season of life that we’re in?

    • Coming East says:

      Your reply touched me, Mama, because I’ve been feeling the same way. Why didn’t I ask more questions when I still had my parents around to ask? Guess we all have those regrets. There is never enough time.

  17. What a great picture of Grandma – she was so beautiful.

  18. Lovely post! And that photo is wonderful, too.

  19. Shary Hover says:

    That photo is definitely art… so much story in one image. I wish my parents would talk more about their inner lives, but they are “here and now” people. Maybe I need to ask better questions.

    • Coming East says:

      Now that I think about it, Shary, I think that is the key. I didn’t ask too many questions about my parents’ lives when I was younger, and now they are not here to ask and I have so many questions. Our children don’t ask a lot of questions about us either.

  20. Lately I’ve been conflicted and want to acknowledge I need to do more research. All my writing comes from very personal experience and the stories, thoughts I want to tell my family, some of which I’m sharing with our blogging community. This is wonderful how you have taken Mark Twain and applied it to your own musings!

  21. Wow, CE, this is a beautifully written and powerful post!! You have reminded me of my parents, especially my mother. Neither of my parents “told stories” about their lives with those feelings imbedded. It was always as if their lives did not exist before I did. What I do know has come from my own projection based on observation and my own history with them and other sources. I was privileged to have them in my life physically for many years, yet, as you say, I hardly knew them.

    • Coming East says:

      Thanks, Carol, for sharing that with me. Don’t you wish we could have gotten into our parents’s heads and really know what they were thinking? We leave so much out because it can’t be put into words, only felt.

  22. You did transport me to that Manhattan street and what a beautiful photo. 🙂

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