Storying Sheffield

Narrative and Memory

Polly is a student currently taking the Storying Sheffield course. In this reflective and moving piece she remembers her father, Ivan, and discusses narrative and memory.

  These photos were taken mid 1970s on the bog in Co- Mayo in Ireland. My father, Ivan, is the one wearing the hat in both photos. This journal entry is going to be about memory and how ‘locating touchstones’ as Patricia Hampl notes [in her essay ‘Memory and Imagination’] can be deeply satisfying. For me, a ‘touchstone’ can simultaneously trigger positive and negative memories, both of which are of value. The ‘touchstone’ I am going to tell about is my father’s cap. One I still have. He is wearing it in the photo on the right. In fact, he was never without a cap. The memories which are meshed together in this cap are ones of living and laughter and despair and loss. As I said, my father was never without a hat when he was alive and actually died with his cap on. In Creative Writing last year, we were asked to write a poem about an object that had value to us. The following poem is the one I wrote. I think it sums up quite well, the power that a ‘touchstone’ has to transport us back in time, to a particular moment in time. Simultaneously placing us there, back in that moment, but yet providing an objectivity that only comes with looking back which I think Caroline Pearce does so well in her article [‘World Interrupted: An Autoethnographic Exploration into the Rupture of Self and Family Narratives Following the Onset of Chronic Illness and the Death of a Mother’].


A week rarely goes by, where I don’t touch his cap,
Blue bottle corduroy. Lines like a ploughed field.
The smell of him lingers on it still.
A rare summer heat weave comes to mind.
The west coast of Ireland surrounds me.
Sea whispering in the ether.
A whiff of parched dry earth coupled with the pungent smell of turf fills the kitchen.
Sunburnt legs drenched in lotion running through a field.
Ivan and his brothers, moulding, tying, stacking bale on bale of hay.
Relentless production line battling the searing heat.
My face is soaked in sweat as I climb to the top of my bale stack.
I can feel the hay scratching my legs, my face burning in the heat.
Aunts materialise.
Endless flasks of tea to quench the thirst.
Long gone chatting and laughter fills the kitchen.
I put the kettle on and reach for a cup.
Smiling as I recall daddy’s arms reaching out to grab me.
Laughter echoes through the years as I’m flung into the blueness.
Arms outstretched grabbing at the sun.
The sky, straw and sea merging as I fall back into his tanned sun rinsed arms.
His eyes channelling the blueness of the sky
The sky, heat, his arms, his eyes are captured in this cap.
Michael comes into the kitchen back from school.
Eyes, blue so blue laugh at me.
I glance at the cap, and back to Michael.
I take it and place the cap where it now belongs.

Looking back at this poem now, in light of last week’s reading, leads me to question, why this was the memory that I chose to write about. A memory filled with warmth and happiness. As I said earlier, my father and his hat were linked throughout his life. He died wearing his cap. Why didn’t I write about this memory. I had never heard about autoethnography prior to reading Caroline Pearce’s account of her mother’s illness. I had to look it up. Her article resonated with me on a deeply personal level. My father died from Motor Neurone Disease. A disgusting and cruel disease. He went from being a giant strapping man to half of his body weight in a year. All the time though, as with Caroline Pearce’s mother, he refused to become this ‘other’. He fought against his illness. This article for the first time, made me step outside my own pain, and look at how he rallied against the loss of identity enforced on him by this illness. Patricia Hampl speaks about the flood of images bursting forth, pictures long buried in your head flickering back to life. Memories of my father came back; in his garage, exercising his disintegrating muscles on his homemade set of ropes and wood in a vain attempt to keep this disease at bay; continuing to drive, using a tiny wooden block to operate the key when he lost his dexterity; always always fighting against the inevitable onslaught of the disease. Her article has changed my perspective of his final months. It sounds slightly ‘new agey’ to say it was healing. For the first time, I have been able to remember these months not only as a source of pain, which they always will be, but also as a testament to his endurance, his determination to hold on to his identity. I cherish his bravery and his hope. When I look at that cap now, it holds so much more for me. Last week the reading touched on the constantly evolving essence of self narrative. I see that now. In a week, my story has shifted, and I’m pleased about that.