A couple weeks ago my students wrapped up reading The House on Mango Street by Sandra Cisneros. One of the culminating assignments we gave them required that they plan and write a vignette in a style similar to what Cisneros does in her book about a memory they have from their lives. I thought this was a pretty cool assignment, though a lot of students expressed having difficulty coming up with a memory that they wanted to write about and also actually planning the memory out.
One of the most important parts of teaching students how to do new things is effectively modeling those things for them (it’s really hard to do a thing you’ve never done before, especially if you’ve never seen it done). It was a fun exercise; since I did it for class I’ve tried using the same pre-writing strategy to put together a piece of flash fiction I recently wrote (if you want to read it, you’ll just have to head over to the Escape Artist Forums and register an account; I can’t tell you which one is mine, but it’s somewhere in the batch of submissions for Cast of Wonders‘s flash fiction contest that’s going on for much of this month).
I think my sample turned out pretty well, so I figured I’d save it and share it here. As you might have gathered from the title of this post, it’s a sad memory, but it’s a vivid one for me (I worried for a few days after I showed it to my classes that I unduly influenced them all to write about the passing of parents and grandparents).
I wake early, ready to go to school. Backpack full, shoes tied, breakfast eaten. In the kitchen Mom sits me down at the table before we leave.
“Your Nana’s having surgery today,” she says.
I don’t really understand, so I nod and say, “Okay.”
After school I stay at my cousin’s house for a while. My homework is to design a secret code that I can use to write messages that only I can read. I stay at my cousin’s house longer than normal, and she and I talk about what might be going on. We discuss Nana’s surgery, and we wonder if something has gone wrong.
As the sun sets my aunt takes us over to my Nana’s house down the street. When we get there, all the grown ups are sitting on the front porch, and they’re really quiet. My mom sits by the door. Her eyes are wet.
“Nana’s gone to live with Jesus,” she says.
I know dying means going to sleep and not waking up. She doesn’t have to sugarcoat it. My eyes bunch up, start leaking. There’s a stone weight in my stomach that drags me down into Mom’s lap, and I cry. It feels like I cry for hours, but it’s probably only a few minutes. At some point she moves me into the living room, settles me in my Nana’s recliner. Balled up, trying to shut out the world, I feel the rough fabric against my arms and smell her cinnamon candies in my snotty nose.
Ragged, worn, like I’m part of the fabric of the chair, I feel like I could sleep forever.
At the viewing I can’t help being fascinated with the casket. It’s white with pink roses, and my Nana lies in it. She doesn’t look right, too dark in the white suit Mom’s picked out for her. I can’t help crying every time I come close to see her. Mom keeps ushering me away, and I keep going back. The last time, I work up the courage to touch her hands. They feel like parchment, and I worry I might break them.
I don’t remember any of the funeral. At the graveside, Mom collects a rose from the casket–she’ll do this at every funeral that follows this one–and together we walk back to the car. She opens the door for me to get in, and I turn and see that they’ve started lowering the casket into the ground. I point this out, and my mother grabs and turns me away, burying my face in her coat.
“Don’t look!” she says.