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Troubled face_for retracing steps article

Be sure to check out this fantastic guest post by Tony Held!

Writing a memoir about a past trauma you endured can be very therapeutic, enabling you to put your past into perspective and (hopefully) heal old wounds. Unfortunately, trauma can fuzz your memory about certain details. This in turn hampers your ability to “show, not tell” while writing your memoir. There is a solution to this, however: retracing your steps.

The following examples are derived from a past trauma of my own. Back when my last name was “Krebes” instead of “Held”, my narcissistic bully of a father got us evicted from our rented home in Minnetonka, Minnesota and proceeded to take us on an insane odyssey which haunts me to this very day.

The Duluth Depot Billboard and the Pine City A&W

Interstate 35 is the freeway which takes you to Duluth, the gateway to the North Shore of Lake Superior. My family traveled north on this freeway on Memorial Day weekend, 2001, after we were evicted from our home, commencing a journey into homelessness that saw us hop from hotel to hotel until we wound up sleeping in our Chevrolet Suburban until my abusive father abandoned his tormented brood and ran away to Florida in January of 2002.

“Remember Duluth. Visit the depot” a yellow billboard adorned with an artistic rendering of Duluth Union Depot proclaims. I remember my mother saying something like “Look Tony, the Duluth depot,” as we passed it while on our way north, but my memory quickly blurred as to where it was located along I-35. I thought we passed it south of Forest Lake, but an August 2015 day trip to the North Shore revealed its true location to be north of Rush City.

Now I can write: North of Rush City, my mom said something like “Look Tony, the Duluth depot,” as we passed a colorful billboard which said “Remember Duluth. Visit the depot.” The depot! How I loved that place when I first descended the steps into the Lake Superior train museum when I was a kid. I looked forward to seeing that museum again. It was a bright light on my otherwise dark horizon, like a lighthouse on a storm swept shore. 

A and W menu Pine City

                   A&W Pine City menu

I also remember we had lunch at the A&W located on Main Street in Pine City. My subsequent memories of that restaurant kept reshaping the A&W’s layout, however. I kept thinking the drive-in section of this T-shaped A&W was parallel to Main Street. I discovered during my day trip that the A&W’s drive-in section actually juts out from the dining room portion of the restaurant into the A&W’s parking lot.

Thanks to refreshing my memory about this place, I can write: We exited I-35 at Pine City in search of a place to have lunch. We settled on the T-shaped A&W located on Main Street. We opted to pull into the drive-in section which jutted off the indoor dining room into the parking lot. I desperately hoped the car hop would not make small talk with us. I was so down I did not want anyone to pay attention to me or my family. I felt branded, set apart by having to travel homeless whilst others had homes they could look forward to returning to when the weekend was over.

Dulth Superior and Richard B Memorial Bridge

Duluth Superior and Richard G. Memorial Bridge

The Visitor’s Center on the bluff and the Duluth Union Depot entrance

When we reached Duluth, we pulled in to a visitor’s center overlooking Duluth/Superior, one I remembered from my first trip to Duluth in the 1980s. On my first visit, it was a lovely day, but rain and fog blanketed obscured the view the day we stopped there in 2001.

My memory was not ultimately refreshed as to this rest stop’s location, however, for the good reason I was extremely distressed over being forced out of a house I had lived in for thirteen years. I thus kept thinking as I drove north this August that this rest area was located off the northbound lanes of I-35, but as I neared Duluth, I discovered that place – known as the Thompson Hill Travel Information Center – was located on the west side of I-35, which meant I needed to exit the freeway, cross it, and take a side street to the visitor center’s entrance.

Now that I have accurately fixed the center’s proper location in my memory, I can write: The first time we stopped by the Thompson Hill Travel Information Center, it was a glorious sunny day, and brother and I posed for a photo with Duluth Harbor as a backdrop while we were at the center. But on that gloomy Friday, Duluth/Superior was being soaked by a light rain and covered in fog which had rolled in off Lake Superior. A karmic reminder, perhaps, that the trip we were on now was no day trip or vacation but rather a pause for breath before insanity reached new heights in our lives.

 Duluth Union Station 

                 Duluth Union Station

When our stay in Two Harbors, Minnesota, ended a few days after we reached the North Shore, we headed for home amidst a heavy dysfunctional haze caused by a fight my father had picked with my mother the night before. Nevertheless, I was allowed to pay a short visit to a place dear to my heart: Duluth Union Station. Now home to the St. Louis County Heritage & Arts Center, this grand old railway station houses a cornucopia of trains thanks to the Lake Superior Railway Museum, one I hungered to visit again no matter what.

I remembered that we parked in a parking garage located across a street next the depot and I walked over to it from there. My August day trip confirmed that this was indeed the case, but I discovered a slipped cog in my memory when I tried to enter the station via the depot’s main doors: a sign affixed to them informed me to go in the “main entrance.” Main entrance? Then I remembered that the depot was part of an arts center now, which meant a new main entrance was added to the depot’s west side. My memory was not off as to one detail, however: a staircase over which the words “To Trains” were affixed in brass letters.

To trains Duluth Union Depot

            To Trains, Duluth Union Depot

I thus can write: We drove to Duluth amidst an uncomfortable silence, one me, my mother, my brother, and our two dogs had grown all too accustomed to thanks to my father’s abusive ways. It hung over us thicker than a Lake Superior fog as we parked in a parking garage located near Duluth Union Depot. I got out of our Suburban, crossed the street, headed through the main entrance of the St. Louis County Arts & Heritage Center, paid my admission fee at the main desk, and headed for the staircase which said “To Trains” with a flicker of childlike enthusiasm in my soul. My life may have descended into madness, but I would not be denied a visit to this cornucopia of trains I fondly remembered from my childhood.

The Wanamingto Citgo and The Lonsdale Casey’s General Store

We now switch from northern Minnesota to the southern part of the state for my next two examples.

By August of 2001 we were still homeless and dysfunctionality was off the charts. We passed through Lonsdale several times during this phase. I recall we stopped at a Casey’s General Store located in Lonsdale during one of these visits, where I had a Twix and a Mountain Dew Code Red. For the longest time, I thought this Casey’s was located on the east side of Lonsdale off of County Road 19. I discovered in June of 2015 that my memory was off by a wide mark. This Casey’s was indeed located off of County 19, but it was located in downtown Londsdale, not east of it.

I now can write: I remember how we stopped at the Casey’s General Store in Lonsdale sometime that August. I remember having a Mountain Dew Code Red and a Twix, my first junk food in a couple days thanks to my father’s increasingly deteriorating financial position.

We wound up staying at the Best Western Fifth Avenue Motel in Rochester from late August of 2001 to early November of that year, when my father bailed on the bill and took his tortured brood back to the Twin Cities. I vividly remember how depressed I was on that gray, gloomy day, but my memory slopped a cog as to the locale of one of the places we stopped at, a Cenex gas station. My memory placed it on the west side of Highway 52 in Zumbrota only to discover during my June 2015 sojourn across old battlefields of my father’s petty civil war against his family that this Cenex was actually located off of Highway 60 in Wanamingo, five miles west of Zumbrota.

And so I can write: We stopped in Wanamingo so we could use the restrooms at a Citgo station. I normally would have looked at the racks of candy and other snacks with an eye to purchasing something, but I was in no mood for sweets, even if we were not cash poor.

Writing a memoir of a past trauma will always be hard due to how you will experience a flood of emotions and flashbacks whenever you set foot in a place you were harmed in, but by making note of the details of your surroundings, you will refresh your memory and make your memoirs that more accurate as to the details.

You might even plant a crop of good memories thanks to your visit too.

Richard “Tony” Held is an author. He is also the proprietor of Held Editing Services. He changed his name to that of his mother’s family after his father dragged his mother through a bitter, vindictive divorce.  

Photos by the author

© 2015 by Tony Held, all rights reserved