It’s funny how lost I felt when I finished writing Boot Language. I missed conjuring up the landscape of my past each morning: the scent of red earth and towering Ponderosa pines of the Sierras; the warmth of horse sweat as I removed Oakie’s saddle and blanket after a ride; my parents’ voices in my head as I sat down to type.
To have spent six years writing about the events that populated my childhood was at turns masochistic and liberating. There were worlds to recreate for my reader that included details I had hoped I’d never have to relive – but did, over and over again, with each rewrite. And there were miracles too: acceptance, love, and gratefulness – for my life and the beauty that surrounded me.
With my memoir now in the hands of the publisher, I was recently asked to write another book – one about my unconventional grandmother who looms large in family stories – the ballerina who loved cars and became an ambulance driver, recruited by an elite group of women volunteering in France during WWI.
But I am a memoirist. I work with memory. How do I write about someone I never met? Worse yet, after spending weeks attempting to find anything about the service my grandmother had done, I’d come up empty. Desperate to find clues to support the stories I grew up with, I searched WWI Red Cross records, The National Archives, military volunteer records, Ancestry, the National League for Women’s Service’s Motor Corp Division, and finally, Fort Tappan Boot Camp records. (She had gone there to learn how to repair, take apart and rebuild engines.) I was derailed each time by the lack of records kept on female volunteers. None. It’s as if the women were never there. How could this be?
We’re talking 1917 – a time when women didn’t have the right to vote and were jailed for picketing the White House in their suffrage attempts, but when war was declared, it was women who made munitions, built cars, policed towns, healed the injured, became firefighters, supported families and yes – put their lives in danger on the battlefront.
Is it really possible that nobody bothered to jot down notes to record the service of female volunteers? Or are these records hiding somewhere? Perhaps they were all burned? No matter the answer, I’ll keep at it. I’ve found my passion, and it wakes me up in the wee hours of the morning, compelling me to head to my computer.