Searchlights & Signal Flares

Tiny Lights' On-line Writer's Exchange

What helps you remember? (08/15/09)

Featured writer: Joan Zerrien

Contributors this month:
Arlene L. Mandell
Becky Povich
Betty Rodgers
Bree LeMaire
Clara Rosemarda
David S. Johnson
Don Edgers
Ed Rau
Fran Jaekle
Jane Merryman
Joan Zerrien
Susan Bono

What Helps

by Joan Zerrien

On a warm evening in August, while walking around Lake Fulmor with my teenage daughter and her friends, I slip a hand into my jacket pocket and come up with a folded sheet of paper. It is a description of Ketchikan, downloaded from Trip Advisor. I had scribbled May 13 across the top. In that instant I inhale the clean crisp ozone of Alaska, and feel myself walking away from the ship with Bernadette and Judy, in this very jacket, on our self-guided meander through town.

I inadvertently leave these little time bombs of memory in the pockets of my clothes, stuck into books, in the zippered sections of little used purses. Some, no doubt, are erased in the wash, or given for strangers to find in the thrift store donation. Others reappear to me unexpectedly, releasing pungent evocations of time and place and emotion. Sometimes they reveal more than memory.

Recently I found a $100 bill in the toiletries bag I'd used during an ill-fated, out-of-town love affair. "See?" said the Gay Guy when I told him. "You didn't come away empty-handed after all."

Joan Zerrien, Idyllwild, CA, is currently going through those little-used handbags, nearly-discarded back packs, and the bedside pile of books, looking for treasure.

Memory Jog

  by Arlene L. Mandell

This is the last "official" week of summer, as school is starting in the middle of the month. Friends who teach are already organizing their classrooms while kids are still roaming in suntanned packs before getting swept into the latest Leave No Child Behind machines.

Fall merchandise is crammed onto shelves, neon-colored notebooks to fill, quirky erasers to lose as soon as possible. Young mothers with lists propel unwilling kids with sand between their toes toward haircuts and new sneakers.

And I, formerly vice president of this and professor of that, sit at an outdoor café table, taking notes.

Wistful? A bit.

Trade places with the teachers in sunbaked parking lots unloading cartons from their cars?

No. I repeat, NO.

Arlene L. Mandell is marking her 10th year as a California resident and retiree with a one-woman collage show at Friends House in Santa Rosa in September.

Unless I Forget

  by Becky Povich

What helps me remember what? My name? Where I live? That I'm a writer?
I am the first to admit that I have a peculiar memory when it comes to some things. I'm not talking about the usual misplaced keys, the missing remote control, or forgetting to buy milk at the grocery story. I'm talking about important events that involve family and friends.

Not too long ago, I made lunch plans with a friend and totally forgot to go. I didn't remember a thing about it until she called and I heard her voice on the phone. You can imagine how I felt and I'm sure it was noteworthy for her self-esteem, too.

Another time, a couple of girl friends and I discussed whether to exchange Christmas gifts any longer. A few days or weeks after we'd had the discussion, I couldn't remember if I should buy presents or not. I was accused by one as having "selective memory." Huh? I don't have selective memory. Besides only children and men have that deficiency.

When it comes to my writing, though, almost anything triggers memories. Just being aware of my surroundings, just being aware of life, just living in the moment and taking it all in: On a large scale: sights, sounds, aromas, music, books, and movies. On a smaller scale: laughter, tears, meat loaf, wind chimes, lawn mowers, cinnamon rolls, crickets, chirping of birds, fizz and bubbles of carbonated drinks, cicadas, walking in snow, barking dogs, steam rising from a coffee cup, cigarette ashes barely hanging on, the glorious silence of falling snow and catching flakes on your tongue, the time traveling aroma of the pages in a book.

All of this is what makes me remember. The then and the now. I'm getting it written as fast as I can, before I forget.

Becky Povich writes non-fiction narrative in St. Peters, Missouri. She's been published in a few anthologies and writes a weekly column for an Iowa newspaper. She's working on her first book, a memoir of sorts. It contains past memories, plus current observations. Her blog is:

Lest We Forget

  by Betty Rodgers

Mother taught by example. There was always a small notepad at the end of the yellow tile kitchen counter, and a stubby #2 yellow pencil with a bulky triangular eraser stuck on the end. A black rotary-dial telephone hung on the wall above the counter. The toaster and cookbooks lined up on the rolling metal cart beside. Each day, a to-do list appeared penned in Mother's confident hand.

Above the metal cart a calendar. V dentist. BK accordion lesson. Tom vacation. A list of weekly chores was taped next to the calendar. On the counter with the notepad was a small cardboard box of gold stars, each one to be glued on the chart as chores were completed. Feed Rusty. Wash dishes. Clean Kitchen Cook.

On the yellow chrome table in the breakfast nook, a tiny cut glass vase with fresh violets from the north side of the house. The plants were transplanted from Grandmother Billie's after she died. Memory of the purple scent lingers 50 years later. Against the wall, Cap'n Pepper and Ol' Salty, well oiled by family hands. The pink piggy sugar bowl with leather ears. Plastic napkin holder stuffed full. Melmac dishes. Meatloaf and baked potatoes in the gas-fired oven. On the windowsill above the table, the glass duck rocked up and down over a tumbler of water.

Now the entire house opens, comes into clear view. This is how memory unfolds. It begins with an image. I check off "Bono essay," step toward the calendar and start to plan my week. First on the list: Call Mother.

Betty Rodgers keeps her calendar in Boise, ID, the way her mother taught her.

Forgetting –Lost Details

  by Bree LeMaire

Forgetting is an exercise best done in solitude when one doesn't have to cover up their underlying panic. Oh no, I'll think, dementia like carbon monoxide is seeping into my brain. I'm a millisecond away from forgetting how to tie my shoes.

This incidental minute I can't remember the name of that actress who was in all those movies with Rock Hudson. What was her name? She lived in Carmel. She loved dogs. I know her name like I know my own phone number but what is it? This is the beginning of Alzheimer's. The harder I work to retrieve the name of that perky actress. What was her name? The further it flies away.

However, I have a fail proof method for remembering called the "hug and tug" taught by a kindly brain therapist/relative. It has something to do with using both brain hemispheres. The method is to put both hands at chest level, right over left then individually squeeze and pull each finger starting with the index and ending with the thumb. It is then repeated, left over right involving both hands. Usually about the time of the last thumb the lost nugget floats into my awareness. Doris Day, I knew it all the time.

Bree LeMaire continues with her mystery story. The murderer is almost captured but not quite.

What helps you remember?

  by Clara Rosemarda

I never had a great memory, certainly not for names and dates, yet I write memoir. Do I fake it or do I actually remember? I write what my mind remembers in the moment of writing. Is memory accurate? That's another discussion. Memory is fickle; it remembers emotions, images, thoughts, experiences based on the intensity of the experience and what came before and after. Being true to my memory means being true to what my mind recalls as I am writing. My intention as a memoirist is to write the truth of my experiences and feelings, and to reflect on them in a way that is interestingly meaningful.

Often I'm inspired by a snippet of memory that comes in an image. I start with the image such as being pulled through the snow on my red sled by my dad when I'm about four years old, or was I five? I trust the feeling that brought that image to mind; it had to have some energy to even come to my consciousness. Then I use the tools of attention and focus. These tools are amplified when I meditate before writing. I pay attention to the image, moving into that four-year old bundled up in a heavy jacket, a white and green hat that ties under her chin, mittens that match. I feel her hands holding on tight. I stay focused, moving in time with the image and the happenings, not jumping ahead. I go on the ride with the little girl who is excited to be flying through the snow. Then I see the bump on the sidewalk as we cross the alley down the block from our brick apartment building. I feel the cold on my cheeks. I'm thrilled to be on a ride with my father whom I rarely see.

As I write I recall that this was the last time my dad took me out in the snow. Perhaps that's why that image came to me, perhaps that's what I needed to write, a short vignette about loss and sadness that started with an image of joy. The memory emerged initially like a Polaroid picture revealing more details as I wrote. My job was to pay attention and stay focused. Even though I never had a great memory, somehow it shows up just when I need it.

Clara Rosemarda writes and teaches memoir in Santa Rosa, California. Her work as a counselor, writing coach, and workshop leader has taken her to places such as the hills of Umbria, Halibut Cove, Alaska, Taos, New Mexico, and into past experiences that seem as real when she’s writing as they were the first time, only now they come in slow motion and have greater depth. Her essays and poems have been published in Tiny Lights, The Dickens, and other literary journals. She is co-editor and co-author of the anthology, STEEPED: IN THE WORLD OF TEA. Clara is currently working on Naked Branches, a chapbook of poetry. She can be reached at

Remembering the tiny lights

  by David S. Johnson

It's midnight and I'm knee-deep in the still-rising water. It's been a long summer of bugs, mud, and sun and midnight is past my bedtime. But I can't set my nets until high tide. I roll a piece of grass between my fingers. The marsh is set in blackness, away from the reflected light of nearby towns. I can see the Milky Way slung across the arc of the sky like white paint slung across a deeply black wall. It is the thickness of nothingness, that contrast that makes the stars shine for me. The grass drops from my fingers.

I remember a boy as thin as a lizard's tail sitting in a pasture on a mountain in Arkansas. It is past his bedtime, but that's the time when the stars shine the brightest for him. So he sits in the grass poking at the ground with a stick. He is frustrated about a lack of control in his humble, welfare-cheese, and dirt-road-living childhood. He is angry about many things, but eventually the stick stops moving as he leans back on his elbows to see an ocean of stars in a sky unpolluted by miles-distant neighbors and their porchlights or the intrusive glow of town. His mind stretches as far and as wide as the Milky Way and he daydreams at night about all the things that boys dream about.

I remember an anniversary. This month, this August month when the Gulf of Mexico waters are full of enough heat energy to turn small storms born off the coast of Africa into city-swallowing storms, reminds me of an anniversary. The anniversary of a time when I have never in my adult life been so inundated and overwhelmed by fear and worry as I watched TV in Massachusetts and wondered about a family I couldn't contact in coastal Mississippi. Eventually there was contact and relief. When I saw Mama next I wanted to shake her and ask, "Do you know what you put me through!?" Instead, I took her to the beach. It was past her bedtime but since a 33-foot tidal surge had scoured the first four blocks north of Hwy. 90, there was no polluting city lights and she wanted to see the stars she used to see as a kid. I stood on the beach with my hands in my pockets and kicked at the sand. Mama looked at the stars against the lull of 6-inch waves washing the shoreline. Thankful for the stars and for the Mama, I pulled my hands out of my pocket and sat on the sand under the stars to think the thoughts of a relaxed and relieved mind.

I now stand under the stars trying to remember the details of those events.
Sometimes a memory, like a faint star that strains against the darkness, softly emerges in my mind before gently fading. Sometimes my memories are like found receipts, details without context. But this is why I write. I write so I can remember. I write so I don't forget. Now if only I had a pen out here.

In the constellation of David Samuel Johnson’s life, there is so much that pollutes his mind - such as deadlines, proposals, manuscripts, meetings, and traffic - that he wishes he wrote more of the details down.

The Thing

  by Don Edgers

On a bookshelf in my library is a thing from the early 20th century that helps me
remember people and other good stuff from my formative years.

The ‘thing' looks like a toilet paper roll down to about the last 100 sheets, or a 2" (diameter) by 4" (length), ¼" thick cylindrical tube that has a label with a picture of Thomas Edison as he appeared around the turn of the 19th century. Next to the picture are the words "Edison Gold Moulded Records," along with a bunch of patent numbers and other information. Inside the tube is a cylindrical record that's labeled on the edge of one end with the name of the song (‘Cotton') which is a banjo solo performed by (Fred) Van Eps. Van Eps was a popular banjoist who was a studio musician for Edison. The record was released in 1902.

Here's what this thing helps me remember:

Edison's Gold Moulded Records were first made in 1889 which is the date our farmhouse was being constructed -- the first two-story house built on Fox Island (WA).

"1902" (the date of the record's release) was also my father's birth date.

My father was a banjo-playing dance orchestra leader during the 1920s.

I was a banjo- playing singer in a group in the late 1950s.

The record player for the Edison Gold Moulded Record was stored in the hand-dug cellar of our farmhouse. During WWII, the player's windup motor was the engine of a submarine (the cellar). My torpedoes (fruit jars) were launched from two torpedo tubes (bottomless coffee cans). When the motor stopped I would open the hatch (the outside cellar door) to look for survivors. I never found any - due to the accuracy and potency of the torpedoes.

I was hired to euthanize the farmhouse in the mid 1950s, and my submarine was filled in with dirt. The only proof that it existed is the thing from my bookcase.

I have been able to resurrect many memories of the farmhouse on Fox Island via stories (one titled "Torpedoes in the Cellar") and pictures in newspaper columns and three books.

Don Edgers is currently working on memories of his 5,460+ days (30 years) of teaching. His school’s Yearbooks and I.D. cards from his teaching years help him to remember.

He resides in Port Orchard, WA, which is presently being made over to help readers of author Debbie McComber’s Cedar Cove series remember what the Cedar Cove of her books looks like in real life. It’s interesting – no, amazing - to see how a writer is morphing a city of 10,400 into her vision of a fictitious community that’s attracting her readers from around the world.

What helps you remember?

  by Ed Rau

Remembrances are often triggered by sights and sounds, but smells work too.

The caustic odor of the chicken house on the way to the cabin where I slept as a youth, after I finished worrying about monsters, and where I eventually overcame my fear of the dark, breaks through the safety bars of my mind. Oh, that fear of night's blackness explodes into a television program about The Scorpion, a hellish man-monster that attacks strollers on the quay on a dark and foggy evening.

My brother was watching it on Grampa's TV when I was eight years old and I got sucked in, waiting for him to come outside to play. I remember the smell of the wax on the hardwood floors as we lay on our stomachs on the Persian rugs downstairs, and then, later, the smell of the musty closets upstairs in the bedroom where we slept while visiting.

Grama served us popcorn that afternoon without ever realizing the horrors we were watching on TV and now that popcorn smell always reminds me of The Scorpion and walking into K-Mart.

Let's see, there are probably six short stories here or at least six sketches.

Frankly, it helps to be a little A.D.D. and have a mind that wanders easily. Writing creates the controlled road map through the swamps and wild-lands of memory, complete with current trail blazes, detours, short-cuts and stop signs.

Now to go back, to see where I've been; are there any real stories there?

Ed Rau is a free-lance writer and a practicing Real Estate Broker in Sonoma County, California specializing in termite farms and woodpecker refuges.

Notes to Self

  by Fran Jaekle

I'm so far to the end of being a visual learner and visual person, that I have to write things down. The wall by my computer desk is papered with Post-It notes. Some are on the mirror in the bathroom. A calendar is open on my computer desk, which is near the phone.

This is not because of the passing of years. I've always been an extremely visual person with big holes in auditory skills. "In one ear and out the other." describes me perfectly...well, almost perfectly.

Fran Jaekle writes and remembers in Northern California.

This Helps

  by Jane Merryman

Two things turn on the past.

Gardenias--the smell or the sight--and memories come flooding back. My mom, my sister, and I wore a dewy white gardenia for just about every family occasion. That flower ties together most of my growing up years.
Even in college--when my date asked what kind of flowers I wanted for my dance corsage, while other girls demanded orchids, I said simply "gardenias."

Light is a great time travel vehicle for me. Especially: early evening light across stark houses in empty streets, the gleam under dark storm clouds in the mountains, a lamp casting a golden glow in a warm room where Dad reads the next chapter of Uncle Wiggly. Light can transport me in an instant to another time and place.

Jane Merryman is a Petaluma writer whose has written about many singular journeys. See her writing at

What Helps

  by Joan Zerrien

On a warm evening in August, while walking around Lake Fulmor with my teenage daughter and her friends, I slip a hand into my jacket pocket and come up with a folded sheet of paper. It is a description of Ketchikan, downloaded from Trip Advisor. I had scribbled May 13 across the top. In that instant I inhale the clean crisp ozone of Alaska, and feel myself walking away from the ship with Bernadette and Judy, in this very jacket, on our self-guided meander through town.

I inadvertently leave these little time bombs of memory in the pockets of my clothes, stuck into books, in the zippered sections of little used purses. Some, no doubt, are erased in the wash, or given for strangers to find in the thrift store donation. Others reappear to me unexpectedly, releasing pungent evocations of time and place and emotion. Sometimes they reveal more than memory.

Recently I found a $100 bill in the toiletries bag I'd used during an ill-fated, out-of-town love affair. "See?" said the Gay Guy when I told him. "You didn't come away empty-handed after all."

Joan Zerrien, Idyllwild, CA, is currently going through those little-used handbags, nearly-discarded back packs, and the bedside pile of books, looking for treasure.

At the Gates

  by Susan Bono

The guardian at the Gates of Memory is not happy to see me.

"What are you doing here again? Why do you even bother?"

He knows no matter what question I use to gain access to his protected territory, once I get past him, I'll be distracted by glimpses of unrelated data—the feel of a fine-toothed barber's comb tugged through my wet hair, the color of an old glass Coke bottle held up to the sun, the music it made when I blew across its mouth. I'll never find out what really happened that lunch hour at Mr. Anderson's house because suddenly I'm smelling playground grass and fallen oak leaves out by the swings in the schoolyard. Or I'm riding my Schwinn three-speed en route to Becky's on a morning edged with frost.

What began as a quest for answers to a burning question is soon obscured by a snowstorm of sensations and the flashbulb pop of triggered recollection. Before I know it, I'm stumbling out the gate into the everyday world, empty-handed again.

"You should have been paying more attention when things were actually happening," the gatekeeper growls. "Like them." He points to the earnest and determined souls who murmur their requests for entrance, and who later are seen leaving the gates with another chapter of their memoir tucked under their arms.

"But that one didn't have a grandmother who lived in a sod house, and that one's dad didn't dig a fallout shelter in the backyard. They didn't live across the street from the Yolo County Fairgrounds or have a pet chipmunk," I argue.

"You'll just end up listening to the noon air raid siren and trying to start a fire with a magnifying glass again."

"Not this time, I promise," I say, with my fingers crossed behind my back.

"At least take a pen that works," the guardian says with a sigh, thrusting one into my hand as the Gates of Memory swing wide.

Susan Bono is trying to improve her relationship with the gatekeeper in Petaluma, CA.

Searchlights Editor:

Susan Bono


Christine Falcone, David Samuel Johnson, Betty Rodgers

Susan Bono is a writing coach, editor and freelance writer whose work appears in newspapers, anthologies and the Internet. She has published Tiny Lights, a journal of personal essay, since 1995, along with its online counterpart here at From 2000—2005 she helped coordinate the Writer's Sampler series for the Sebastopol Center for the Arts. Her short essays and columns have appeared in various anthologies, magazines, newspapers and on the radio. Her most recent credits include Passager Magazine, Red Hills Review, the St. Petersburg Times, the Petaluma Argus Courier, the Anderson Valley Advertiser and KRCB radio's Word by Word.

Christine Falcone has been writing most of her life. Her work has appeared in print and online, and it has aired on public television and public radio. One of her writing goals for 2008 is to find an agent for her recently completed first novel, "This Is What I Know," which was named as a finalist in the William Faulkner Wisdom Creative Writing Competition out of New Orleans. She is currently in a new writing space, painted purple for inspiration, busily at work on another novel -- this one having to do with the nature of violence.

David Samuel Johnson was reared on a mountain in Arkansas. He lived the bohemian lifestyle in the Ozarks as a hillbilly vagabond, traversing the mountainside shirtless and most of the time shoeless, exploring the sensuality of the aromatic, organic-rich soil of the forest floor or the harsh poetry of greenbriers twined around a devil’s-walking-stick. As a kid he wanted to be a writer and own a snake farm when he grew up. His Mama knew she couldn't dissuade him from either goal. When he brought a poisonous copperhead snake home in his pocket, she bought him a book about snakes so he’d know which ones he could bring home and which ones to leave behind. When he wrote his first poem to a girl in kindergarten, she showed him how to use a dictionary so he could spell the word "beautiful." David's goal of a snake farm and the love of his mountain have manifested into a PhD in ecology. David’s dream of writing has evolved from his first poem in kindergarten to essays in newspapers to interview articles in magazines and columns in this journal. He is living a beautiful dream, some of which you can glimpse below.

David the Writer

David the Scientist

Betty Rodgers and her husband, Ken, live and watch birds in Boise, Idaho. A transplant among transplants, she has chosen to learn the local landscape through the lens of her Pentax K10D. Her writing career began at an early age when she wrote plays and coerced her boy cousins to perform them. She has enjoyed a life-long affair with journalism, writing for the Sacramento Bee, the Cloudcroft Mountain Monthly, the Sebastopol Times and News, and the Boise Weekly. Born in Steinbeck Country, she has also lived in Maine and New Mexico. Betty publishes a bi-monthly online newsletter for Idaho writers, a labor of love inspired by Terry Ehret. In 2006, she published A Mano, a book of poetry by the late Vince Pedroia.

Thanks to all who participated this month. It's good to know you're out there! We're looking forward to hearing from you and those you inspired sometime soon! Check this column each month to see what's new. Return to Searchlights & Signal Flares menu for future topics and guidelines.

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