Composite Memory

I Like Ike!Madly for Adlai

I was in third grade when Ike ran against Adlai. I’ve formed a composite memory of that campaign, the only one I clearly remember. My composite image is set outside the door of my third grade classroom. The classroom windows faced northeast, and a thick row of ponderosa pines bordered the school yard about fifteen feet beyond the sidewalk and a strip of grass running along the side of the school. Class began at 8:30, and we were careful to be standing outside our room a few minutes early so we’d be ready to bolt in the door the minute Miss Hones opened it.

We usually lined up as we arrived, but as election day grew near, we began to form into two camps outside that door. I stood with the Republican kids to the right, next to the protruding partition separating our room from the next one. The Democrat kids clustered near the partition at the other end by the door.

“I like Ike!” we chanted at the top of our lungs. “Stevenson! Stevenson!” they chanted in return, each group pausing to make space for the other. This chanting went on for several minutes until Miss Hones opened the door.

I say it’s a composite memory because although I feel certain this group activity took place daily for … who knows? A week? Two weeks? A month? … I have only one mental image. That image is clear and complete. I feel the nip of late fall in the air and appreciate my warm wooly sweater. On this particular day in memory, the sky must be overcast, because the scene is drab and washed out, missing the brilliant sunshine that usually peeked through the trees. I feel the joy of shouting and feeling part of a group. I feel the joy of being part of something larger, something historic.

This election stands out for me because my grandmother had been a delegate to the Republican National Convention in 1952, so of course my family supported Ike. Oddly enough, I remember nothing about the 1956 election, though once again she was a delegate. and once again Ike squared off against Adlai. How I wish now I’d thought to ask her in great detail what she had seen, heard and done at those conventions! How I wish she had written that story!

Most memories of place or repeating events are composite. Even specific memories are pasted into composite backgrounds. The day one shy classmate was about twenty minutes late arriving at school and hid in the coat closet until recess stands out, but only against a composite of an ordinary day. Recess is a composite with several variations including Boys Chase Girls (or vice-versa), jacks, jump rope, and so forth.

Composite memories are useful in many ways.

  • Yeast for more involved stories or essays. My impassioned-but-civilized election memory stands in stark contrast to what seems barbaric behavior in this year’s electoral scene. I could explore that contrast in an essay.
  • Food for thought in terms of exploring attitudes, values and relationships. During those chants I felt part of the Republican group. Much of the time I felt like a misfit at school.
  • Source material for writing descriptions. The setting was the same outside that classroom all year long. In fact, it was much the same for third grade through fifth when my classrooms were all on that side of that school.
  • Vignettes for inclusion in a larger story. This composite memory could easily become a scene in a tale of growing up in Los Alamos, or my involvement in politics or … who knows?

Standing on its own, this memory is much like a simple snapshot crammed into a shoebox. But like those piles of photos we have hidden away, who knows when one of those pictures will leap out to trigger a memory, seed a longer story, or just warm our hearts for a few minutes as we remember.

Honor those memories. Write them down, perhaps as I’ve done here, and treasure them. Skim back through them now and then, like you do with photos. You never know when they might spark a new thought, insight or story.


Amy said...

All my writing is about the lives of others---my imagining based on the facts I know of what their lives were like. I really should write more about my own life before all the memories I do have are forgotten. Thanks for making me think about that.

Sharon Lippincott said...

Glad you figured that out Amy, though I'm grateful for the efforts you've expended writing about our mutual family, and thus also others we don't share. Their memories are even more fragile and dimly lit than our own and IMO you've done a fantastic job of revitalizing their stories.

Amy said...

Thanks so much, Sharon. As you know, that's my goal.

ShirleyHS said...

Sharon, I recall those I Like Ike pins from my own elementary school days. I was in third grade, too, in 1956, when he ran a second time. I think my whole school was for Ike. My parents revered him.

Historians used to see him as a weak president, I think his star has risen recently. People are seeing him as courageous in civil rights, willing to invest in infrastructure, and, for me at least, above all, prescient about the dangers of the "military industrial complex." In comparison to the current R candidate, I would vote for Ike in a minute.

Your point about memory as composite is a good one. And clearly, you are acting as a teacher here, one of the best I know, on the subject of memoir writing.

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