the role of memory in writing fiction

The writing is going. Note the lack of qualifier, because every superstitious Italian cell in my body is telling me to shut up now.

So something very different.

Once in a while when I’m procrastinating, I will go online and look at real estate in Chicago. In the neighborhood where I grew up, which is sometimes called the St. Ben’s neighborhood. Because St. Benedict Parish is in the middle of it. That’s where I went to school, first grade to twelfth. I do this out of perverse need to see what I can’t have, and also because it’s just amazing. The neighborhoods around Ben’s are mostly made up of brick two flats, with an occasion full fledged stand alone house, or an apartment building. I remember when I was eighteen, a friend of my father’s bought one of the two flats for 34K.

In the eighties the neighborhood teetered on the edge of real trouble for a while, and then it got sucked into the gentrification process. So now I browse real estate listings of those old two flats that have been renovated into one family homes, and go for someplace between $700K and over a million. These are nice neighborhoods, mind you. Lots of old trees and little postage stamp grass yards front and back, a real sense of community. That’s what you get for your million.

So while I was looking at houses, a map of the neighborhood came up and it seemed off to me. I had to study it for a few minutes before I realized what was wrong.

A whole hospital had gone missing.

Martha Washington Hospital used to sit on about five acres at the corner of Irving Park Road and Western. It was a small hospital by any standards. My great uncle Ben was on the board of directors, and he got me a job there. I worked full time as a nursing assistant for almost a year, and then part time when I was an undergrad.

My memories of that period of my life are pretty vivid, but I almost never talk about them. Or I never used to talk about them. But ever since I read about the hospital being torn down (to make way for senior housing), images keep popping into my head and bits of stories and memories. I think this has to do with the fact that I’ve finally admitted to myself that the Chicago I remember, the one I grew up in and lived in until I moved away for good at 25 — doesn’t exist anymore. Pieces of it are still there. Ann Sather’s, and Wrigley Field, and Lutz’s Cafe. But so much is gone. Martha Washington is just one example. The Maxwell Street Market, Riverview, these are institutions that are long gone, but are still very much present in my internal picture of the city.

Now see, I went and got all maudlin. Obviously I need to go back to work.

9 Replies to “the role of memory in writing fiction”

  1. I didn’t know you were a Chicago native. I was born in Joliet, and married a guy who was born and lived in the Ravenswood area all his life. We lived there until about 3 years ago; raised three kids (the oldest is going to be 23) there before moving out to the Northwest suburbs. The gentrification is going on all over. Edgewater Hospital is gone now too. Ravenswood Hospital used to have a school of nursing, but it’s gone. In fact, I think Ravenswood Hospital itself is shuttered. The old Comiskey Park has been replaced by US Cellular Field (puh-leez).

  2. So you admit you were responsible for tearing down Martha Washington, Beth? Shame. Shame on you.

    Wanda — if Ravenswood is really shuttered, that’s a huge blow to my mental geography of Chicago. I had my tonsils out there. That’s where they took me when I broke my nose on the icy playground on Thursday, Janury 26, 1967. And how do I know the date? Because it was the day the blizzard of the century started, and by the time we got out of the hospital the snow was so deep and falling so heavily that it took us an hour to get home, a trip that normally took ten minutes.

    Ravenswood Hospital gone. Doesn’t seem possible.

  3. Ha ha.

    Actually, I dunno about Ravenswood Hospital, even though I live in Ravenswood. There are too many hospitals around this area to keep em all straight, but is that the one at Damen and Wilson-ish? If so, it’s not shuttered, so far as I know. Although, I DO think maybe they no longer have an ER.

  4. I write about a specific place (Washington DC) and although I never state the time (early 90s), that’s my District, not this new thing that’s been overtaken by a baseball field and a gutted Navy Yard club-scene and Shaw gentrified with million-dollar homes. Not that the new isn’t good (in some ways) but that some of what’s been lost is the quintessential DC that was small-town, know-the-first-names, staunchly-working class neighborhoods.

    Sometimes I wonder if I should put something in the acknowledgments that says, “this may not be the DC you know in these aughts, but it’s the one I remember and love.”


  5. I have never been to Chicago but my grandparents grew up there and my dad and aunt were born there. I love listening to all of their stories about growing up in the small communities inside the city. I have always dreamed of going back and seeing the places of their youth but I am afraid now that they might not exist.

  6. I am even saddened by the slip-slide of the suburbs I grew up on (like a commune? not.). Surely a sign of aging – and one most people have to endure – the ‘wasn’t that the place where…’ and ‘have you seen the old…’ conversations with siblings or (if you’re lucky) childhood friends. Makes me want to tell my daughters to treasure the cracks in the sidewalk out front. I believe they would roll their eyes if they weren’t so young.

  7. I’m afraid this is about aging. Right now I’m reminded (uncomfortably) of the Aunts sitting out back of the big house in Newburgh in one of their endless arguments about what happened in what house in what year. We (the cousins) were not very understanding about their nostalgia. But now I get it.

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