Writing

Recollections of a Hamburger is a biography/autobiography. Chronicling the first few years of my life was important to me as well as to my children, but the writing of it had to be done using remembrances of family, neighbors, and friends. Storytelling in my family was a natural, daily occurrence. Stories were repeated many times, including those surrounding my birth. So at times I thought I was actually present at my birth (which I was, of course!). Flooded with memories, this feeling of having been at events that I couldn’t have been occurred many times. It’s a surreal feeling, not altogether pleasant and quite confusing, until reality kicks in. It’s inevitable that you realize you weren’t there, but the story becomes part of your memory and, therefore, part of the book.

In high school, writing was not my favorite activity and I dreaded writing under a time constraint, in or out of class. I always waited until the last minute to write an essay although my mind was busy formulating what I wanted to say long before I wrote the first word. While I didn’t like writing essays, I loved putting events, names, dates, and any inconsequential details into my diaries. At least I thought they were inconsequential. Little did I know that when I was ready to write the book, those details helped trigger other memories.

In college, I wrote essays in English, German, and French, concentrating on the languages above all. I had a way with words, just as my brother and sister did. The humorous side of me began to emerge in my writing, mostly in letters to family and friends. To be thought of as “funny” was encouraging, and I began to write bits and pieces on bits of paper which I saved. I took writing classes, and attended writers’ retreats.

Since my arrival in the States, I had kept up a steady correspondence with my father (my mother died only eleven days after I left Germany). I transferred his letters and mine to a computer, translated them into English, and gave copies to my daughters. Unfortunately, I didn’t save all of my letters, but judging from my father’s responses, I must have asked him many questions about the period I eventually wrote about. The information he gave me became part of the book.

By the end of the 1980s, I mentioned in a letter to former teaching colleagues in Michigan that “I am thinking about writing my autobiography and calling it Recollections of a Hamburger. Would it sell? Maybe McDonald’s would be interested.” And I began to add memoir bits to my growing file of notes. As soon as an event from the past, a person, a building, games I used to play, items of clothing I wore, popped into my head, I quickly jotted it down, because memory is fleeting, and I was getting older, and how was I going to recall the details anyway? The process of collecting was painstakingly slow and continued for many years. I thought about the book all the time, so much so that I had to get away from it when the memories became overwhelming and I had to take a nap, or dig around in a flower bed. Living in 1940s Germany and 1990s America simultaneously seemed impossible to reconcile. It was like time travel when I was stuck in the forties and the deprivation of those years wouldn’t let me move forward. The tears I shed over the challenges my family faced during and after World War II stopped me cold.

When I began writing the book, the chronology lent itself to using a child’s voice in the first part; an irreverent adolescent voice in the second part; and an emerging mature voice beginning in the pages after my return from England. For the most part I avoided inserting myself as an adult. Readers have told me that the young voices released some of their own memories. I find that satisfying.

Writing the book has raised questions in my own mind about memories––why are some so fleeting; why are some so difficult to retrieve; why do some come to the surface and then leave forever, never to be retrieved again? How real are we as characters in the stories we are told? Although stories and our perception may change over the years, they still tell us who we were then, and why we are who we are today.