History by the Year
by Marvin Payne

At a certain age, one feels the urgency to precede one’s mummification with one’s “memoirification.” This is a righteous urge, analogous to preceding one’s eternal sentence with one’s repentance. My father, who passed on in the first moments of this century, constructed a number of personal histories in his old age, following various patterns. I would like to explore one of those patterns here, and recommend its use. I’ll call it “Personal History by the Year.” Here’s some of his:

“The year is 1904. On July the 26th of this year I was born alive to the family of Charles Willard and Elizabeth Staker Payne… As far as I can remember, they were very happy that I had arrived. Father had moved a log stable from the back of the lot to the front and converted it into a house, so my birthplace was a stable. I suppose they expected a lot from me.

“My first year was an eventful one. My parents took me to Bingham Canyon to live. However, at my tender young age I was not expected to work in the mines.”

(Many columnreaders will be innocent of the significance of this geography. Bingham Canyon at the turn of the twentieth century was a raucous Utah community of mostly immigrant miners. My maternal grandfather owned the saloon and silent-movie theatre there, and dwelt happily with his wife and baby daughters, but neither my mother nor my father, being romantically disinclined as infants, took any notice of each other. Nor have they been back to reminisce about what might have been, because if the town were still there today, it would be suspended in mid-air several hundred feet above the open-pit copper mine that is clearly visible from outer space.)

“Before the advent of my first birthday, I was transplanted to the Old Mexico town of Dublan in the state of Chihuahua.

“1905–I soon gave up on Spanish and concentrated on English. You see, I had to be able to converse with my parents first. I thought I was the most important person in all of Mexico, at least I demanded more attention than anyone else.

“1906–Now it came to pass that I had not learned to write, so I did not record just what took place. End of third year.

“1907–There are no blank spaces in life. There are things going on all the time.”

(He just didn’t happen to remember any of them.)

“1908–There are some funny little marks used in the English language. They are ditto marks–see year 1907-1909.

“1910–Haley’s comet came close enough to the earth that it appeared as a great ball of fire, traveling at a great speed with what appeared to be a trail of sparks traveling out behind it. This I remember. And the beginning of the Mexican Revolution.

Let me give you snapshots from the next few years:

“1911–I recall the great thrill I used to get when my brother and I would go down the dusty road to meet our father as he returned from a hard day on the thresher. We liked to climb up on the wagon and sit on the spring seat and help drive the team of horses. We would always examine the lunchpail to see if there was some morsel left for some ever-hungry boys.

“1912–I recall quite vividly one time when my brother and I had done something that my mother didn’t particularly appreciate, so she started to scold us and we ran. She ran after us. We ran around to the haystack and climbed to the top, only to be met by my mother, who had climbed up the other side. We started growing up.

“I recall seeing the rebel general Pancho Villa personally at the store in Dublan. He was a very rugged Mexican and made a very strong impression on me. I also had the privilege of seeing the General of the Federal troops. General Madera. Madera was a very slight individual and quite light. A good looking petite well dressed individual. He had a beautiful sorrel horse. When Madera wanted to mount his horse he would touch the horse and the horse would get down on his knee and as Madera stepped into the stirrup the horse would rise and Madera would swing into the saddle. This left a very deep impression on me.

“We began to learn what the Gospel of Jesus Christ is all about. Soon I started to gain a testimony. On July the 26th of that year, I was taken down into the waters of baptism in the ditch on our farm. However, I was not confirmed at this time because a very important thing took place on the 29th.

“The rebel armies in Mexico had disarmed all of our people and on this day we were ordered to leave Old Mexico. A train would be in town and everyone in the town was to leave. The train did not arrive until 2 a.m. the next morning and was loaded down when it did. We added freight and cattle cars to the train. Mother was fortunate enough to get on a passenger car. A Mexican man gave his half of a seat to my mother and four little children. When we arrived in El Paso the government had set up a camp for us in a lumber yard and we really and truly stood in a soup line. Some of the men were permitted to remain in the colonies until all of the women and children were out of the country. Father stayed back and had some rather hairy experiences getting out. Of course these belong to Father’s history.”

(Which he never wrote. But there were rifles involved, a chase on horseback, and at least one rebel killed.)

“We moved from the lumber yard to a house up on a hill near the railroad station. The weather was so hot the water from the pipelines was too hot to drink. When Father reached El Paso we went by train to Utah.”

The Joy of Remembering

Right about here the author bags “history by the year” altogether and just starts cranking out personal history as though the cranking out of personal history were going out of style. Which, by gum, if we have our way here at Backstage Graffiti, it never will. The point is, he was off and running, remembering as though it was playing on a screen, capturing it all to share with relish (or, at our house, mostly with popcorn). Dates are still part of the story after that, but no longer do they drive the story. The story is driven by the sheer joy of remembering and telling, as though President Kimball had never even made it a commandment.

If some of what my dad wrote seems a little on the “cute” side, let it be hastily pointed out that my dad actually was, in the estimation of many, kind of a cute man. It’s altogether correct, good, righteous and of good report and praiseworthy that one’s history should reflect one’s personality. If, for example, one is not considered cute, it would be appropriate rather to write thusly:

“1904–I was born. Parents didn’t much like me. Moved to Bingham Canyon. Put to work in the mines to earn money for the trip to Mexico.

“1905–Didn’t have much to say–didn’t bother with either English or Spanish.

“1906–Write? Are you kidding? I was two years old!

“1912–Shot some rebels. Made fun of Madera.”

Etc., etc., down to “water too hot to drink–drank it anyway.”

If Ernest Hemingway had tried to write like my dad, he’d have bombed. (Saw Hemingway’s house in Key West a couple of weeks ago on a Meridian Tours cruise–boy, did you miss out! Snorkeling off Grand Cayman, stingrays brushing like kittens against our legs. The noisy whirl of color in Jamaica, where shopping is tinged with the zing of combat. J. Golden Kimball preaching the gospel on the ship in “Dante’s Disco,” which was festooned with glass figures of demons and the carpets undulated with orange and yellow flames. Primary songs in the game room, with passing casino refugees wondering what the heck was going on. Wearing a tux and eating six courses nightly with fanTAStic new friends. Sharing the Gospel with Filipino cabin stewards and Muslim waiters from India–who shared a fair amount of gospel with us, come to think of it. Silver, lapis, turquoise and toothless smiles in Cozumel. Climbing waterfalls, soaking sun, getting lost in the luscious pink of Queen Conch shells fresh off the reef. Meet you at the dock!) Enough of Hemingway.

History Gets Personal

This “Personal History by the Year” can be a great springboard for you, even if you don’t fear that mummification and eternal sentencing are imminent.

I awoke to a keen awareness of my mortality at age four, when the notion of my own death inexplicably hit me with such force that I suffered nearly unbearable anxiety for most of that afternoon. My mother tried to comfort me with the observation that our friend, Tom Brown, had gone all through World War II without being killed. This was not effective–I believe it was Brother Brown’s war stories that got me thinking in the first place. At any rate, Tom Brown shortly died quite resoundingly, without the assistance of any Japanese whatever, although I think a few came to his funeral, being members of the ward. Still, I didn’t pick up this “Personal History by the Year” tool until I was about thirty.

I’d already begun keeping a journal and was feeling pretty self-righteous about it, when I realized I didn’t have a “personal history.” So I set aside a portion of my big mostly blank journal book for memories as they might occur to me. Hence:

“1948-1953–My pre-school childhood: I was born, August 20, in Covina, California, a short way east of Los Angeles. Our home was in El Monte, on an acre of ground with a house my parents built in 1936. I spent all my childhood and youth in that house.”

(Wow, if I weren’t writing a Backstage Graffiti column instead, I’d be writing on the rest of that page, which is still blank, how my parents built that house for fifteen hundred dollars, about how I could walk out late in summer and eat a plum, then another kind of plum, then another kind of plum, then a fig, then a guava, then a pomegranate, then an avocado and a persimmon ((except I didn’t like avocados or persimmons)), then pick a lemon the size of an orange, then reach over the fence into the Lebrecht’s yard and swipe some boysenberries, then throw the ball “accidentally” over the Snibby’s fence and swipe some kumquats, then go into the kitchen and have a big glass of milk from my brother’s cow. ((Before I moved away to go to college, all that wonder was replaced by five more houses and sixteen apartments. All the more urgent to write it down.))

I would write about watching the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II on television and feeling like it was probably a pretty big deal.

I would write about desert tortoises straining their necks in the yard, and the laps of joy run by our dog, Buff, whenever he welcomed us home from a trip.

I would write about the stiffness of new jeans with cowboys stapled on the pockets, and the smell of new Keds.

I would write about popcorn and Monday night hash.

I would write down the scary dream I always had about my dad and older brothers firing rifles out into the night from our kitchen bay window at Mexican revolutionaries.

I would write about crouching by the tap that rose in the middle of the back yard and watching the water drip into a little pool at its base, where flakes of fool’s gold mingled with grains of sand that the water made into treasure. I’d watch the bees drawn in through the fringe of long grass around the pool, and I’d think about God and Jesus and how strange and far away they were, and I’d know for sure they were watching me, even though I was only four.

But I’m writing a Backstage Graffiti column.)

You get the idea.


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