Like other writers, Jo Barney writes to poke at her life, its truths and its what-ifs, and its mysteries.
At her age, eighty-three, however, memory often slips a gear, clinks badly, buries not only people but words, nouns especially. Short term memory is well-named. It is short. Where did I put my book? How did I miss that appointment? Even why am I standing here in the kitchen? Barney writes daily lists of to-dos because just having as calendar isn’t enough. And she’s not alone.
Many of her friends complain and laugh, (What else can they do?), as they confess this same gear-slipping. Several keep small notepads in a pocket or purse. “Now what date did we say for book club?” they ask, searching for the pencil that should be with the notepad but been left somewhere.
Time for an iPhone,” someone suggests. “It’s saving my sanity. I don’t have to remember a thing. I just Google it.”
“I tried one,” someone else answers. “By the time I typed in what I was looking for, I couldn’t remember why I was looking for it.”
But Barney has discovered another, more positive, truth about aged memory, one that modern technology has no part of. In the quiet of awakening of an early morning, she discovers herself wandering and pausing on the paths of long-term memory:
Being bribed to stop sucking her thumb; her remorse and the return of the week’s nickel when she succumbed to temptation.
Her father’s sharp smell of paint and turpentine when he came in from work.
Her aunt’s empty mouth after her teeth were pulled to cure her rheumatism.
The first sip of bitter wine at a family dinner.
The slippery steelhead she brought in under her father’s calm direction.
The long bus trip with her two– year-old sister all the way across town to return a library book before it was overdue, a really grownup thing to do, she thought, until she looked at her mother’s tearful face as they walked in.
The pain of an observation made by an almost friend: “Have you noticed? Jo always uses weird words, like “murky.” Adolescence.
Memories like these still sting just a little. Barney turns over in bed, allows herself to keep remembering until she goes to sleep. She’s come upon a rich crop of stories to harvest.
Blood Sisters, Barney’s latest book, to be released September 18, 2018, grew out of this sort of early morning browsing. It was 1950.
The war was over, her father had started his own painting business, her mother worked a few weeks each fall in a pear cannery for the extras they needed to move into a brand-new house, their first real house, with a yard, an unfinished attic with two bedrooms, and new neighbors all around. A Cape Cod, her father called it. Thirty identical Cape Cods nestled in this development, each of their families recovering from a war, the shipyards, food stamps, a rocky five or six years.
Barney says Blood Sisters, set in a similar postwar development, is fiction. Barney was too young and too naive to understand or even observe what might be going on in those houses, but she knew that five or six housewives met almost every day for cigarettes and cookies and gossip. When the meeting was at her house, Barney would listen in for a while, hear whose husband was mean, try to understand why Shirley was so sad, played with the newest baby to keep it quiet, and then she’d be sent outside to find something more interesting to do.
Koffee Klatches, her mother called them.
Barney didn’t find anything more interesting to do, ever, than listening in.
September 18, 2018
Runaway, Never Too Late, Her Last Words, available at Amazon, B & N, local bookstores; Powell’s Books.
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