One of my favorite passages in Willing Spirits is about Libby and Agatha Reynolds, two sisters who owned an egg store in Cedar Creek, just outside Fayetteville, North Carolina where Gwen was born. The Egg sisters, as everyone in town calls them, are loosely based on the two sisters who owned an egg store in the neighborhood where I grew up in Washington Heights, an area at the very tip of Manhattan. I grew up in an era when there was a different store for nearly everything: an umbrella store, a button store, a pocketbook store, a stocking store, and even an egg store. I never knew the name of the two sisters who owned the egg store. In my mostly German Jewish neighborhood, the women in the egg store were always referred to as, das Ei Schwestern, or the Egg Sisters. The name suited them because they were, as I describe them in Willing Spirits, “…short and shaped exactly like the product they handled. . .” I can still see them. The neighborhood children always stopped in the store if there was a need to refill their water guns, or to have a scrape washed off and covered with a Band-Aid, and listen to a few words cautionary words from the sisters. Occasionally, we might secure a coveted empty egg box that could be used to store treasures: a piece of wampum found in Fort Tryon Park, a collection of shells, rocks, or even buttons. We were inventive children. The alleyways of our apartment buildings, the slopes and caves of Fort Tryon Park, and the streets were our backyards. And the Egg Sisters were a reliable presence.
What intrigues me most about the Egg Sisters now is how aware I was then that these women were unusual. I was intrigued by them. I found it soothing to be in their presence. I loved to be ministered to by them if I had a scraped knee. The warm soapy water they used to clean my superficial wounds was not nearly as comforting as the synchronization of their movements. I could not have been more than seven or eight, but I knew there was something I should mindful of when I was with them. I watched them, listened to their low voices, and allowed myself to be carried along. I wonder now if it was possible that I knew I would have use for these women later on. This brings me to my question: Exactly when does a writer begin to store the really important memories?
There are images I can recall so vividly that it almost takes my breath away. My hand in my father’s as I ask him about the Cuban Missile Crisis. I am licking a Carvel cone and walking with my father along Nagle Avenue. I ask my father (a man who escaped Germany just in time to avoid capture by the Nazis and fought in two different armies) if he thinks there will be another war. My hand is almost invisible in his. He smiles down at me and says, “Of course. There will always be wars.” I am devastated. I want him to lie, but I know I will always remember the moment, and I do.
I feel fairly certain that I began to hoard feelings and thoughts and sensations very early. I seemed to have some sense that it would all be useful later on. I never collected anything concrete, not comics, or Ginny dolls, or gum wrappers or even stuffed animals. I collected ideas. I used old marble notebooks and created stories, mostly silly tales to accompany pictures I cut out of Look, a magazine we proudly subscribed to and kept on the coffee table. I did not know how to write a book, but I knew I would.This all brings to mind, the proverbial question a writer is inevitably asked: Is your work autobiographical? Well, in answer to that question, yes, of course. All the feelings are autobiographical. I know how it feels to be hurt, to be betrayed, to be loved, to be angry and to be happy. I know what great sex is like, and I know how bad sex can make you feel. I have experienced the best and the worst of marriage. I know what it is like to long for something you cannot have, to lose a beloved friend, to feel utter loneliness. I understand the intensity of a mother’s love for her child. I know how it hurts to lose a parent, two parents in fact. And I know the power of friendship between women. I love my friends. The women in my life sustain me. So, yes, of course every feeling is autobiographical, but every experience is not. The feelings give substance to the story, shape the way I want to organize and deliver my memories. The feelings, and each and every one of them is real, bring to mind the age old conundrum: What came first, the story or the das Ei Schwestern? It is a good question, indeed.
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