Guest Columnist Francine Brevetti: My Pantyhose Confessions

Francine Brevetti mother

Francine Brevetti, a longtime journalist, writes clients’ biographies and conducts workshops teaching people how to write their own. She calls her business Legend Crafter, www.legendcrafter.com. A San Francisco native, she worked as a reporter for newspapers and magazines around the world and is the author of “The Fabulous Fior — over 100 Years in an Italian Kitchen,” the history of America’s oldest Italian restaurant (http://www.fabulousfior.com/book/, available on Amazon.com).  Here she pays tribute to her mother, Tecla Brevetti, formerly Puccetti, who died in 2011 at the age of 99.

On the morning we would bury my mother’s ashes – I had slept badly the night before and awakened  depressed, sure I would lose control of my emotions at her grave – the pantyhose I picked to wear looked unfamiliar and somehow went on too easily.

By the time I met my cousin Linda at her office, the pantyhose were sliding down to my buttocks. I had to hitch them up several times. I actually had to pull up my skirt and rearrange them over my nether parts.

Only then did I realize that they were mamma’s pantyhose. I had taken them when I cleaned out her nightstand the day she died.

We drove to the office of the Italian Cemetery in Colma and found cousins Stanley and Bob waiting for us. Before we walked out to the cemetery, I ducked into the ladies room so I could pull the hose back over my behind.

Italian Cemetery is a lovely place with broad paths, expressive statuary and dignified mausoleums. The sun was shining, a welcome event after several days of cold. The trees that line the paths are sculpted into halos so the sun casts intriguing shadows of the branches onto the ground.

Linda, Stanley, Bob, my dog Lola and I walked towards the lot housing my grandparents’ crypt. The damned hose kept wiggling and slipping, making me extremely uncomfortable.

I then told everyone my little secret, whispering, and they roared with laughter.

“Why don’t you just take them off?” Linda asked.

“I don’t wear panties underneath,” I said.

“Too much information!” someone said.

Every few steps I gripped my skirt and hoisted my hose up under it, staggering all the while like Quasimodo or Frankenstein’s Igor. What could’ve been a solemn occasion – and perhaps should have been – was instead slapstick

My grandparents’ grave was open. We looked down a shaft of some eight feet leading to a flat surface. Underneath that were the caskets of my grandparents and their two infant children, Albertina and Albertino.

Mamma’s ashes lay in a white plastic container about the size of a microwave oven, her name, “Tecla Brevetti,” emblazoned on top.

A worker standing by at the grave descended the ladder and took mamma’s remains down to the floor of the crypt. Stanley and Bob had brought a bouquet of flowers — something I had forgotten to do — and Stanley extracted the one red rose. He had remembered that Tecla’s favorite color was red. He threw the red rose down into the crypt and, luckily enough, it landed right on mother’s box of ashes.

“Tecla is running the show today,” Stanley said.

We all looked at each other and wondered what we should say or do now because I had decided we would have no ritual prepared.

“Should we sing something?” Linda asked.

We sang two lines of the Italian song “Mamma.”

Mamma, la canzone la piu’ bella sei tu/
Sei tu la vita e per la vita non ti lascio mai piu’.

Yes, we sang the son in Italian. Translated, the lyrics mean: “Mamma, the most beautiful song is you/You are life and for life I shall never leave you.”

And that was that.

And we returned to the cemetery office with me still staggering from wearing my mother’s ill-fitting pantyhose.

Later I wondered about the reason behind this little misadventure. Maybe my mother had somehow guided my hand that morning to her pantyhose. Maybe, in the end, she wished for us to bury her with a laugh rather than a sob.

New Year’s Guest Columnist Francine Brevetti: Getting Unstuck For 2012

Francine_brevetti

Francine Brevetti, a longtime journalist, writes clients’ biographies and conducts workshops teaching people how to write their own.She calls herbusiness Legend Crafter, www.legendcrafter.com. A San Francisco native, she worked as a reporter for newspapers and magazines around the world and is the author of “The Fabulous Fior — over 100 Years in an Italian Kitchen,” the history of America’s oldest Italian restaurant (http://www.fabulousfior.com/book/, available on Amazon.com).

Twenty years ago LeeAnn started documenting her very painful life. Her mother beat her every day of her childhood and into adulthood. The woman berated and demeaned LeeAnn without letup. Still LeeAnn kept her journal.

She organized binders of her recollections and other documents about her life chronologically. She crossfiled by topic. But she could never bring herself to write a manuscript about her life story. She got stuck.

Last year she was diagnosed with stage IV breast cancer. She came to one of my six-week workshops on how to write one’s life story. Her diagnosis compelled her to get it down at last. LeeAnn was driven to complete it while she could, for fear that she would never have the chance again.

For most of us, fear keeps us from writing our autobiographies. It freezes us.

So now it’s resolution time. With the turn of every new year we generally reassess what we want to accomplish. Many of my clients feel compelled to get their personal histories down on paper. Maybe they do so as a legacy for their children, one of the greatest gifts anyone can give. Others do so to honor their parents, heal their souls, affirm how they see the world and, in the process, simply get a better perspective of their lives.

But some people, like LeAnn, reach an impasse, either never starting or never finishing. Let’s look at some of the obstacles that stop people from writing their autobiographies. They are paper tigers. If you’ve run into this problem, here’s some advice about how to confront whatever is stopping you.

Margot, in her first session in my workshop wrote a gripping account of her birth during the bombing in the Netherlands in World War II. But she could not persist. Every session after that she made excuses about why she couldn’t write in the intervening week. From comments she let slip during the class, I sensed that she couldn’t face recalling the rest of her life. You have to be ready, of course.

Like Margot, some of us shrink from reliving those horrible times, the times we failed, the times someone left us. But this is exactly our chance to take a step back and see it all from a higher point of view.

For instance, Alfie Adona, now a young mother, lived through a tragic childhood. Her father was poisoned and lived the rest of his 10 years as an invalid. Two years later her mother was the victim of a debilitating traffic accident. Alfie and her sister had to take charge of the family while they were in their early teens. From lack of adult guidance, they lost their house and car.

Their family’s tragedy was covered amply in the local news. This did not mortify Alfie; in fact, it emboldened her to tell her own story. You can see it at www.theSeludostory.com.

If anything is preventing you from writing a memoir, I suggest you join a memoir writing class for guidance and support. Besides the instructor’s guidance,you can find a buddy with whom to share the experience of recollecting and recording.

Another reason people get stuck is for fear of offending the living. In one of our sessions, Theresa asked me how she could write about her mother, who was still living, without offending her. Despite her love for her parent, she felt that recording her mother’s character traits and certain incidents would cause her mother pain and perhaps alienate them from each other.

I told her that if she intended to disseminate this account while her mother was still alive, she should remove or temper the material she thought would offend her.

Another issue is the so-called writers block. To me, it stems from a kind of perfectionism, an inner voice that is self-critical. Some merely mechanical difficulties may make you feel insecure, too: how to structure of your document, uncertainty about grammar, insufficient research and so on.

My advice: if you can talk, you can write. Simply to start writing, even if you’re unsure of your theme or your direction. Keep going for at least 20 minutes with pure stream of consciousness. No judging, no editing. Anything that crops up in your brain is fair game.

From such chaos a theme or structure will eventually emerge. You will read it back and be amazed. Trust me.

My wish for you in 2012: get down the first draft of your life story.

Oh, and by the way, LeeAnn is fine now.

Guest Columnist Francine Brevetti: Spinning Memories Into Gold

Francine Brevetti, a longtime journalist, writes clients’ biographies and conducts workshops teaching people how to write their own. She calls herbusiness Legend Crafter, http://www.legendcrafter.com. A San Francisco native, she worked as a business reporter for the Oakland Tribune from 1998 to 2008. She is the author of “The Fabulous Fior — over 100 Years in an Italian Kitchen,” the history of America’s oldest Italian restaurant, Fior d’Italia (http://www.fabulousfior.com/book/, available on Amazon.com). She has contributed to American, British, Australian and Asian English-language dailies, magazines and trade journals.

Imagine an individual who wants his life story written but wants no one to read it. Such was my first client as a biographer/memoirist.

While I was a business writer for the Oakland Tribune, one of my duties was to write profiles of local business owners. I chose a man who had started his business from scratch 50 years previously and built it into a multimillion-dollar enterprise. He liked my profile of him. Within a few months hired me to write his life story.

Indeed the man had a compelling tale, childhood tragedy and struggle followed by many glorious achievements. And more tragedies.
When we began this project, he did not want it shared with anyone. I signed a nondisclosure agreement. He was also not communicating with his two adult daughters with whom he had a bitter relationship.

We worked together almost weekly for over five years. His life was that large. Every time I thought we had exhausted a subject, he mentioned something that opened up a whole new channel of activity and events I hadn’t known about.

I begged him to let me find a publisher. No dice. On the fifth or sixth year of our collaboration he invited me to his mammoth birthday party. As he laced his arms around their waists, he introduced me to his two daughters.

Over the time that we had worked together, my client became looser, more relaxed, and self-accepting. He found more humor in himself. Was there a connection between our labor and his reconciliation with his daughters? I never dared ask him.

Since I left the Tribune three years ago, I have had more clients coming to me to write their life stories. I write histories of businesses as well. My slogan is, “Turning memories into legends.”
The most common reason people give for writing their autobiography/memoir is to leave a legacy for their descendents and to review their most salient memories. This is so important.
But as my experience with my clients has borne out, the unanticipated benefit is that people heal. It’s not me. It’s the process of being listened to with intense interest but without judgment. Of course it helps if your biographer is a good writer too!

Not all memoirs are tragic. Barbara Clark’s father Sidney Snow, was the founder of the Oakland Zoo. The family home was on zoo grounds. Barbara recalls with delight and vividness her experiences having lions, elephants, tigers and monkeys as her pets when she was a child.
She walked in the kitchen one day with a serpent garlanded around her neck. Her mother immediately ordered her, “Take that thing out of here.”
Memories like that are worth preserving.