Where’s Lillie?

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.

What We Can Learn About Memoir from a Dog

An interesting memoir can come from anywhere and anyone. To back this up I direct you to my current favorite example of memoir: “Memoirs of an Owned Dog” a song by the duo now known as the Milk Carton Kids. The song is sung from perspective of a dog and delivers the funny and endearing tale of man’s best friend in a highlight reel of memoir tropes.The ordinary dog of the song proves there is room within the structure of memoir for humor, creativity, and profundity. I love a good memoir, and I love this song, the following lyrical analysis explains why.

 

The first lines:

“the food was as I like it… cold, wet & in that wonderful tin can shape
I had it marked in a paw print on the dog door the day that I finally planned my escape”

Like any good memoir the scene is set with solid concrete specific detail, and the beginnings of some conflict or action are alluded to.

Next:

“the milkman, he tried
you can bet I wanted to survive but the truck it just came far too fast
So I write on these scraps, my remembrances past, so you don’t blame yourself that I’ve died”

The inciting action is recounted and the impetus for committing of the memoir to paper is revealed.

After the chorus:

“I had dreams of walking the world on my own
four on the floor, every night all alone
I was ready to work for the scruff on my neck
yearning to find something of my own to protect”

The idealism of youth is established with great dramatic irony as the audience is already aware of the impending doom.

Later:

“my bark, then, was surely bigger than my bite
chewing the cud could’ve been my biggest dog fight
and you know how they say we only hear certain things that you say
well, it never mattered much to me but for the will of the way”

Insecurities and shortcomings are revealed through pensive musings on the activities of the everyday.

Then the chorus again:

“they put horses out to pasture
and the birds come home to roost
ain’t nothin’ for a puppy but the backyard on the loose
now I know my job was to lie idly beside
the way the sun retreats for the moon”

Universal themes introduced earlier in the chorus are repeated now to relate to the author’s personal story with poignant tugging at the heart strings.

Next:

“now I loosen this collar for a dog bone bow tie
to go up and meet the big dog in the sky
i’ll tell him when I get there I was spoiled in your place with the hopes that my spirit is honored by your grace”

Loose ends begin to resolve as the fate of the story is accepted. Special time is given to be thankful for the truly important things, and keep the mood hopeful.

Then:

“so after you read this memoir one day
or after you hear my lonesome song play
don’t you trouble your mind, this old hound’s doin’ fine
you know, goodbyes are just words like a clock is to time”

Wrapping the story up is typically sad, and requires words of assurance for the audience. Also included are a few final words of profound wisdom – something to grow on and ponder.

Lastly:

“so sorry I’m not with you
so sorry I can’t be
please know I was the best friend this old mutt could be
if you remember that spot where my favorite tree grows I hung up my leash on a branch, now it’s yours”

The bitter-sweet acknowledgements and epilogue tie everything up in an emotionally satisfying manner.

 

Click the link to see and hear some witty pre-song banter and a Simon Garfunkel-esque performance of the tear jerking “Memoirs of an Owned Dog.” http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3_0fnP-Mb38

— Clay Reuter