Low-flying Planes and Memory

My mother died on December 15, 2000. That’s a long time ago. So why do I find myself thinking of her more during this bizarre period of isolation and fear? We were never close. I never referred to her as my best friend, as so many do in their Mother’s Day Facebook posts. In fact, for much of her life, we weren’t friends at all.

A Memory Echoing Across Time

I think, actually, these sudden recollections of my mother have to do not with the pandemic, but with 9/11—another domestic tragedy I have lived through and been touched by. More than one commentator has likened the emotions this pandemic provokes to the fear and sorrow that gripped the nation after 9/11. For me, that summons up one of the first things I remember thinking that day: Thank God Mom isn’t alive to witness this.

You see, my mother had a mortal fear of planes crashing out of the sky and into her home. To my knowledge, she’d never witnessed a plane crash. Yet I vividly recall the terror that leapt into her eyes whenever she heard the growl and vibration of engines too loud overhead, too close to be a regular commercial flight. They might have been wayward crop dusters. More likely spreaders of DDT, or just flying hobbyists buzzing the neighborhood. Funny, that of all the sayings she used to spout from her study of German in college, the one I remember most clearly is Achten Sie auf niedrig fliegende Flugzeuge. Watch out for low-flying airplanes.

Why low-flying planes?

Could it have been the fact that World War II coincided with her impressionable preteen and teenage years? Or was her fear conjured in her overactive imagination, fed by consuming more books than anyone I’ve ever known? I never really knew. But the fear lived inside her, ready to leap out when provoked and take over this person I knew as my mother.

Once, on Sanibel Island in Florida, a plane spreading insecticide flew only a couple of hundred feet over the canal our rented vacation condo faced. I can still see my mother flinging herself out of the apartment, running for her life, yelling at me to take cover. My stomach clenched in sympathy. I might have started crying, too.

To this day, my heart beats a little faster whenever I hear the planes circling to land at the local airstrip, or the jets from the nearby air base roar overhead, too high to see. And always, I think of my mother.

Coaching Memoir

Memory is a strange thing. I’ve been thinking a lot about that as I coach memoir clients. I’ve come to understand that there’s not much difference between memoir and fiction. Memoir is a story with a point and a purpose culled from lived experience. Fiction is a story with a point and a purpose culled from the imagination—and informed by lived experience.

How much of memory is interpretation, after all? The process of selecting those memories that tell a story is not all that different from inventing a What if? and selecting imagined events to tie together into a cohesive narrative.

So far in my writing life, I’ve been content to confine myself to exploring history and my own imagination to inspire my books. But perhaps someday I’ll want to examine my memories more closely, see if there’s any meaning to ferret out of my own lived experience.

Until then, I’ll keep worrying about planes falling out of the sky. A strange legacy of memory from a complicated woman who never knew me as a writer.

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