Beverly Bisbee wrote a moving tribute to her mother titled “Holding Memories.” She recounts how she and her family felt closer to their mother through evocative objects she owned.
Beverly Bisbee, a veteran writing enthusiast, poet, and amateur photographer, taught most of her years in the State of Maine, but has returned home to the Kanawha Valley where she is a member of two area writing groups, West Virginia Writers, and admittedly, though somewhat embarrassingly, a popular social media where she can continue to encourage writers of all ages. A graduate of the University of Maine, Bev attended the prestigious Bread Loaf School of English at Middlebury College in Vermont, and graduated with a master’s in Computer Education from Lesley University in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Treasuring the writing camaraderie, she understands that all writers are in the process of becoming better, and tries to inspire others to use writing as documentaries, as therapy, as art, and as a way of being.
Please respond to the following questions and prompt:
Your piece, “Holding Memories” is structured through the motif of evocative objects; that is, objects that belonged to your mother that evoke powerful memories of her. What gave you the idea to write about your mother this way?
“Holding Memories,” written within a week after my ninety-five year old mother had passed, was my need to record my childhood images of her. I retired early to be her 24-7 caregiver for the last seven years of her life, and I wanted to preserve more than medicine bottles and hospital visits. The bar of soap transported me from bathing her elderly body to her gentle caring for us.
How has your family reacted to writing about your mother in this piece?
Family members were happy that I captured her love for us in this way. The essay stirred a conversation about their memories of her, as well.
Are you a native West Virginian?
Yes, and am honored to call Charleston the home of my youth. Like many others, after being away for many years, I have settled in again among these hills, entertaining memories from the 50’s and 60’s as inspiration for more writing. The location itself is a calling, especially the East End with our beautiful Capitol on the Kanawha.
If so, what area and for how long has your family lived in the region?
Both sides of my family are rooted deeply in these mountains. My father’s family, descendents of John Hart, the New Jersey Signer of the Declaration of Independence, lived in Randolph County, mostly in Elkins. The Nutters, my mother’s family settled in Nicholas and Greenbrier Counties. Together, my parents chose Charleston for the opportunities the area provided. My ancestors on both sides were proud West Virginians, and that pride has continued within all of us.
Where else are you from?
The State of Maine also influenced my writing progression. Senator Ed Muskie once observed that of all the states, Maine and West Virginia were the most alike. Politically, they share common challenges, but for me, having taught in Maine for over thirty years, I observed a way of life that was self-sustaining, reflective, and inclusive. Maine, my home-away-from-home, welcomed my muse and me simultaneously. Like West Virginia, Maine nurtures creativity.
Do you pass on family memories a lot? What kind? What occasions do you find yourself telling family memories?
My favorite gathering has always been when we gather around the oldest relatives listening to their stories, especially when they include descriptions of family members long gone. Playing off each other’s comments will spur them on, teasing one another and breaking into giggling fits. What fun!
I enjoy retelling about the Quinwood horse that got into the moonshine up in Squat ‘N Dodge and meandered into my grandparents’ house! Also, I share the story about Daddy striking out Babe Ruth in 1935 at an exhibition game in Richmond.
As the very elderly are leaving us, there are photos to sort, family items to disperse, homes to close. Sentimentality and sadness lurk together within me; my generation needs to accept the archivist role before precious memories are lost!
Are there others in your family who write?
Yes. My paternal grandfather, Cam Hart, wrote a column for a local newspaper in Elkins, and my mother’s cousin, Dennis Deitz, wrote a series called Mountain Memories. Another member of our family writes the Jillian Kent Ravensmoore Chronicles, a Regency series that started with Secrets of the Heart.
As a little girl, I loved watching my father at his mahogany desk writing to his sister in Annapolis. Their letters were long, descriptive, and done in beautiful penmanship, keepsakes, for sure. Mother told me that she and a friend used to write their letters to each other in rhyming lines. Recently, following Mother’s death, I found a stack of my father’s love letters to her, tied with a yellow ribbon!
There are others, too, who have writing circling within them and share their writing plans with me. My family is a writing community in itself. Both my son and daughter write well. Yesterday my daughter emailed me her poems and asked for my response. She writes a column for a weekly paper in central California, creates documentaries, and constructs scripts and grants. “Talking writing” is a normal way of being for us.
What other genres of writing do you practice?
Poetry remains my chosen mode of writing, but I enjoy writing essays, too. Recently, I have started a couple of short stories. As an educator, I have had success with writing grants, and writing letters and emails to legislators to help persuade them to pass an important program. Thomas Paine taught us the power of the pen, didn’t he!
What authors inspire you?
As expected, Emily Dickinson’s poems are the heritage of many young girls, and I find myself, going back to her poems frequently. When I discovered Elizabeth Bishop’s writing, both poetry and prose, I began to study her with more involvement. Her essay in the New Yorker describes a sound so well that you think you can hear it! Lingering in the poems of Whitman, Wordsworth, and Longfellow will evoke new images for my own writing, and I used to carry Ferlinghetti, e.e. cummings, and William Carlos Williams’ books to explore, especially Williams’ epic, Paterson, about the city’s industrial changes over time. Some may be surprised that Dag Hammarskjold, the former Secretary-General of the United Nations, is inspiring, a master of concise wording that presents a complicated idea. Jane Austin is among my fiction favorites because I find her complex sentence structure fascinating. Her writing reminds me to pay attention to my sentences, structure and variety. Bill Roorbach’s Thoreau-like nature writing motivates me to write about my own surroundings and the people who characterize those locations.
Stephen Dunn’s poems are a study in comparisons, and I once wrote a poem about his writing when he won the Pulitzer Prize. As I read Mary Oliver, I like her play with words, and her advice to poets. Oliver’s poems are good examples for beginning writers, for she tells it as she sees it using crisp details. I am reading Maxine Kumin’s essays, which I find more appealing than her poems. The lives of poets are as inspiring as their products, I find. For me, Robert Frost also holds a special place, but that goes without saying for most of us poets.
Can you name West Virginia authors that also inspire you?
Perhaps some would think it is a stretch to pair both Cynthia Rylant and Barbara Smith as two favorite West Virginia writers, but I find that their use of nouns are reminders of Williams’ theme, “No ideas but in things.” Barbara Smith inspires me to be more observant in my home state, and perhaps she, in part, influenced my essay in Fed from the Blade. Objects were part of the memory aura when thinking about my mother.
I loved Irene McKinney, especially hearing her read with such personality and opinions, and I am one of many who misses her presence. Getting to know the work of our new West Virginia poet laureate, Marc Harshman, I find a momentum in his wording that inspires me to consider the tone of my own transitions. Showing subtle movement in a poem leads the reader toward understanding a deeper inference.
Reading a book of poems illustrates the life of the poet, and it is with complexity and subtle revelation that Cheryl Denise shares her transformation. Her gentle observations and poetic storytelling let us see ourselves as nature’s reality. I find her poems inspiring me to get closer to the truth in my own writing.
Do you hope to publish books some day? If so, what genre would it be?
Yes, I hope to publish a book about Laidley Field, now the University of Charleston’s football stadium. Strange as it may seem, my affection for the field and its surrounding neighborhood has been drifting through my thoughts for a long time. The years Laidley has served West Virginians offer specification and emotion, as well as an evolution similar to William Carlos Williams’ Paterson. Capturing the surrounding neighborhoods and the quintessential characterization of the area, presents a challenge that I find captivating. Combining poetry and prose might be a way to solve construction plans for this project.
Also, I would like to write a poetry book about the similarities of Maine and West Virginia.
As an educator, I have a major project in mind, a book to inspire beginning teachers of writing. As Jesse Stuart’s To Teach, To Love inspired my career, I would like to pass on my experiences about sharing this love of teaching writing.
There’s everything in the world to write about; it is not a matter of finding a subject, it is simply a matter of what to choose first.
Where do you see yourself fitting within the West Virginian and/or Appalachian literary tradition?
Therein lies my confusion. Being away for many years poses a problem, that of being accurate only to the culture here. Becoming more familiar with the region’s literary tradition requires more reading, more observation and listening. Writing in the various dialects, like Belinda Anderson, would be difficult for me because I grew up in the city and not in the rural areas where colorful expressions were more frequently used. Yet, I have to remember authors like Anna Smucker, who writes about the northern West Virginian steelworkers, and Phyllis Wilson Moore whose massive pile of research has accumulated stories about the African Americans in West Virginia. Perhaps the West Virginia Writers will offer a June workshop to define and discuss the Appalachian literary tradition, and the subcultures that melt us all together. We are more than the stereotypical image, and I hunger for more knowledge about each county and the heritage that has been given to us collectively and geographically.
Please respond to this prompt:
Write a flash nonfiction piece, 2-3 paragraphs, about this scenario: You are at a flea market. There you find your grandmother’s rolling pin. Write about her and that pin.
Traveling to Grandma’s hometown always created a stir in my youth, an excitement that continues each year to call me to the Old Timers’ Reunion. The Seniors Parade and the Brick Church Picnic cause much laughter and old friend greetings, but it is the Town Center Flea Market that holds my interest every summer.
Advertized as the best source of homemade quilts, farm tools, and antique kitchenware, I arrive early to the town park and take my time strolling toward the exhibits. On the way, I nearly stumble and catch myself before falling into a resident’s display in front of a decaying, Victorian home. My clumsiness shakes the table and a rolling pin drops on my toe, striking a pain strong enough to make me stop and nurture the hurt. The old lady apologizes at the same time as I do. I pick up the rolling pin to hand it to her, but notice initials near the end, and immediately recognize its original owner. Buying the treasure at once, I mention to the seller that the rolling pin was my grandmother’s who used to live on Main Street.
“I’m Miss Lizzy. Your grandma taught me to bake using this ole roller, bake well ‘nuf that I opened my own bakery. She’d come help me, but oh, was she particular! Wash your hands, wear a clean apron, put more apples in ‘em pies! I never could pound that bread dough enough, couldn’t pinch the pie top to make her happy, couldn’t make the cookies big like she wanted them. But she was a prize, and when she went, I closed those doors. I kept this ole roller ‘cause she said her hubby burned in those initials ‘cause she was the best baker in this whole state! Reckon you should have it, ‘cause you look like you could be just as bossy.”