In the mental photo album I keep tucked deep within the cracks and crevices of my ever-failing memory, lay the snapshots of certain key moments of my life. They’re the ones I pull out to study in the middle of the night or while driving alone in my car. The ones that I can’t forget.
Unlike the stacks of albums and shoeboxes I have brimming with over 20 years of memories – little ones holding up Easter baskets filled with colorful plastic eggs or smiling in front of Cinderella’s castle – my mental snapshots are a mix of more authentic occurrences. They are the moments that weren’t staged to document our happiness. They’re the real deal.
There’s me, sitting in Newark Airport early in the morning after my 1990 wedding — long after the official wedding photographer had gone home — with a big smile on my face each time I remembered I was finally married to the guy I had chased and loved for so long. There I am again, weeping with relief a dozen years later when an ultrasound revealed the sex of my fourth child—a boy – which I knew would help soften the blow of that pregnancy for my husband. And another instant, this time me standing next to my soon-to-be-ex in a drab county courtroom reciting the names and birth dates of our four children before a judge and thinking how it ended much as it had begun: the two of us standing side-by-side and saying a bunch of words.
There are more happy moments: Lying next to my husband and listening to raindrops softly falling on our tent in the middle of the woods and thinking there was no place on Earth I’d rather be at that moment than lying atop that air mattress. Sitting beside my oldest son on a chairlift making its slow ascent to the top of the mountain and hearing nothing but the silence of the icy trees and snowflakes swirling around us and the sound of his teenaged voice really talking to me without the distractions of Twitter and YouTube. Or rocking in a glider at 2 a.m. with an infant curled like a kitten on my chest, his tiny head tucked under my chin while his tiny back rose and fell beneath my hand as he slept.
There’s a song that comes towards the end of Stephen Sondheim’s “Into the Woods” (which is now a new movie that I saw the other day) that cleverly observes how life is the slow, steady grind of work and husbands and wives and family and children and doing what you’re supposed to be doing. But every so often there is a flash, an instant that stands out from all the other instants and a moment we file away to be remembered later.
Oh. If life were made of moments,
Even now and then a bad one!
But if life were only moments,
Then you’d never know you had one.
– Sung by the Baker’s Wife in “Moments in the Woods”
My therapist is hot for this idea, too. She likes to tell me — after I’ve sat on her loveseat and complained about yucky things in my life — that the bad stuff lets us see how good the good can be. And as much as I wouldn’t mind a life filled with rainbows and unicorns 24/7, I kind of get her point.
A few years ago I was driving home from a dinner out with my four children to celebrate my oldest girl’s high school graduation when she plugged her iPhone into the car stereo and the song “Landslide” began to play. It was the Glee version of the Fleetwood Mac song, and as Gwyneth Paltrow began to sing all four of my children started to sign with her. Like, even my oldest son who is neither a joiner nor a singer. I began to sing as well and as we sailed through the dark towards home, we sang about time making you bolder and children getting older.
“And I’m getting older, too,” we sang, and I couldn’t help feeling that for a second, everything — our whole lives — had been working towards that moment in the car and singing that song. Like we were in a movie or something. “Landslide” is a song about making changes and you could feel the energy in our car and how – despite the divorce and our struggles trying to stabilize in its aftermath – we were all connected. It was pretty epic.
And since then, we’ve kind of considered “Landslide” our unofficial family song. I even wasted tons of space on my iPhone recently recording Stevie Nicks twirling onstage and singing it when I saw Fleetwood Mac in concert in October.
So on Christmas, after all their own loot had been unwrapped, the kids took turns giving me their presents. I got legit moonshine — procured from one of my oldest son’s southern fraternity brothers — replete with what I initially feared might be testicles floating within that I was later assured were in fact peaches; and a t-shirt from my oldest daughter that read, “Trust me, I’m a writer” (which is funny because nobody about whom I write trusts my writing in the least). And my little guy gave me hat and gloves I had bought for myself at the JCrew outlet that I gave to him to give me, which I kind of thought was better than anything he was going to find for me when he shopped at the Five Below on Christmas Eve. Like, I do not need a “Fault in Our Stars” poster.
But the gift that made me cry – and apparently the children go into Christmas morning with the goal of making their mom weep – was from my youngest daughter who used the lyrics from “Landslide” to create a paper tree from which she had dangled five hearts bearing all of our names.
She explained the framed picture was something she had come across on Pinterest and I don’t know if she’s actually finished writing her college essays or even sent in all of her applications for next year yet, but man, if she put this much time into those endeavors she’d be going to Harvard. I’m just saying.
So now there’s a new moment in that mental shoebox crammed with 48 years-worth of memories stashed away in my crickety brain. Somewhere lodged beneath the snapshots of the babies and the terrible fights and the ride when all five of our voices sang out in our car on a warm spring night is me, unwrapping a gift that reminded me that not even a landslide could bring us down.
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In 2006, an emotional landslide slammed into Minna Zallman Proctor’s life: She was about to give birth to her first child while going through a divorce, her mother was losing her 15-year battle with cancer and, as if that wasn’t enough, Proctor had a complex relationship with the man for whom she would eventually leave her husband. These are the bare-bone facts of “Landslide: True Stories,” a work of linked personal essays in which Proctor excavates meaning from her complicated relationship with her mother and her own intricate spiritual life.
For Proctor, the daughter of a devout Episcopalian father and lapsed Jewish mother, these essays are at once elegiac and hopeful. She plumbs meaning from her relationships with her parents and her yearning for the intact family she, a child of divorce, never had. In one of these memorable essays, she’s determined to give her mother a Jewish burial. In another, she continues to explore her father’s piousness, which was the subject of her first book, “Do You Hear What I Hear? Religious Calling, the Priesthood, and My Father.” Proctor recently spoke with JewishBoston about her work, her Judaism and her late mother.
I read that the title of your book referenced “Landslide” by Fleetwood Mac. How did you make that title your own?
It did refer to the Fleetwood Mac song initially, but then became much more than that. When I started thinking about the book, I was listening to “Landslide” on repeat. I thought it was a good working title and even thought of using the lyrics as an epigram. As I moved toward the end of the book, I realized it was going to end in the graveyard and thought about how everything was sliding out from under me. The metaphors piled up and it became hard to let go of them. But the book moves beyond the song.
You describe yourself as a private person. What was it like to write and publish these highly personal essays?
While I insist that I’m private, I do make a distinction for myself. When I was writing my first book about my father, I spent a lot of time thinking: “Who cares what I think? Who cares what I’ve done? I’m just a regular person. What makes this interesting to anybody?” I thought about the difference between writing about oneself and absorption, as well as the difference between writing about oneself and emotional exhibitionism. I also started thinking about the issue in terms of personal experiences and the way they are used to connect with other people.
What role does Judaism play in your life?
I’m in a very investigative place in my Judaism. I still have trouble figuring out where to go for the Jewish holidays. I think of “Landslide” as a book about religion and my spirituality, but not in the most obvious way. I’m a spiritual person, but I felt a little knocked around by the Jewish community at the time of my mother’s death and my divorce. I haven’t quite gotten up from that and am reluctant to join a formal community; I don’t belong to a synagogue, but there are Jewish groups I’m a part of. My Jewish life is primarily intellectual and essentially secular. I once read an interview with the theologian Karen Armstrong, a former nun, about how she prayed since she left the church a long time ago and doesn’t practice. Her answer was that she prayed by studying, researching and writing. That’s my form of prayer too.
Why was it important to you that your mother had a Jewish burial?
It was important to me and important to her. She had led a largely secular life, but made a couple of attempts at trying to understand why a Jewish burial was important to her. It was finally the hospice rabbi who best heard her questions and understood what she was trying to ask about a Jewish burial. My mother didn’t know what the rituals were or what things stood for, nor what would happen or what it might mean. She did not talk about burial until we got close to the end. We hadn’t planned ahead, and that was hard because Jewish funerals have to happen quickly. There was no room for exploring or finding a Jewish community.
My sister loved the idea of a natural burial—to get put directly in the woods and become part of the earth again. That notion was in keeping with my mother’s wishes—this idea of becoming part of the earth again. But a part of her liked formal beauty and so we ended up doing both of those things. The cemetery where she is buried has a section that is wild and beautiful like a forest. It’s a non-sectarian cemetery, but we had a Jewish ceremony and service.
How does your father’s Episcopalian faith affect you?
To learn that I knew so little about my father and what he holds dear was a real awakening. It was one of those moments when I started looking beyond myself and understanding the people around me. I learned a lot about the intimacy of spirituality too and how profoundly people feel. Writing “Do You Hear What I Hear?” was an amazing learning process during which I grew closer to my father as an adult. I learned about him anew and it shifted our relationship in a completely different way. It was a revelation.
Are there particular topics you feel you’d like to further explore?
I remain interested in this idea of conflict resolution and the ways it plays out through different narratives. I’m also interested in the different manners you tell a story and the ways it changes how you feel about it. Part of conflict resolution is shifting language around or shifting the narrative around. That kind of approach with some of the feelings that were crushing me shifted the narrative and lifted them off of me. Storytelling is a way of resolving what seems like impossible conflicts and situations.
Will you continue to write memoir?
I wrote this book about my mother. It is for her and about her. That may not be a theme I continue. I don’t plan on writing about my son and daughter, but they may come up. At the moment my mother and my children are not part of my new projects, a research-heavy biography and a novel.
Minna Proctor will be appearing at Harvard Book Store on Wednesday, Oct. 18, and the Boston Book Festival on Saturday, Oct. 28. Find more information on Proctor’s appearances here.
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