Monday, July 18, 2011

Conversation with a Contortionist

Everyone has a story. I know that. You know that, right? But only some stories are meant to become memoirs. Only some stories are so compelling you’re captivated by the smallest details, gripped by the evidence of trial and survival found in the slowed beats and pauses as the teller tells.

After spending a week with my husband’s family, we finished off our vacation with a refreshing stop in Pennsylvania. Steve’s aunt hosted us to help break up our long car ride. His aunt has been caring for her eighty-six-year-old mother, who has endured eleven years on dialysis.

After we settled the kids down for the night, I lifted the books I was reading and debated which one I was in the mood for. Little did I know I had a better story coming.

At first glance Steve’s aunt’s mother looks like an ordinary elderly woman in a wheelchair with a taut French braid weaving together what’s left of her gray hair.

Ordinary. But then she began to share.

And once I began listening, I mean truly listening to her story, I understood immediately I was not in the presence of an ordinary woman. As she revealed glimpse after glimpse of her life, I felt her extraordinary tale seeping into my conscience. I saw scenes of her life as though I were reading them in a page-turner novel.

Let me start where it started with her. From age three, Atta (we’ll call her for the privacy purposes) remembers practicing her contortionist moves under the stern instruction of her Native American Chief father who ran all the business affairs of their traveling circus. She provided the sole income for her family as they frequently picked up and relocated. Atta performed for Haitian dignitaries and bent her body in innumerable positions in order for her family to eat during the Depression.

She has distinct and terrifying memories of canoeing in the Amazon as a threatening anaconda surfaced near her flimsy boat. Atta also recalls how her father used her stepmother and sister as part of his act, placing an apple at their throats and chopping down with a violent strike, amazing the sparse crowds, sending shivers through her.

I asked my questions loudly because Atta is hard of hearing. Locked into her story, her appearance gradually changed before me. She went from intervals of focusing in on me with heated concentration to drifting, letting her eyes roam the scores of the Pirates game. The vision I had of her with a flesh-colored hearing aide shaped like a seashell and her moccasin slippers melded into her from ages five to twenty-one being led around with questionable circus folk. Eventually her family brought the show business (as she called it) to St. Louis and Illinois. As the sky darkened and fireflies lit up the night her stories continued.

I dared not interrupt, dared not even swallow for fear of missing something. Stories like this don’t come around every day. What I was hearing was Water for Elephants and then some. The experience equated to crack for a writer and an avid reader. I saw her story. Saw myself reading her pages. Her life. A story waiting to be told.

I did what I could to encourage Atta to continue the telling and to encourage my husband’s aunt to keep recording. I felt as though I graced the presence of a living memoir. Graced it. Grazed it.

And it gripped my heart.

So much so I quoted one of my favorite lines from Little Bee to our gracious hostesses. “We must see all scars as beauty. Okay? This will be our secret. Because take it from me, a scar does not form in the dying. A scar means, I survived.”

Ever have a conversation where you were certain you were interacting with a phenomenal memoir or story waiting to be written?

*I verified that I had permission to write about Atta, though I changed her name. You’d have to have been emotionally blind not to notice the years of pain layered in her story. While Steve’s aunt Okayed my writing this post, I felt it wise to change her name.
**the child in the picture is not Atta, but there are three black and white pictures in one of the upstairs bedrooms of Steve’s aunt’s home that portray Atta is similar poses.

***photo by flickr


  1. How sad and beautiful--my favorite kinds of stories. I'm not familiar with this quote from Little Bee, but it jolted my brain into action this morning--even before my coffee! So glad to hear you had this experience. Many people wouldn't notice the potential this story has, but since you are a writer, you get it completely. That is a real blessing.

    Thank you!

    -Miss GOP

  2. That was beautiful, Wendy! I felt like that as I sat and visited with some of the elderly in Haiti last week. I so wish I could have spoken their language, because it was difficult to get a ton of their stories through the translators. I need to learn Creole!

  3. What an amazing experience! I want to meet this woman. I want to read her story! and you remind me that I need to read Little Bee!

  4. What a wonderfully written blog!!! thanks for sharing! I feel like i interact with a-memoir-waiting-to-be-written when i interact with most of my opiate-spent years in prison-traumatic life story type clients! i often tell them that they should draft a book! I would love to have met this woman....great story!

  5. What a wonderfully written blog!!! thanks for sharing! I feel like i interact with a-memoir-waiting-to-be-written when i interact with most of my opiate-spent years in prison-traumatic life story type clients! i often tell them that they should draft a book! I would love to have met this woman....great story!

  6. You should write a book about Atta. I was gripped just by the blog post.

  7. The last time I was privileged to hear someone's true life history, it was not as unusual as Atta's. I was still gripped by it, because it was my friend's story and she had survived so much. It makes me think about the difference between memoir material and personal biography.

  8. Wow! This was amazing. Just wow.
    Many times I listened to my grandmother tell stories of raising her 4 sisters when she was only 8 and gathering the horse/buggy to take the youngest to the doctor.

    What a great post today, Wendy!! Glad you're back. :)

  9. Wow. What an amazing opportunity. I love hearing people's stories, but I think we so often don't take the time to sit and listen to the elderly tell theirs. It seems there are so many gripping stories out there if we truly listen.

  10. It must've been like opening an attic door and finding 'everywhere the glitter of gold.'

    I hope someday you get to write Atta's story.

    The quote from Little Bee is so true.

  11. Amazing story. Thanks for sharing.

    It's funny how often we forget that our elders have been through a lifetime of experience. There are so many awesome stories that have been left were listened.

  12. You captured this story beautifully. It's amazing what beautiful surprises we find wrapped up in people.

    These are the stories that stick with you:)

  13. Incredible! I was in awe of you telling it so I can imagine a little of what it was like to be there and actually listen to it.

    I have met few people whose lives could be a memoir. Although, my mom's side of the family has some really great stories to be told. :)

  14. What a wonderful story! And what a blessing that you "happened" to be in the right place at the right time. So glad you shared this with us!

  15. Miss GOP, That quote carried the story for me. It went deep. Glad I jolted you (even before coffee).

    Heather, Language is a powerful barrier. But I imagine you saw much in their faces and their expressions.

    Katie, You need to read Little Bee. And yes, meeting with her and hearing her changed me.

    KC, You remind me of one of my favorite authors, Wally Lamb and how he works with inmates. Yes, I do believe every single person has a story waiting to be told. Some just surface and capture us.

    V.V. I'm still hoping my husband's aunt will seriously consider this honor. But I'll be waiting and watching.

    Rosslyn, Excellent point about personal biography. Wasn't sure if I wanted to label it that or memoir.

    Thanks Jessica. Steve's grandma has a few stories like that.

    Anne, I was convicted of that very thing. I've been around Atta before, not often, but enough time to hear more of her story. It's amazing what comes to us when we invite it in.

    Erica, Love that Little Bee quote! And you described it perfectly (better than the crack remark).

    Loree, I do feel fortunate. And you're right, sad to think of how much we miss out on.

    Tamika, Yep, this one will stick and you also bring up a valuable insight. It was as if the story was wrapped up inside her and slowly she was unraveling from the cocoon of all it turned her into.

    Jennifer, My mom has a few, too. I wished I didn't get tired or the Pirates game wasn't on so I could listen throughout the night.

    Karen, I'm beginning to see that more and more, how we are where we are supposed to be, when we are supposed to be.

    Thanks for seeing the depth of Atta's story, the beauty of her survival. I hope one day we all get to read more!

    ~ Wendy

  16. Hi Wendy -

    I love the line about having a scar means I survived.

    Awhile back, I heard a testimony that gripped me the way Atta's story captivated you. It became one of my early print credits in an anthology (with the person's permission and names changed).

    I hope you'll be able to tell her story in a novel or article someday. You already have the vision.

    Susan :)

  17. Wow, I don't think I've met someone quite that unique. I love to soak in the stories of the elderly. They have so much wisdom to share if we just listen, don't they?

  18. I love that she opened up like that. I had a chance to listen to my grandmothers story a month before she passed. I guess each life has a good dose of extraordinary.

  19. Do you have permission to write her story for publication. It is fascinating. What a treasure. I know just how you feel as the story unfolds. You might really need to use the bathroom, but you don't dare move because you might interupt the story, pause it, and never be able to pick it back up again.

  20. Sounds like an amazing story. I think most people have a story to tell, it's just a matter of listening to it and I wish I'd done more listening while my grandparents were alive.

  21. What a poignant post, Wendy. You brought Atta to life with your stirring prose. I can picture her and feel her internal struggle as she dealt with the life thrust upon her. What a blessing that Atta entrusted her tale to you.

  22. Amazing.

    Yes, I've had this experience. A friend of mine told me about a situation in his family, and after letting it burrow into my heart for a few days (it was the craziest, most heart-breaking story!) I decided to let it inspire me to write a novel. I'm almost done with the first draft and it's a big mess right now. But I really think that it's those stories that stick in your mind and won't go away that are the best fodder for our writing.



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