Alice Lowe, author of “Lillie’s Legacy” from our Winter 2015 issue, recently revisited Coit Tower, the inspiration behind her piece. Upon visiting, she made a shocking discovery.
Ms. Lowe recounts this experience below.
In early January, just a few weeks after “Lillie’s Legacy” was published in 1966, my husband and I went to San Francisco for a weekend getaway, our reward to ourselves for surviving the holidays. I was eager to revisit Coit Tower, the setting and theme of my essay.
On our first morning we made our usual trek from North Beach up Telegraph Hill, arriving at the tower just before it opened for the day. At 10:00 a.m. a woman I hadn’t seen there previously unlocked the door and came out on the steps. In a sing-song voice, she welcomed the dozen or so of us assembled, adding that she could provide translations in seven languages. Don turned left as we entered; I headed to the right. “I’m going to greet Lillie,” I said, referring to the bust of Lillie Coit that at one time graced the front steps and later was moved to a west-facing window inside.
I turned the corner and stopped short. The space the pedestal had occupied was bare. I wondered where they’d moved it this time, but there was no sign of it on a full circle around the perimeter. I returned to the entrance and asked the woman, “Where’s Lillie?” At her puzzled expression I said, “The statue of Lillie Coit that used to be in the west window.”
“I’ve never seen it,” she said.
She must be new here, I thought. I went back around to ask at the ticket window and was pleased to see Terry, the man who had taken me on the private tour to the hidden murals on my last visit. I re-introduced myself and reminded him of his generous act of a year ago and told him about my essay, gave him the website where he could read it. “You’re in it,” I said.
“So,” I asked, “where’s the bust of Lillie that used to be around the corner?”
Another perplexed look. “We had a display case featuring Lillie, with a photograph, a brief biography and some mementos,” he said. “There was no bust.”
I questioned him repeatedly, as if I would get a more satisfactory response if I kept asking, as if he would say “just kidding” and lead me to the statue. “I saw it when I was here last year,” I said.
“You couldn’t have seen it last year, even if it existed,” he replied, telling me that when they reopened after the last restoration, the pedestal wasn’t put back on display.
I called Don over and asked him what he recalled. His description matched Terry’s. “Why didn’t you say something when you read the draft of my essay?” I asked. He shrugged—he reads my papers, but he doesn’t offer critique or pay attention to details.
I could see it—a three-dimensional Lillie atop a pedestal, an engraved bio underneath—clearly in my mind. Was my memory playing tricks on me? Had I invented it? I was stunned, mystified, dismayed.
When I wrote my essay, I carefully verified all the facts about Lillie, the tower, the murals, the artists. But I had no reason to doubt this tangible monument. If I’d recalled seeing Elvis Presley in one of the murals, I’d have been suspicious, but a tribute to the benefactor of the tower, the irrepressible Lillie Coit? And after repeated visits?
Neuroscience has corroborated what novelists, poets and memoir writers have been saying for centuries. They’ve confirmed the physiological basis of memory and explored the brain activity involved in recalling stored memories, demonstrated that memory may be a result of the act of remembering and as such can be altered with every recall. Memory was the basis for Virginia Woolf’s concept of consciousness and our construction of it. She frequently questioned the accuracy of her memories and articulated her speculations. In memoir sketches she tells about her step-brother clubbing a fish with a broom handle, and immediately follows by asking: “Can I be remembering a fact?”
For centuries memoirists and essayists have issued disclaimers to explain faulty recollections. Rousseau stated in his eighteenth century Confessions that some of his facts might be incorrect, but “I cannot be mistaken about what I felt….” Tobias Wolff prefaced the more recent This Boy’s Life with a similar caveat “…memory has its own story to tell. But I have done my best to make this a truthful story.”
With red-faced apologies to the diligent fact-checking editors of 1966 and to my readers, I plead my innocence by virtue of extenuating circumstances. In my mind, the bust of Lillie Coit welcomes visitors to Coit Tower.
Alice Lowe reads and writes about food and family, Virginia Woolf, and life. Her personal essays have appeared in numerous literary journals, including Permafrost, Upstreet, Hippocampus, Tinge, Switchback, and Prime Number. She was the 2013 national award winner at City Works Journal and winner of a 2011 essay contest at Writing It Real. Her work on Virginia Woolf includes two monographs published by Cecil Woolf Publishers in London. Alice lives in San Diego, California and blogs at www.aliceloweblogs.wordpress.com.