I’ve always loved writing about objects. I often give my students prompts like, “Make a list of things you’ve moved in your last three moves—or if you haven’t moved in a long time, make a list of things you’ve held on to for at least twenty years.” Those lists are often quite evocative.
What do we hold on to? Things that have sentimental value. Things that evoke a memory with deep emotional resonance. Objects that remind us of a person, living or dead, who may or may not still be in our lives. Things that remind us of who we were in the past, in a different phase of our lives. Almost any item on these brainstormed lists inevitably leads to a story.
What are some of things on my list of “things I won’t let go of?” The original Woodstock tee-shirt my father bought when he took me to Woodstock when I was 13, my children’s tiny baby teeth in small glass jars, my dead father’s social security card, the sex toys I no longer use, a turquoise and purple hand-woven raw silk vest with boxy shoulders from my first book tour—and on and on. There’s definitely a story behind each of these items.
Or how about another of my favorite prompts, “Write about your childhood from the point of view of the kitchen table.” Just think about all the things your kitchen table heard, saw, witnessed. How neutral and objective that kitchen table was—how unclouded by emotion and history. The “table” often reveals a lot more than the writer can access with a more direct approach to writing family history. The oblique angle, in this case “the voice of the table”, often bears the most fruit.
When I started working with my coach, Joshua Townshend-Zellner, he, too, emphasized the importance of objects as writing prompts. For homework, he instructed me to start watching TV series and movies specifically looking for objects that the camera zoomed in on (and I’m not talking about paid product placement, like focusing the lens on a box of Cheerios). Joshua had me pay attention to ordinary objects that appeared repeatedly throughout a series. Often those objects reveal a lot about a character, and sometimes the changing relationship of a character to the object reveals something significant about the evolution of that character over time.
When Joshua asked me to choose an object associated with my mother, I immediately knew it would be one of her three appointment calendars or a pocketbook. I chose to write about one of her purses. Notice how much this simple object reveals about her and the stage of life she’s in:
“Where’s my purse?” my mother asks every time I take her anywhere—whether we’re going to Lizzy’s dance concert, the early-stage memory loss support group, a check-up with Doctor Eisendorf, or a rare afternoon matinee. She asks the same question whenever we leave Room #103, her room, at Sunshine Villa. She asks it when we get to the car, as she plops wearily down on the seat, struggling to pull her legs in behind her. She asks it when we arrive wherever we’re going, as she strains to raise her body from the front seat and shakily grabs for her walker. She asks it regardless of whether I tuck her purse into the compartment of the walker or double it up on my shoulder with my own bag. She asks it in the restaurant when we arrive and again before we leave. “Where’s my purse?” is her rallying cry.
When I was a little girl, the top shelf of my mother’s closet was lined with pocketbooks. There were red ones and navy-blue ones, small slinky evening bags and summertime straw bags with big gold clasps on the top. No matter what she was wearing, she had a pocketbook to match. Several times a day, depending on her outfit and where she was going, she’d take all her things out of one pocketbook—tissues, keys, Parliament cigarettes, matches, wallet, sunglasses, a compact with a mirror, and a tube of lipstick—and these are just the things I can remember—and move them into the pocketbook that would match her next outfit.
Now my mother has just one purse left. It is black vinyl and has two zipper compartments, neither of which is ever zipped shut. It is mostly filled with air, the sides collapsing in on each other. On one side, there are three items: her blue plastic handicapped parking placard (“The secret of my popularity,” she used to brag, when her friends still drove her to concerts, lectures, and the theatre), a few tissues, and a scratched pair of reading glasses that are never in a case. None of her glasses ever have been.
In the second pocket, her red wallet holds her Medicare card, her prescription drug card, her social security card, her California Senior ID card—a replacement for her expired and obsolete driver’s license—one credit card (still used to take her children and grandchildren out to dinner), and an unused ATM card. There are no coins or bills in the wallet. My mother has no need for cash anymore.
There are no keys to rummage for at the bottom of her purse. She wears her only key—her room key—on a stretchy turquoise band around her wrist.
I find it strange that my mother, who has lost so much, is still so assiduously attached to her purse. She, who cannot remember what was said a minute ago, never forgets her purse. Although she cannot carry it, she adamantly insists on bringing it with her wherever she goes. I wonder what it carries besides the few possessions it holds—a memory of her power and efficacy in the world? A comforting sense of order? A compelling body memory? Or is it still a way to polish off her outfit when she rises from her couch to go out into the world? “Black, after all,” as she always taught me, “goes with everything.”
This purse, by the way, did make its way into the final version of The Burning Light of Two Stars. I thought it was an apt symbol of her final attempt to hold on to her old identity and former capabilities. It spoke to the era, the norms in her world, her vanity, her style, and her personality. I decided that the almost-empty vinyl purse was worth keeping. It wasn’t an extraneous detail; it was imbued with meaning.
When you finally read the book, notice when it appears. It should feel like an old friend.
The Burning Light of Two Stars is available in paperback, eBook, and audiobook wherever books are sold. There are links here to buy signed copies, bulk copies, and to support independent bookstores with your purchase. You can also read the first five chapters for free.
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