Helena Writes #36: On first memories, and memoir writing as a puzzle

Helena Writes, Helena Clare Pittman's monthly Center column on her writing life
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Helena Clare Pittman, one of the Center’s most dedicated teachers, has written, painted, and taught her entire life. In her monthly Helena Writes series, she shares a lifetime of wisdom, one pearl at a time.

In her 36th post, Helena explores her first image-centered memory and shares a bit of memoir about her beloved older sister. Enjoy!


It was an event, like going to a Dodger's game, at Ebbet's Field, with my father. Or to summer camp, all of us, my mother and father, my sister and me.

Before I could spell it was written with a capital P.

My older sister, Jolene, was the ringleader in our sister group. It was a group of only us two, a group that seemed bigger than only the two of us. We were an organism. Where did she stop and I begin? I can't find a fixed edge. 

I was the straight man. She was the star. I was in awe of her, I see that now; it was her certainty, her rebellion. She had star quality. My eyes were on her.

She sometimes snuck into my crib. I can see her there clearly, curled up on the mattress, at the far end against the wooden verticals. We made mischief in that crib, my sister on all fours, rocking. I may have been, too. Until the crib traveled, its wheels driven across the linoleum floor of our bedroom.

Jolene and me in my crib, the two of us laughing even then. Of course, she was the one who made me laugh. She was the funniest person I have ever known. She was three and a half years older than I, though I want to say, she was born first. Because I think of us as having shared the womb. Of course, we did.

My mother, I can feel it as I write this, was uncomfortable with our laughter. There was a thief about my sister. A colluder. Her climb over the bars of my crib was furtive, my parents at the other end of the house in the kitchen. I think it was my mother who was principally bothered by my sister's thievery, stealing into my crib at night—night, then, being six o'clock. We children were put to bed early. My sister competed with the authority of my parents even at three and a half. She was the magnet. I can see my toothless mouth, a gap, opened, laughing. I remember the feeling—intoxication.

Peeking began when I was out of the crib. Our mother was the recording secretary for the P.T.A. of P.S. 221, our elementary school. My sister must have been in first grade. I register now that my mother involved herself with her children's school. I would enter kindergarten at four.

On this night, the night of my memory, the P.T.A. meeting took place in our living room on Crown Street. Mr. Schreiber, the principal, and Mrs. Harris, the assistant principal, unthinkable, sat on our blond wood, brass-studded, oil-cloth upholstered chairs. A semi-circle of adults I didn't know, parents of other children who went to our school, sat around them on our red-flowered linen, green-piped couch, and on my parents’ beautiful carved maple folding chairs. The carving was a lattice of flowers, my mother's exquisite aesthetic. The house hummed with the people contained in that room. In my memory, rays of light poured from its arched doorway, illuminating the dinette and the wood kitchen table, covered with a flower-embossed white linen cloth, where cake and coffee cups waited. Mr. Schreiber and Mrs. Harris had star power, too. I, at least, had great respect for them, and wonder if my sister did. I can’t imagine it. She seemed, right up into adulthood, to own the world. She feared no one and she bent to no one.

I suppose I was star struck by Jolene. And perhaps my position as the younger one is the thing that shaped me to a kind of passivity. She knew what we were doing. I didn’t have to. I was the follower.

Recording Secretary, my mother’s title, too, was an awe-filled thing; and I can see my father, dressed in a suit, white shirt, red tie, part of that semi-circle, faces turned toward the principal and assistant principal. Adults speaking, a radio sound. 

“Wanna peek?” my sister would have said. That was the announcement that raised goosebumps on my arms and brought the adrenaline of our thick thievery to my heartbeat, which I could feel in my ears. I could also feel the fear, and the giggle rising. But I was with my sister. And she always knew what she was doing. My fate was invested in her charisma.

A moment of choice

Yes? No? There was no moment of choice. What she did, I did. I felt the magic of what she was asking. Without me, the sibling that had displaced her to her passionate fury, she couldn’t have manifested her mischief. Our hearts beat together.  

We’d walk on tiptoes up the hallway that led from our bedroom to the dinette and the separating wall to the living room. That living room had been transformed into an auspicious place, filled with stardom and strangers, serious adults. The beautiful blue green plush rug showed itself, the cause of the revelation of that red couch, the wonder of my mother’s love of beauty. This was a world I loved and reached for. One day, I would be like those adults. It was a world worth risking this manifestation of the courage of children, this longing to pierce the veil between our ordinary children’s lives and the living room which then seemed holy.

The rug softens the sound of Mr. Schreiber's voice. It wasn’t ricocheting through a microphone off the linoleum tiles and marble walls of our school building. I don't know how I contained my giggling. I can hear my sister shush me. Did my father’s head turn? Maybe my parents knew we were there. But we’d done it. We had, in a flash, showed our heads around that dividing wall. I had glimpsed my mother, sitting  to the right of Mr. Schreiber, her beautiful hand and handwriting flying across her stenography pad, scribbling  in pencil, shorthand—was it Gregg or Pitman? I now ask myself this out loud. Gregg feels familiar to my mouth. I am nearly stunned to stop writing here, at the miraculous recollection this writing brings. Before my sister and I were born, before my mother married my father, she was both a bookkeeper and a secretary, and knew Gregg. Gregg shorthand. (A young reader may look this up, Google that relic of the age of such adults.)

We turned and hurried back down the hallway to our room, me giggling, my sister, her hand hard on my shoulder, whispering into my ear, Be quiet! The words shut up were not used in our family, not until much later, when my sister was likely 12 and colluded with her friends in the stead of her younger sister, and discarded, but only for the moment, me.

Under the covers, drifting off to sleep, I was certain that after the P.T.A. meeting was over, Mr. Schreiber and Mrs. Harris would walk down that hallway, too, led by our mother and father, into the dark of our bedroom to see us, our parents’ angelic, sleeping children. A kind of adult peeking. At three, or four, or five, or six years old, I positioned myself to be viewed, my head adorably turned on my pillow to be seen by those important adults. I was aware of how I appeared. My own star power, my sense of self, manifesting, too, at that early, early age.

Born a Someone

This writing comes from a flash of memory, my sister, Jolene, and I, peeking around the kitchen wall, into the living room of our downstairs apartment, in the two-family house I grew up in on Crown Street in Brooklyn. My parents were hosting a P.T.A. meeting.

I wrote this piece as a fellow writer wrote hers. As I teach in my classes, I knew this flash of an image would give rise to a writing that would be an archeological dig. My ancient history would be pulled by my pen-writing, then typing fingers. I can’t say how it is that this happens, but it is a rock-solid reliable way to write. Remember, put together the puzzle of myself. Reassemble the life that was my childhood world and from which grew my internal life. 

There was so much revelation in this writing. I remembered myself as an infant. That means I went back earlier in time than the memory I thought was my first clear image: me at three years old. But in this writing, I am still in my crib. And I understood, I think, the origins of my sister’s rage at my parents. I also understood, I think, the inclination to passivity in myself. I have come to regard this quality that was formed in relationship to my sister as a kind of gift. It has grown as I have grown, and is a way I often view others, with great admiration. That is my first response. It has, I think, determined the way I travel through life. I am largely dazzled by other people, as I was by my charismatic and powerful sister, Jolene. The people that come into my life are largely dazzling. Friends, students, teachers, mentors, people at the grocery store. There are others I make a long arc to steer clear of. 

Thankfully, one is not only formed by their position in family, but comes into the world, I feel very sure, a Someone. The writer writes to discover who that is.

What is your earliest memory with a clear image? Have you ever written it? What did you think of Helena’s latest post? Share with us in the comments.

Related reading: Helena Writes

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