Noble laureate Doris Lessing wrote her last book, Alfred and Emily, reviewed in The New York Times here, at age 88. She’s now 91 years old.

Apparently she’s been working out the meaning of her parents’ tragic lives all her life. Her father lost a leg in the trenches during World War I. Her mother was a nurse. They tried to find wealth and a refuge from the ghosts of war in Persia and Rhodesia. But they instead became frustrated and bitter. Lessing’s last book, a combination novella and memoir, tries to give them an alternative world without war in which they might have been happier.

I wonder if all of us do this to some extent. We seek the missing leg, we want to restore the wounded hearts. We want to find the missing piece and fill in the hole. If we can do it for our parents, maybe we can do it for ourselves.

Even when we are 88 years old.

Perhaps you can tell that I am about to take my draft materials and photos and sit in the park, ruminating about the lives of my parents. To what extent, and in how many ways, are our lives shaped by our parents, do you think?


Shirley Showalter


  1. Sharon Lippincott on August 17, 2011 at 3:26 pm

    Shucks, why stop with your parents? I’m puzzling out the life of my maternal great-grandmother. I see some threads of personality and behavior going back at least that far on my mother’s side. My dad has some quirks that must be due to his mother, though I don’t have access to information further back on that side. Enjoy the park!

  2. shirleyhs on August 17, 2011 at 4:30 pm

    Ha, good one, Sharon! This is true. And this is why people drag out the family albums when a baby is born–and don’t stop with just the parents. They want to see how the genes have transmuted from one generation to the next. Same is true with personality. Obviously, I didn’t get to the park yet. But I’m on my way!

  3. Lynette Benton on August 17, 2011 at 11:00 pm

    How perceptive, Shirley. I’m hitting my forehead and saying, “Yes, of course, all our memoirs are about our parents!” One of mine is obviously about my parents; the other in more subtle ways. Thank you for yet another thought- provoking post!

    • shirleyhs on August 18, 2011 at 2:37 pm

      You’re most welcome, Lynette. I am lucky enough to be able to talk to my mother as I write my memoir. My father died in 1980, but his best friend is still living in the same retirement community as my mother. This post has shown me the importance of spending time with them!

  4. thomasdewolf on August 18, 2011 at 4:00 am

    This is SO thought-provoking. In addition to our parents are we also working out issues in connection with our children? Siblings? Grandchildren? I believe so. The complex web of intimate relationships… what else is there?

    • shirleyhs on August 18, 2011 at 8:42 pm

      Yes, Tom, memoir writing teaches us how interconnected we truly are. To generations before and after us. But I have a hunch that if we lived with both parents, they influenced us the most directly of anyone. The story of Doris Lessing is really sad in some ways. One would think at her age that she would have forgiven her parents and moved on. Yet without their conflicting personalities and unmet needs, she might never have become a writer.

  5. Rosemary Rawlins on August 18, 2011 at 1:03 pm

    This is a very difficult question to answer. I used to think we were completely shaped by our parents, at least insofar as they model adult behavior for us and set the table, so to speak, for our lives as we see them. They are both frame and picture when we are young, but as we age, the genes they passed on to us win out. Some of us inherit a fighting spirit, some of us inherit a tendency toward despair. As the mother of twin daughters who shared a common experience with their parents, I have watched two girls grow into women distinctly different women in their approach, view, and way of interactring with the world. So now, I think I’ll just stop writing and think on this. It’s a big question.

  6. shirleyhs on August 18, 2011 at 2:50 pm

    It is a big question, Rosemary. And I doubt that we will ever get to the bottom of it. That’s why taking care of my grandson by day and studying my geneology/family history by night is so fascinating. We have so many ways to act upon the world, and yet we are acted upon by invisible forces that shape, but don’t determine, our destinies. It’s a mystery, and one of the best fuels as we look at the blank page, engines revving.

  7. Jess Velanzon on August 20, 2011 at 7:10 pm

    I firmly believe parents and other important adults in one’s life each add a block to the foundation of one’s personality and life. As one grows emotionally, physically, and spiritually these are topped with blocks laid by dear friends, horrible personal trials, and other life experiences. One does not developed in a vacuum. As we age we are influenced and taught by our friends, their parents, teachers, bus drivers, the news, social networking, co-workers, and the wider society. While I appreciate people wondering how life might have been different for parents and family, I try to write my memior-ish essays about what happened and why I and others might have reacted the way we did. I do this recognizing that I write from my perspective. I’m not so interested in how my relatives lives might have been different, but more so in how their life experiences have played a part in who I have become.

    • shirleyhs on August 20, 2011 at 7:41 pm

      Welcome to, Jess! So good to have your voice in the conversation. You have reached what Wordsworth called “the philosophic age.” I plan to write a bit about that in my next post. And right now, I’m going to travel to your site and see what you are up to. Tenneyson’s “Ulysses” came to mind as I read your comment:

      “I am a part of all whom I have met.”

  8. Richard Gilbert on August 20, 2011 at 8:20 pm

    Oh, totally! I think it depends somewhat on the memoir how much is expressed about them. In mine, about my experience as a farmer, my father is a much larger presence, even though my mother was as big or bigger influence on my life. It is hard to get in EVERYTHING! Page limits and all . . .

  9. shirleyhs on August 20, 2011 at 9:34 pm

    Interesting. So theme determines which parent gets top billing. And we can never tell our complete story. Insightful as always, Richard.

  10. iris jones-simantel on August 22, 2011 at 10:19 am

    Yes, this is when we realize we should have asked more questions, – while they were alive! No one left to fill in the blanks for you either.

  11. Shirley on August 22, 2011 at 11:49 am

    Iris, I smiled when I read your description of filling in the blanks. The first draft of my first chapter contains lots of blanks and yellow underlinings where I need to ask my mother more questions and talk to my Uncle Ken and Aunt Jane, who live close by my mother. I feel blessed to be able to do this. People like you are helpful encouragers as you remind those of us who have living parents not to waste the time we have left!

  12. Brenda Bartella Peterson on August 23, 2011 at 12:25 am

    My situation is yet another point of view. I do deal with my parents in the beginning of my memoir because they were, indeed, the beginning. But then much of my memoir is about surviving such parents so the story moves on from them rather quickly.

    Interesting discussion.

    • Shirley on August 23, 2011 at 12:50 am

      In some ways, Brenda, you make the point about influence even more strongly. Thanks for sharing your experience. Survivor tales are very important. So glad you have told yours.

  13. Linda Gartz on August 29, 2011 at 11:05 pm

    This post speaks to me unequivocally. I’ve been poring over thousands of pages of letters and diaries from my parents, and grandparents and after tossing about dozens of possible themes have pretty much settled on the theme of my parents’ relationship–actually even seriously considered their names, Lil and Fred, as the title as Doris Lessing chose to use her parents’ names as title. (Now would I be called a copy cat–even though I thought of it independently?!).
    With their very words (my mom’s since she was a 10 year old girl, my dad starting at 19), I can see how they thought and evolved over time and trace just how the trouble began, and what in their personalities led to conflict. I think the subjects of parents — and consequently relationships — are universal – and if written with skill, will draw in readers. Now I MUST buy that book!

    • shirleyhs on August 29, 2011 at 11:30 pm

      Don’t worry about being a copycat, Linda. I think lots of people have written books with a him-and-her title. Doris Lessing was not the first, and you will not be the last. I hope you do buy the book and that it helps you write. What a treasure you and your family have in so many journals.

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