Etude: Why I Don’t Read Memoirs

There was a grandmother who looked like what the Monty Python troupe called a “pepper pot.” Thick, wearing patterned clothing, some kind of kerchief tied over her hair. Most likely in her 60s, but she looked older; an old biddy. Some of those years had been war years, and war years count extra. People of her generation that I’d spoken to had told me of how they’d mixed sand into the flour they used to bake bread. I wasn’t sure I believed them and I kept trying to get a better look at their teeth to see if they were ground down. The war ground a lot of people down, a whole generation looked a decade or two older than they were. She was seated on a stone bench just outside her front door with an orange tabby cat. It was a sunny day, the street was narrow, and there was an orange tabby cat—of course we ended up talking to her. We spoke for awhile, but all I recall is that she told us that she was waiting for older gentlemen, that she was a prostitute. I was 21 years old and this surprised me because, well, I still had a lot to learn about sex.

Sex—a relatively recent discovery of mine at that time (and one that I won’t take credit for like I did quiche)—felt like something that belonged to us, the youthful. And we went about it energetically. What she offered was a snapshot into something we hadn’t imagined yet. Something calmer; widowers & cheats with ironed boxer shorts and ribbed undershirts. Pensioners drinking Sambuco and setting their straw hats on a statuette of the Virgin Mary so that she couldn’t see to judge. And it was happening in daylight on a sunny day, with woman who reminded me of my great aunt Maxine and an orange tabby cat.

But could that really be true? Not that there are sex workers who look like grandmothers… I’m no longer surprised by that. But would this woman have been so blasé about divulging this information? It’s true that I was with a friend whose superpower is to have strangers reveal extraordinary things about themselves. But she’d have no reason to bring it up and that’s why I find myself doubting it. It could be a story that I’d told myself that implanted itself as a memory. It could be a lot of things. There are novels I’ve read and films I’ve seen that I recall better than my own experiences. If these are things that you draw from to understand the world, then what’s the practical difference between memory and fiction? I could easily ask my friend what she recalls of that conversation more than 20 years ago.

I suspect that the most honest books are novels that began as memoirs.

(Having failed to find a relevant image for this post, I’ve posted one of flamingos in flight).

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