In class today, we read the description of the town of Maycomb in Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird. As we imagine that beautiful Southern drawl, we hear how “ladies bathed before noon, after their three-o’clock naps, and by nightfall were like soft teacakes with frostings of sweat and sweet talcum.”
That one detail comparing ladies to teacakes sets a mood for this little town. It’s a comparison worth making.
The ladies like soft teacakes seem out of place. It’s a tiny detail, amid the “red slop” of rainy streets and “bony mules” that flick flies away. There’s even a dog suffering in the background. I don’t want to live in a town like this.
But then, the writer introduces the lovely and delicate and transforms sweat to frosting and talcum. Already, I know something marvelous will happen in the mind of this narrator.
She’s going to reconstruct a new reality for me.
As we work on our own personal memoir settings, we think deeply about tiny details that change how we understand our pasts. We are the characters, looking back over our lifetimes, and weaving threads of meaning into our experiences. Was there a detail that I couldn’t see until this moment that offers a new reality? Is there a truth I might apply that I only see now? Back then, I only felt the heat and slop. But now?
Can I notice something different–one detail–that might turn sweat to frosting?