How Far Back Can You Remember? I remember the Hindenburg
Most psychologists and others who study the subject of childhood memory, say it is rare that we remember anything before three years old. Well, I can go back much farther. I was born in 1935, and I saw the Hindenburg when it floated over Saint John, New Brunswick in 1936 when it came, or 1937 when it returned. I’m guessing the latter since I was standing on my own. I would have been two years old, I can still see it in my mind’s eye, almost blotting out the blue sky and filling my vision, a huge silver airship (although I didn’t know what it was then), and I recall vividly the emotions that rocked my tiny body; shock, fear and awe. It was so big and close, it seemed I could touch it. Someone must have said, ‘Look up, Joanie,’ and I did. And my mind snapped a picture of it that would stay with me always.
Tragically, the Hindenburg disaster at Lakehurst, New Jersey on May 6, 1937 brought an end to the age of the rigid airship, The disaster killed 35 persons on the airship, and one member of the ground crew, but miraculously 62 of the 97 passengers and crew survived.
Another memory is of my mother doing a wash in the kitchen of our old cold water flat on Thorne Avenue. Unknown to her, the washer was leaking and the water ran down into the flat of the woman downstairs. She burst into the house and slapped my mother hard so across the face, it stunned me. She was a big woman. I railed at her as she went back out the door, beating on her bum. I can still feel the flesh of that woman’s bottom against my little hands. (That’s how tall I was.) My mother, a petite shy woman, was standing at the washer crying, and I was furious at the woman who had made her cry. Even now, I can feel that rage and pain, the powerful emotions that accompanied the incident, and never let me forget it. Another snapshot for all time.
There are other events from my babyhood that I can recall, and each one is accompanied by a strong emotion. Here’s another: I first knew the hot flush of embarrassment one day when I with my family in my grandmother’s back yard. For some reason known only to me, I decided to pee in one of the little dishes in my tea-set that I was playing with and heard everyone laughing behind me and understood they were laughing at me. Oh, the shame. I feel it scald my face.
How far back can you remember?
Art Lessons Granny Taught Me
By Joan Hall Hovey
This essay, in large part was my first published story. It was published more than 30 years ago in Home Life Magazine. This updated version was published in Mystery Readers Journal. I hope you enjoy it.
The illustration is by Padgett.
She was 71 and lived alone in the cluttered attic of an old, two-story frame building with her easel, her paints, her brushes and sometimes, me. Her name was Lillian May (Watts) Hall.
When neighbors spoke of my grandmother, they said, “A nice woman.” Then frowning and in whispers, the added, “but kinda funny.” And in the early fifties, to the people who lived in our small, unsophisticated town, there was indeed something ‘kinda funny’ about an old lady who sat alone in her attic room and painted pictures. At first glance, she was not unlike a million other grandmothers of her time - the same iron-gray hair drawn back in a bun, wire-rimmed glasses, a dark, high-buttoned dress with long sleeves and detachable lace collar, and a cameo brooch clasped modestly at her throat - but there the similarity ended. Granny, a tall, angular-boned parcel of nervous energy, was not the average storybook grandmother.
Every day Granny would lose a prized possession. It might be a valued brush, a particular tube of paint or a piece of canvas. And while I stood on the sidelines, she would tear through her private disaster area, sending papers, books, talcum-coated hairpins, an unmated stocking, and her pink garters helter-skelter – all the while looking remarkably like an enraged bird.
Almost always she would find what she was looking for, but occasionally I would be the one to spy the object of her frenzied search. “Here it is, Granny,” I’d say, proud of my Sherlock Holmes tendencies. She would smile sheepishly, relief flooding her face.
“Now, wasn’t that foolish of me to get so upset,” she would apologize. “I’m just a silly old woman, dear. Don’t pay me any mind.” Then, calm and serene once more, she would begin the gentle strokes of her brush on the canvas.
I often stood at the small, rickety table beside her, a piece of Bristol board and a brush in front of me. I was even permitted to use the valued paints (which she could barely afford for her own work) so that I could play artist.
After hours of painstaking work, Granny would set her brush to rest, stand back with a critical eye, and appraise the completed painting. When it had dried sufficiently, and she was satisfied that it was of some worth, she would don her coat and hat and with the painting under one arm, off the two of us would go, door to door, in an effort to sell it.
She walked with a brisk, sure step, and many times I found myself breaking into a run to keep up with her. But we never had to walk far before making a sale. Although neighbors found her way of life strange, they liked and bought what she painted. It was hard times, and the return for her efforts was meager, yet sufficient to pay the rent on the attic, buy a few groceries at the corner store, and keep the coal bucket filled during the long winter months.
I had a friend whose grandmother spun for her many fascinating tales of her girlhood. But even there, Granny fell short. In fact our roles were quite reversed. It was I who spun the tales for her. One story still causes me to cringe when I remember it. It was during summer vacation and I had just returned from a day at the beach.
“Granny! Granny!” I shouted excitedly as I flung open the door. “A man fell off the diving board at the lake today and I jumped into save him. He almost pulled me under with him, but I punched him on the jaw and knocked him out, and then I swam back to shore with him under one arm. Everybody on the beach cheered,” I finished breathlessly.
“Oh, my dear child,” Granny said with concern. “You certainly did have a busy day, didn’t you?” Then abruptly the concerned expression changed to amusement and she broke into a gale of laughter. Rocking back and forth in her wicker chair, she laughed and laughed, absolutely delighted, but not for a moment fooled. Every few seconds she would remove her glasses and wipe the tears from her eyes. By this time I was writhing inwardly and trying in vain to twist my story into something more plausible, but it was no use. I was caught in the web of my lie. (Lesson 1. If you want your reader to suspend disbelief, you must make sense.) I suspected she knew even then that I had the makings of a storyteller. And I’m absolutely certain she knows now.
Granny has not been with me for a good many years, and indeed I am a grandma now myself. In fact, a great-grandma. The year I turned fifteen, I was working as a housemaid when the telephone call came telling me that Granny had been rushed to the hospital in an ambulance.
The hallway was in flames, making escape impossible. Granny had climbed out of the dormer window and crouched on the ledge below it. A passerby heard her cries for help and called up to her to stay there until he returned with a ladder. Then the man fled to put in a call to the fire department. Whether the heat from the flames became unbearable or whether Granny simply panicked, I’ll never know. But she didn’t wait for the man to return with the ladder. Instead, she jumped from the ledge and fell in a crumpled heap to the ground below. Her back was broken. In two months she was gone. I stumbled around, lost, for a long time. I felt betrayed by God. And then I grew up. After a fashion. But the child in us never goes far.
In my third suspense novel (I have written eight, the last two being The
Deepest Dark And Then he was Gone) titled Chill Waters, my heroine deals
with loss and betrayal on several levels. Following the breakup of her marriage, after learning of her husband’s infidelity, Rachael Warren retreats to the old beach
house in Jenny’s Cove, where as a young girl she lived with her grandmother. It is the one place where she had always felt safe and loved. But she is about to learn that ‘a safe place’ is mostly an illusion. And that evil can find us no matter where we go.
Jenny’s Cove is located in St. Clair, a fictional St. Andrews, a small town in New Brunswick, Canada. St. Andrews lies on the Passamoquoddy Bay, and is close to the American border. A place of charm and beauty, St. Andrews/St. Clair is a magnet for tourists and artists alike. The beach house in Jenny’s Cove, however, is isolated. Waves crashing against the rocks, and the sudden summer storms that visit Jenny’s Cove add to that sense of isolation. As a child, Rachael had found the violence of the storms and the sound of the sea comforting. As a woman stalked and terrorized, that will change.
I like the blending of light and dark in a novel. Using shadowing to enhance dramatic effect, as in a painting.
I also enjoy writing about women who struggle against great odds and triumph, as did my grandmother. But, as in life, it’s never easy. In books, the author must be even harder, damn near impossible. And in the suspense novel, there are always unseen dangers.
My own life provides fodder for my imagination. But it is my grandmother who taught me the art of concentration. When she was painting, the house could have fallen down around her and she would have paid it little attention. You knew not to talk to her then. Only the brushes, canvas and the work at hand held any reality for her. All else faded into the background. Her focus was that of a child’s in the midst of intense ‘play.’ (If you have ever watched a child at play, and we all have, you know there is no one quite so serious.) and she never stopped learning. It was not about fame or fortune for her, as it is not for her granddaughter – but about the work, and the pursuit of excellence. In her seventies, she was still taking art lessons when she could afford the few coins, from a Mrs. Holt on Elliott Row, a respected art teacher in Saint John, New Brunswick. Sometimes she took me with her and I’d wait in the foyer. There were always books to keep me occupied.
As Mrs. Holt’s lessons were important to my grandmother, my grandmother’s lessons were crucial to me.
To quote author Willa Cather, “Most of the basic material a writer works with is acquired before the age of fifteen.”
I believe that’s true.
by Joan Hall Hovey
The year was 1984, a lovely summer’s day and I was sitting in the packed, buzzed audience waiting for Stephen King to appear. To say I was excited is an understatement. Uncool? Totally. I’d bought my hardcover copy of his book Different Seasons for him to sign. I wouldn’t be denied. I had all his books in hardcover – Carrie, Cycle of the Werewolf, Danse Macabre, Salem’s Lot - there would be many more to come. He was my hero in a time when I was already much too old to be star-struck. I’ve read that it is mainly teenagers who are addicted to Stephen King’s work, and I was hardly that. Though probably immature. I’m at a much more more advanced age now and that hasn’t changed, and I hope it never does. Stephen King was the Elvis Presley of the literary world.
I hadn’t had a novel published yet; that was still a dream, floating somewhere above the horizon. But I’d written and published some articles and short stories, enough to make me eligible for a travel grant through the NB Arts Council to London, England to the writers workshop at Polytechnic Institution on MaryleboneRoad, aptly across the street from Madam Tussauds wax museum. Stephen King would be a panelist, along with authors P.D. James, Robert Parker and some others. I was eager to hear all the celebrated authors, but I’d flown all this way from New Brunswick, Canada to see and hear Mr. King.
He came into the large room through the back door and I swear I knew the instant he did. You couldn’t miss the rising buzz of the audience, of course, the shifting of bodies as people turned to look, but I also felt the change of energy in the air. On stage, Stephen King joked about his ‘big writing engine’ and I had heard (within my third eye – yes, it can hear) its power, its purr. Or maybe there’s more to it.
As he talked to us about writing, he spoke about seeing with that third eye. The eye of the imagination. He told us to imagine a chair. Then he said it was a blue chair. I saw it clearer now. He added the detail of a paint blister on the leg of the chair. Now I saw it close up, with my zoom lens. We hung on his every word. He was funny and brilliant and entertaining, and we learned. Everything he said was not necessarily something brand new, but were reminders to pay close attention to details. To always tell the truth in our writing. I even got to ask a couple of questions. And his answers to all our questions were thoughtful and insightful. I try to pass along a few of those lessons to my own students.
Stephen King has been teaching creative writing to aspiring and even established writers for decades, long before his wonderful book On Writing came out. Such a gift to writers that is, regardless of the genre you write in. I am gushing. I don’t mind. It’s true.
I have been fortunate to have had many highlights in my life – an anniversary trip to Niagara Falls with my wonderful husband, the births of my children and grandchildren, great-grandchildren – a trip to the Bahamas with my eldest son – my own first novel published and several more after that - and I have to say that that workshop in London, England, where Stephen King spoke to us about writing, is right up there. Thank you, Mr. King.
I want to leave you with a quote from an interview with contributing writer for the Atlantic, Jessica Lahey, published in The Atlantic, Sept 2014. She asked him if teaching was craft or art.
“It’s both,” he said. “The best teachers are artists.
Stephen King is an artist on every level. He tells the truth. In his fiction. And in his teachings.
Happy reading! And Writing!