Chestnut Hill Contemplations

Last week a friend mentioned that her book club had been discussing Lee Smith’s memoir Dimestore, a Writer’s Life. She recommended Dimestore to me knowing I’m writing a book, Chestnut Hill Stories, about my life growing up in the Chestnut Hill neighborhood of Salisbury, NC, in the 40’s and 50’s .

Lee Smith grew up Southern, a contemporary of mine having been born in 1944, one year later than I. She grew up in the coal-mining town of Grundy, Virginia. I grew up a couple of hundred miles south of Grundy in Salisbury, North Carolina, a small town dominated by mills and agriculture. Salisbury was bigger than Grundy and we always had the sun in our yard in the early morning. The high mountains ringing Grundy meant the sun didn’t reach her family’s yard until 11 in the morning and disappeared long before sunset. Salisbury had the sun all day.

Dimestore is a collection of personal stories, loosely strung together. The connection between some of the stories is weak and I ask ‘why did she include this one?’ The only answer I can come up with is that she had it. It was a ready-made story. In chemistry, there is the concept of a ‘weak bond’ between molecules. Smith’s stories had weak bonds between them.

I hoped I could learn from Lee Smith, a successful writer. I’ve been reading memoirs and other books of collected personal stories to learn the best way to organize and connect my stories. I don’t want Chestnut Hill Stories to be book of standalone, unrelated stories. I want the book to be an integrated whole, the stories connected as though by an invisible thread. The connection needs to be organic, natural, unforced. If my reader asks, ‘why did she include this story,’ then I’ve failed even though the story may be a good and enjoyable one.

The connective tissue can be invisible to the reader just as our bodies’ connective tissue is invisible. You can’t see the bones, the tendons, the fascia but you can’t stand up or move if they’re not there. I’ve been experimenting with connective tissue in my stories. I used to depend solely on transitions but transitions can be clunky, and they’re often forced and trite as in ‘and that leads me to ….’ If it really did lead me to, then I wouldn’t have to say so.

Sometimes the arrangement of the stories is the connective tissue. If, for example, I choose a chronological presentation, the relationship of the stories in time is all the connection I need. Sometimes the theme or subject can be the connection but often that’s not enough. In my next storytelling performance, I’m telling several love stories, but as these stories span more than a century, subject alone is not enough to bind the stories into a whole.

I’m looking for something — an image, a metaphor, a conceit — something so integral to the story that my audience won’t recognize it as connective tissue. Also, I want it to be something they’ll always think of when they think of my stories.

I considered the old Chestnut Hill Cemetery where I used to play as a child. The graves, many of which are more than two-hundred years old, are sheltered and protected by some of the most massive and beautiful trees in town. These towering trees keep the rain off the graves, shade the graves from the sun, and comfort the mourners. The Chestnut Hill Cemetery looks like a park, and it functioned as a park to me when I was a child. The cemetery had a wonderful pond surrounded by big rocks I could climb on. The pond had a re-circulating fountain. I loved that pond and would pedal my bicycle to the cemetery to sit on the rocks and watch the water flow over them.

In many ways, the Chestnut Hill Cemetery is a perfect symbol for the neighborhood it gives its name to, but the Chestnut Hill Cemetery might lead me down the trite path of standing over graves and telling the stories of the people buried there. My parents, grand parents, great-grandparents are buried there as are Mrs. Butcher and Louise, their mother, Nancy Ritchie. Other neighbors and friends are buried there. I can’t walk through the cemetery without seeing the graves of people I knew, people I loved, and people about whom I could tell a story. But the Chestnut Hill Cemetery won’t be the connective tissue for my book.

One of my favorite books to which I often return for inspiration is Invisible Lines of Connection by Rabbi Lawrence Kushner. It’s ironic that I love this book so much because the lines of connection between his stories are so invisible that he has to take the first chapter, Stamp Collecting, to explain how the stories are all connected. In the end, though, it doesn’t matter as the stories themselves are such a pleasure that I want to quickly get to the next one. I don’t need a vine to swing on from one story to next. Meaning is the connective tissue, and meaning is the hardest connective tissue to create.

Yet, Kushner tries for what I’m looking for: a symbol, an image that provides the connection. His image comes from his uncle’s stamp collection and his boyhood surprise when he learns that an imperfect stamp his uncle prizes, a mistake, an airplane flying upside down, is worth far more money than all the perfect stamps in his uncle’s collection. It’s the stamp’s rare and unique imperfection that makes it desired and valuable. As Kushner is a rabbi, he knows that all humans are imperfect. The rare, imperfect stamp with value exceeding perfection is his connective tissue. The cover of Invisible Lines of Connection is a picture of the 24-cent stamp with the upside-down bi-plane, which is called an inverted Jenny. ______________________________________________________________


Footnote: One inverted Jenny stamp sold at auction in November 2007 for $977,500.