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.

Thoughts on Research from our Authors: Miya Pleines and “These Orbits, Crossing.”

Lost in the Woods with Research

The essay, by its very nature, is a strange, rambly, unpredictable sort of thing. Often times, you start off going in one direction and by the middle of page two, you look up only to find you’ve made two left turns, one right, and now you’re no longer anywhere near the place were you began. It’s similar to taking a walk in the woods, promising yourself, “This time, I won’t stray too far from the path,” only to turn around hours later to find that exact promise has been broken. So, you spend the next few hours searching for a break in the foliage, or even a clearing for you to sit down and rest, all the while cursing yourself for being so daft but also marveling at the new sights all around you. It’s almost as if your feet disregarded common sense in favor of discovering something new. The essay has a tendency to be like that, as well. Often, the story you set out to tell seems to have set out to tell its own story, as well, leaving you with the difficult task of trying to figure out a way to make the both of you happy. Actually, maybe essays are more like getting lost inside a maze where the walls are constantly shifting, providing new discoveries at every turn, and for me at least, the research process is a lot like that as well.

The research for These Orbits, Crossing has been going on for quite some time. It started back when I was an undergrad just beginning to delve into the history of the Japanese internment camps. I traveled to Manzanar when I was twenty-one to stand on the same soil my grandfather stood on almost seventy years earlier, and I tried to figure out what that meant, and to some extent, am still trying to figure out. Since that summer, I have spent countless hours researching Manzanar and the internment. I have followed interesting pieces of information down numerous different trails until, eventually, I have found myself reading articles that have absolutely nothing and absolutely everything to do with the camps. Through my research, I’ve realized that everything is all impossibly connected to the point where we can go from one single man’s story about life spent in an internment camp, all the way to talking about the universe.

It’s possible this all started when I was a little girl sitting at the long row of mismatched tables in my grandparents’ basement, listening to my family exchange stories about their childhood while I sat quietly eating apple pie and listening. I heard about the hydrogen balloons, the model airplanes, the cornfields and the hands held in the air as a reminder, and I never forgot.

One could even say this began the day I went through my grandmother’s bookshelves and found my grandfather’s copy of Model Glider Design with his name scribbled inside the front cover. I snuck it into my purse without asking, and took it home to read. I read about wing design and lift and gravity and I thought about my grandfather, years ago, doing the exact same thing for very different reasons. I studied those pages for links into my grandfather’s past and I took notes and made diagrams and followed my research wherever it led me. The walls of the maze were continually shifting, and I shifted along with them until, eventually, I sat down and began to write.

My point, I suppose, is that the research for this piece has been constantly ongoing. I have been following it and trying to wrangle it for a very long time, and even though this piece is finished, I am still following it looking for more directions, more discoveries, more connections to be made. I have no process other than to follow the research, the ideas, the essays until eventually, I come to a clearing where all of us can rest and converse together.

— Miya Pleines

Thoughts on Research from Our Authors: Donna Steiner

We asked some of the authors that we have published to reflect on research in their nonfiction work. Donna Steiner wrote the essay “Studying the Trees” published in our second issue. What follows are some of her thoughts on the research that she conducted for her essay.

Some of the things I researched for “Studying the Trees” include the facts and figures about “visible light;” the names of our local birds; and a few words I already knew the meanings of.  I do the latter in the interest of precision.  I have a deep desire to be as accurate and specific as possible, and that often means a relatively pleasurable hunt for the right words and the right sounds.

In the case of the birds listed on page 74, for example, I think the names matter for several reasons.  One, the words are wonderful in themselves.  Martins, loons, curlews, grackles, vireos – how could I resist the sonic qualities alone?  But also, precision enhances imagery.  I don’t need to show every bird, because the names themselves each evoke a distinct image.  The reader can therefore visualize a scarlet tanager or a mourning dove or a cedar waxwing. Precision becomes a kind of shorthand.  And I believe that shorthand can be lushly evocative in terms of what the reader hears and sees and, hopefully, in terms of what they feel.