Use Photos to Jog Your Memory

Post by Virginia Allain: Next week, I’m teaching a series of classes on memoir writing. Here’s some of the advice I’ll give the participants:

Trigger Your Memories with Old Photos

Get out your old photos to serve as memory joggers in writing your memoir. Look at them, really look at them. Probably you’ve seen these photos dozens or even a hundred times. This time you will look beyond the surface.

The technique to extract the maximum amount of information can include making lists of things you see in a photo. Here would be my list: dark car, gravel driveway, light colored house with a porch, 4 curly-haired girls in shorts/pedal pushers.

The next step would be to use those clues to set the time. In this case, by estimating the ages of my sisters, remembering the time I got glasses, and when we lived in town, gives me the likely date.

sisters March 59

Martin kids – Ginger, Cindy, Susan & Karen in summertime

An Analysis of the Photo Shown Above

In this line-up, I see myself and three of my sisters. I’m guessing it is around 1960 before our youngest sister was born. The house must be the one on Carr Street where we lived when I was in 4th and 5th grade. We are barefooted, so it must be summer and we are probably at home. If we were visiting someone, we’d have shoes on.

I could ask a car buff about the car, as I don’t recognize it. Perhaps it belonged to a visitor and the occasion of their visit is the reason we’re getting photographed.

I can’t deduce much from our expressions. We’re looking into the sun and that’s causing us to look down or squint or close our eyes. No sunglasses back in those days.

I’m surprised by all the curly hair. Maybe Mom had tried out some home perm kits. I started wearing glasses in the 4th grade. I wonder when the two younger girls got their first glasses?

Look at those tans! That’s from lots of playing outside. I’m the pale one, probably because I spent hours reading.

This was a rental house and too small for our family of 7, soon to be 8. After that, we moved to the country, to a 4-bedroom farmhouse.

Clyde Martin family on carr street, El Dorado, KS

The Martin family. Clyde holding Karen, Gail, Owen, Cindy, Ginger, and Susan. We all look a little younger in this photo but it is the same house.

 Making Use of Your Discoveries about the Pictures

OK, I’ve deduced quite a bit from the first photo. I’ve written a sentence or two about the elements in the photo. The next step would be to rearrange those into more of a narrative describing my feelings about that time in my life.

After examining the details, tune into the feelings evoked by the picture. How happy were you at that time in life? How did the siblings get along? Tell about a typical day at that time in your life.

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Birthday Wishes for Gail’s Middle Daughter

Our guest blogger today is Gail’s daughter, Karen Kolavalli. This is a post that she wrote a few years ago on the Bubblews site.

“Today is my sister, Virginia’s birthday! Yesterday was the death anniversary of our youngest sister, Shannon, so it’s hard to switch gears from grieving to celebrating. As hard as it is for me, I know its much harder for her.

She’s a very kind and generous person and has written many tributes to others. This is my tribute to her.

In trying to think back to special times together throughout our lives, it’s hard to separate out times with her from the overall family experience of being part of a large family. She and my oldest sister Susan were the “Big Girls” and shared a bedroom, while Cindy and I were the “Little Girls” and shared another bedroom. Brother Owen was the oldest and the only boy, so he got his own room. Baby sister Shannon didn’t come along until the rest of us were all in school, so she was always the baby to us.

I do remember when Ginger came back from 4-H camp one summer, with exciting tales of adventures away from home. She taught us all sorts of novelty camp songs. My favorite was the long and involved (and hilarious) Little Bunny Foo-Foo. It was just the first of many times that she brought a wider world back home to me.

She was also the first to move away from our hometown to attend college. I felt very grown up to be invited to spend Homecoming weekend with her when I was an awkward high school student. We attended the football game, saw a performance of the Harkness Ballet, and went to The Cowsills concert. I still remember the new pair of brown Levi cords (corduroy jeans) I got to buy for the weekend.

 

ginger opening gift college age

Virginia (Ginger) Martin – College Years

Later on, when I was a college student living out of state in Missouri, she stopped by on her way back from Kansas to where she lived in Ohio. She was driving a brand-new gold Camaro. Very cool! She was in her first job as a children’s librarian, which I thought was just a wonderful profession. Much later, I, too, worked as a children’s librarian.

 

ginger williamsburg

Ginger Martin in Williamsburg, VA

Years passed and I visited her on the east coast, where we went to Colonial Williamsburg, Ephrata Cloisters, and the Edgar Allen Poe Home. She visited me when I was training at the FBI Academy and we toured the Civil War battlefield at Manassas together. We also drove into Washington, D.C. for a concert of Irish music at the Smithsonian.

When we were still single, we traveled together internationally. Our first trip was to the British Isles and later we traveled to Canada. Dream trips, both of them.

There were many years of physical separation when she married and moved to Australia, while I moved to India with my new husband. Her frequent letters during those years were a lifeline to this homesick expatriate. I also have a collection of the very special hand-crafted Valentines she sent to me through those years.

There are many, many other things I could share, but these are what I’m remembering tonight on her birthday. She was the sister who boldly left home for college and then made her home in distant places. She’s the sister who shares a love of books, history and Irish music with me.

She’s always been an important person in my life and has been a wonderful mentor, advisor, and friend. Love you, Sis!”

Off to Town

A childhood memory by Gail’s daughter, Virginia.

What an ordeal the short trip to town must have been for my mother. Packing five contentious children into a medium-sized car wasn’t easy. This was before the days of mini-vans. After the sixth child came along, we finally got a station wagon. In the three mile trip into El Dorado, we’d bicker whenever a brother or sister infringed on our space. Within the confines of the car, sibling rivalry had the opportunity to even the score with subtle elbow digs and shoves. It was hard to tell what was normal energetic kid behavior and what was malice.

Butler County, Kansas courthouse

Photo by Virginia Allain – The Butler County Courthouse in El Dorado, KS.

El Dorado was an oil and cattle center east of Wichita, Kansas. It was also the county seat for Butler County, and our trips to town often included the century-old, brick courthouse. We’d climb the wide wooden steps to the third floor where the 4-H office was. Mom needed advice or pamphlets to use with the many project groups she led. Entomology, geology, cooking, gardening, and leadership were some of the topics she taught to groups of 4-H members.

Another frequent stop was the public library. In our younger years, it was the vintage Carnegie building on Central, but later it was the more modern building on Carr Street. The five of us, and later six, would fan out through the children’s section browsing for favorite series like The Borrowers or searching for a new dog book by Terhune or a horse story by Thomas C. Hinkle. My ambition was to read my way alphabetically through the fiction section. Hampered by the library’s limit of three books per child, I abandoned the goal after making it halfway through the A section. I did read all of Louisa May Alcott and Aldrich. Then I reverted to free range reading. While at the library, we lived in dread of fierce Miss Borger, the head dragon there, who shushed unruly children and accused them of having sticky hands.

Probably we did, as mom had a hard time corralling and getting all of us tidy and clean for a trip to town in the searing Kansas heat. No air conditioning in cars back in the 1950s. If we stopped at the Dairy Queen for a curly topped cone, then we were a sticky mess afterward. The ice cream melted faster in the 100-degree temperatures than we could eat it. The drips ran down our arms, spotted our shirts, and coated our cheeks and chins. No amount of scrubbing,  even with motherly spit applied on the flimsy paper napkins, could totally clean up the batch of us. Four_Martin_Girls

Another summer feature of trips to town was swimming lessons at the city pool. I don’t remember much of the teaching techniques, but they didn’t seem to work well for me. I did learn to dog paddle and actually can float quite well. Otherwise, I flounder my way, thrashing and flailing, from one side of the pool to the other. We had nowhere to practice our swimming since our creek was just ankle-deep.

I remember trips to Woolworths, which we simply called the dime store. There we selected our plastic cowboy and Indian figures. These became part of elaborate wild west games played out in our large sandbox at home. With our imaginations fueled by watching Roy Rodgers and Gene Autry movies, we constructed landscapes and re-enacted the chases and clashes with our small plastic figures.memories of visiting the shoe store - photo by pixabay

Also in town, we visited the shoe store that gave away pink and blue dyed chicks when we bought new shoes at Easter time. Probably town children took theirs home for a brief life span where an over-affectionate child squeezed the little fluff ball to death. Ours joined our flock of chickens on the farm, where they reverted to normal chicken colors as their feathers grew in.

For the kids, each trip to town was an adventure. For Mom, I’m sure, it couldn’t be over soon enough.

This story was previously published on the Our Echo website. 

How Far Back Do Your Early Memories Go?

Gail’s daughter, Virginia Allain, wrote this for another site. Reblogging it here.

My real memories only go back so far, so I don’t actually remember being me in the picture below. Since I was too young to store the memory of that moment, my knowledge of it comes from family stories and pictures. Those earliest times are framed in my mind by black and white photos, faded and with edges curling slightly.

It’s a time created by family stories making space in my memories.

I look at the picture of me sitting on an overturned red wagon. It had to be red, weren’t they all red in those days? On my lap, there’s a black and white puppy and my baby arms clasp him close to me. My memory bank contains no reference for the puppy. No one told me its name or where it came from.

I don’t know what happened to the puppy later. When we moved to the Big House, we had a dog named Tippy that I remember well. I was 4 or 5 years old then. Could this puppy be Tippy?

Memories of a 1950s childhood - Ginger Martin

Here I am, little Ginger, with a puppy and a red wagon.

I’m wearing a little girl’s dress just like all little 1950s toddlers wore. I never thought to ask as we looked through the family pictures, “who made the dress, Mama or Grandma?”

I never asked where were my shoes. The grass and weeds must have felt rough to my bare feet. Since it is Kansas, I’m sure there were chiggers and sandburs.

Given my approximate age in the picture, I know it was the yard at the Little House. My parents rented that from my grandparents who lived a quarter mile down the road in the Big House.  Another photo shows the Little House which couldn’t have had more than a few rooms in it. It’s a tiny box of a house. Where did four children sleep in such a small house?

Rental house - owned by Clarence McGhee in 1951

The little house that the Martins rented from the McGhees.

These old photos give me clues to a long-ago time. The people who could tell me more about that time are gone. It will always be an incomplete fragment of time in my mind.

In the photo of the Little House, the yard looks pretty bare. Perhaps that was right after the flood of 1951 had subsided.

I See a Little Smile

Gail’s daughter, Cindy shared this memory, “When we were kids and got caught fighting: I remember Mom saying “If you guys don’t stop that I’m going to make you kiss and make up!” I think the thought of doing that while still mad made us stop and think about what we were doing and wonder was it worth the risk of continuing.”

child cry pixabay

That reminded me of the times that Mom would coax us out of a sulk by saying “I see a little smile.” The grumpy one would have a hard time maintaining their anger or sullen feelings as she would try to tease a smile out of our frowning look.

Sometimes when one of us was feeling belligerent or huffy, Mom would say, “watch out that you don’t trip over that lip.” She would also use that classic momism, “be careful, or your face might freeze like that.”

Her quips were designed to distract us from whatever was aggravating us. Usually, they worked. As a last resort when we had carried on too long with our squabbling or sulking or whining, she would resort to “if you don’t stop that crying, I’ll give you something to cry about.”

What techniques worked for defusing the situation with your children when they had a meltdown or were fussy?

The Cowboy with a Broken Arm

Did you have any childhood injuries or broken bones? I was pretty lucky and never broke anything as a kid, but my siblings sure had their share.

cowboy broken arm 1950s

Owen Martin doesn’t let a broken arm deter him from his cowboy games.

The photo shows my brother, Owen, with his arm in a sling. He broke that arm playing cowboy at my grandparent’s farm. There was a saddle hanging on a wooden rail and he climbed up on it. When it tipped off the fence, he ended up with the broken arm.

As you can see, it didn’t dampen his enthusiasm for being a cowboy. Here he has on his cowboy hat and his pistol in his hand. The photo below shows him before the brangle with the saddle.

One of my sisters broke her collarbone when we lived in El Dorado. Later, when we lived in the country, my littlest sister suffered a broken leg when I tripped over her while playing softball in our driveway. I felt horrible about that. I was angry with her for getting in the way, then we realized something was wrong.

shirtless 1950s boy with saddle

Here’s Owen with that saddle, a gun, a cowboy hat and no shirt.

How about you? Did you fall and break any bones as a child?

(memory piece by Virginia Allain, Gail’s daughter)

Quick Definition, in case I stumped anyone with “brangle.” It means a brief squabble. 

Moving to the Country

Another excerpt from Gail Lee Martin’s story on the My History Is America’s History website. When the site closed, the stories were lost. Recently, we found this on the Wayback Machine so it could be saved on Gail’s blog. Photos added from the family album. 

west branch school from real estate listing

Photo of the West Branch School (from a recent real estate listing).

After living on Carr Street for two school years, we found a house in the country, three miles north on Highway 77. Moving in the summer of 1959. The kids went back to riding the bus school (West Branch School which had grades 1 through 8 in two rooms). They later rode the bus to El Dorado for high school.

 

The farmhouse was a big two-story house and the farm had lots of space for our kids to roam around. It had close to 50 acres of woods and pasture.

ginger childhood

The Martin girls – Cindy, Karen, Ginger, and Susan.

We went into the rabbit business again. Each of the kids had a different breed. We had New Zealand White and Reds, California, Chinchilla, and even some Dutch. They did great at the county fair and on to the state fair for many years.

rabbit-hutches

Our rabbitry on a chill winter day. Fortunately, there was no snow

Note from Gail’s daughter, Ginger: The stone wall in front of the rabbitry was a huge family project. These are the foundation stones from the old farm house, I think. It took a lot of labor to maneuver them into place. There were three rows of rabbit hutches. Behind there, was a bank that dropped down steeply to a small creek.