|"Nopales and tunas," Photo courtesy of MaryHelen Gallego (Photograndma)|
My memory vexes me. It's spotty; it doesn't always perform on command. I remember faces really well, but names are often elusive. I often have to pluck a name, with great effort, from my memory by making it travel sideways through a series of associations to greet a friend I haven't seen for a while. Precise terminology and anything related to numbers--statistics and dates especially--seem even more diffuse and hard to recall as I get older.
It's scary not to remember something that you once knew so well. When I was in first grade, the age my youngest son is now, I had a vague sense that life was static and that I would always live in Freer, Texas and be best friends with Elsa Garza and Gilda Lopez and remember how tall and imposing but sweet Mrs. Hatch, our teacher, was. It's disconcerting to get to a certain age and realize that, other than a few friends, I don't remember the names of my first grade classmates who loomed so large in my emotional world at that time. And the adults that I counted on to know things--family stories, genealogy, the year of the great hurricane, the location of my Uncle Leo's first apartment, the recipe for grandma's empanadas--are getting hazy in their memories as well or have passed away.
When I am sitting down in front of my computer to write or sitting in the circle of my writing group, this awareness of my memory's limitations makes me anxious because the writing of fiction for me seems so intertwined with memory.
A character's clothing or personality, a setting real or imagined, the events that form a story--all are rooted somewhere in the writer's memory.
Inspiration bubbles up from the well of memory: fragments of a remembered dream, the imagery from an oft-repeated story, the melody of a song, the name of a flower or tree, a frozen treat or childhood game.
Memories of past experiences, as a participant or merely an observer, inspire and add verisimilitude to a story. Historical facts and obscure bits of knowledge, augmented by research, flesh out details of a story's setting or events.
Given how spotty recall can be, memories become a form of fiction as well. The brain fills in details when memory fails, creating a story that is part truth and part invention.
I've been learning that, spotty, fictionalized memory or no, I have to just plunge in to the writing and see where it leads me. And sometimes memory and its associations lead me to very unexpected places.
In late May I sat next to my daughter at a mother-daughter writing workshop at the public library. The inspiration was a table quilted with Pantone color swatches. My daughter chose blues and greens and wrote (with clarity and depth) of water and overcoming her fear of it. I chose Caramel, Cactus Flower, and Whisper Pink. Cactus Flower led me back to the nopal cactus that is native to the chaparral of South Texas, where my parents and their parents and grandparents and my siblings and I were born. Caramel made me think of making candy, and somehow the two added up to a story about making candy from the red tuna, or fruit, of the nopal. (You can read the piece, "The Color of a Prickly Pear's Heart," at Painted Parrot by clicking here.)
Even now I don't really know how I knew about prickly pear candy. When I was writing, I didn't even know if it existed for sure, though the plunging-ahead part of my writing brain took it as a given. Later on I Googled the term and emailed my dad's cousin, the family genealogist, to see if the story I wrote might have some basis in fact. I didn't need confirmation that what I was writing was true--it is fiction after all--but that it could be true. Somehow the effectiveness of the story demanded that reassurance. My relative spoke with my great-aunt and confirmed that my great-grandmother and her sister-in-law made cactus candy.
A flood of other memories about foraging for sweet (and not so sweet) natural treats met my original question about cactus candy. My father's aunt and cousins recalled picking and eating capulis, comas, duranillios, anacuas, and moras. My great-grandfather roasted quiote, the flower of the Spanish dagger plant, which tasted like steamed broccoli stalks or boiled cabbage (how could something so exotic taste so ordinary?). My dad's cousins chewed on the sticky chaguete from mesquite trees.
Sadly, my dad and his cousins don't have any direct memories of making cactus candy or seeing it being made. But through some sort of alchemy of memory, that story was delivered to me. I think it says something about how difficult life was for my ancestors, how they managed to raise their families on the ranches of South Texas by foraging in a dry, rugged land for whatever sweetness they could find.