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5.3: “The Butler” -- Katelyn Durst

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    “Writing a memoir was a foreign concept to me because I didn’t feel I had a story to tell or was old enough to be writing what in my mind was an ‘autobiography’ style essay.”

    Perhaps you can relate to the sentiment expressed above by former DCCC student Katelyn Durst when she reveals that she didn’t believe she “had a story to tell.” In our experience, we have discovered that Katelyn is not the only one who feels this way; rather, many students do not believe that they have stories worthy of being conveyed through memoirs, nor do they think they have the “natural” ability to be writers and storytellers (See “Storyteller” Activity).

    Although we might not realize it, this type of thinking not only disempowers us as writers, but it also discredits our lived experience. Which experiences are “worthy” of being included in published texts? Who makes this decision? How might we challenge this ideology by representing different perspectives and experiences? Furthermore, what do we typically envision when we think of published authors? Why do we believe that some people are “natural writers”? Who evaluates writing and decides what is considered “good writing?”

    When we doubt our own worthiness to engage in writing or share our experiences through memoir, we are limited by an exclusionary belief about what it means to be a writer. In the text below, Katelyn Durst challenges this ideology through her memoir “The Butler.” Nearly seven years after having her memoir published in DCCC’s peer-reviewed Student Writing Journal, she shares her personal reflection on her writing process, the memoir genre, and the meaning that she creates from this experience.

    Before Reading

    In Durst’s reflection, she says, “Rereading some of these powerful moments in our life enables us to bring forth the original power we felt in those moments.” What do you think this means? Note your ideas below.

    As you read “The Butler”, note the vivid moments that she includes and how she creates those through her writing.


    Reflection on her Experience with Writing

    I was never known for my writing and truthfully while I love to read I never admittedly never explored beyond young adult authors in my day to day reading. It wasn’t until I had entered college I truly began exploring different styles of writing and text and expanded my internal library. Writing a memoir was a foreign concept to me because I didn’t feel I had a story to tell or was old enough to be writing what in my mind was an “autobiography” style essay. Once I started writing however, the memories rushed over me and it was such a refreshing experience. I found myself smiling at the memories and exploring ones beyond those expressed in “The Butler”. I think that is the power behind this genre of writing. It becomes a way to bring these memories to life and hold on to them long after your brain begins to forget. It reminds me of The Notebook by Nicholas Sparks where the main character Allie writes down all her memories in a journal to be read to her when she can no longer remember on her own. It pulls us back into these special moments giving everlasting life to the feelings that come with them. I still get a rush of emotion over myself when I reread my own essay. I hope that after reading this people will feel inspired to document their own special moments whether it be with those they care about or just life defining moments experienced independently. Rereading some of these powerful moments in our lives enables us to bring forth the original power we felt in those moments. We’re able to share in the love all over again. It’s not about hoping to be published and don’t feel like you’re not capable of writing “something like that”. The power of writing is whatever you put into it and because it’s yours it's enough. I’m so glad I have my own story to sit back and look at and remind me of these moments and to take the time to slow down and appreciate the moments I’m currently experiencing so I can cherish them just as much.


    “The Butler”

    The windows are down but there’s no wind blowing through my hair right now, and I can smell the pungent odor of the bay. Mimi would actually have to be doing the speed limit for me to even get a small gust, but I am okay with that because it would probably amplify the smell coming in. Most people would be disgusted with the scent, but for me it means we’ve almost reached Wildwood. I’m used to the extended drive down the beach, but Mimi hates taking highways or main roads, so it takes longer than usual. That means that for the past two hours, I’ve been staring at farmland. It sounds worse than it is. I love the view of the beautiful orchards splattered with color from all the fruits and vegetables growing in the fields.

    While we drive, Mimi tells me stories of when she was younger and talks about how much everything has changed. She says that the road my mom and I would normally take, Route 347, didn’t even exist when my family first bought the house down in Wildwood. She reminisces about when the house was still new—a one story house with red shingle siding and a white roof. The porch has a little gate at the top of the steps to keep all the children inside and away from the street. We’re lucky to have a house with its own driveway that leads right to the backyard. When we finally pull the car in, the first thing I notice is our shed that stores all of our beach supplies. When I was growing up, Mimi and my Aunt Anne always called it a “Hoodle,” and to this day I’m still not sure if it’s a real word. I try to imagine what it would have been like to grow up in the same time period as Mim. Even though that’s difficult to do, these car rides together make it seem more real, and they are some of the best times we have together.

    As I step off the school bus, I’m immediately greeted with the warm embrace and shining face of the sun. I begin every afternoon the same way, by strolling down Saville Ave. and making a right onto 13th. I can already see the charming rose bush that grows along Mimi’s walkway from the top of the street where I stand. I love how on windy days the scent is carried in the wind and overwhelms your senses, even following you into the house. Mimi’s house always smelled like fresh flowers with an underlying smell of the Busch Beer that she drank like water. She kept it well stocked in her 1950s style refrigerator. The entire house was decorated with care to reflect Mim’s warm and easygoing personality and filled with constant reminders of past times.

    As I make my way into the living room, my eyes immediately fall to my favorite part of the house—the china cabinet where all the Hummel dolls are kept. Mimi had a Hummel collection to be rivaled. The cabinet is filled with small children and a family, a woman with a parasol, and my favorite, the butler. He is a handsome figurine with a childlike face and rosy cheeks and stands about ten inches tall. He is dressed as if he is preparing to serve tea to the Queen of England, with a towel draped over his left arm and a bottle of wine in his right. I don’t know why but I’m always drawn to his charm. I could spend a whole afternoon staring at the Hummels and coming up with stories behind what they were doing or thinking and where they might be going. I imagine that the family was preparing to go out for a picnic in the afternoon sun and that my butler was getting them ready to be on their way.

    Sitting on the sofa, I’m cuddled up with Mimi and a blanket while I Love Lucy reruns play on the TV. We spend most afternoons laughing until our bellies ache from Lucy’s crazy antics. Today she’s making, or at least trying to make, a loaf of bread but it quickly overtakes her kitchen. Thankfully, our kitchen never gets as crazy as Lucy’s and soon it’s time to begin cooking dinner. We always start by taking out our ingredients first, so I find myself headed towards the cabinets for the dry items and then to the refrigerator. Tonight is one of my favorites—mashed potatoes. Mimi makes the best mashed potatoes you’ll ever have the fortune to taste. It always starts out with all the typical ingredients: potatoes, milk, butter, and salt and pepper, but Mim adds a special magic to them that brings a whole new meaning to the term “comfort food.” The room is surrounded by a warmth brought from not just the oven but our love of being together. The savory scent of a roast in the oven makes my mouth water, and the toasting bread smells sweet and heavenly. We complement each other, going back and forth arranging food to be prepared, cooked, and plated. I follow Mim’s lead and experience in the kitchen, hoping to be as good of a cook as her one day. When we are in the kitchen together, we’re able to create more than just meals; we create memories.

    When I walk into Mim’s house on Christmas Day, I’m immediately transported into Dickens’ village. I have a bird’s eye view of the beloved town of Tiny Tim and his family, which makes me feel as though I’m soaring through the sky. Small brick houses are decorated for Christmas with tiny wreaths on the doors and candles in the windows. These houses, temporarily rooted on the table, are set up with the miniature characters who are all bundled up in hats and scarfs, as though preparing for a bitter winter. Their choice of clothing makes sense since the town is coated in a layer of glittering fake snow. I’m dressed in my Sunday best and despite knowing what my gift will be, I’m excited to be here celebrating with family. Every year my sisters and I get the same gifts from Mimi: a Christmas card and an American Express gift card. When we were younger, Mim would take the time to think about each of us and our personalities, but she knows that as teenagers, cash is the best gift you can receive. My brother is the exception to this rule. I suppose Mim figures he’s still young enough because every year without fail, Timmy gets this year’s edition of the Hess truck. The room is filled with the sound of laughter and conversation as we each discuss what “Santa” had brought us earlier in the day. We all joke, enjoy each other’s company, and live by the saying, “The present is the best present.” We know that we are fortunate to have each other and this time spent together.

    As I’m trudging down the hallway towards Mimi’s hospital room, I feel like I am walking to the gallows. The walls are whitewashed and I can hear the lights humming. They sound like a swarm of worker bees and look just as harsh. It smells unnaturally clean, like bleach and rubber, and I feel the scent permeate my nose and burn my nostrils just a tinge. The doctor is trying to be comforting but there is no way to be positive in this setting. He tells us that it’s pneumonia and then the prognosis worsens because, upon further testing, they find lung cancer as well. It’s difficult to see Mim looking so small and frail, being dwarfed by the surrounding machinery and large bed. The doctors inform us that regrettably there isn’t much they can do except make her comfortable. However, the comfort comes at a cost; the hospital bills keep growing and eventually we move Mim to a hospice facility.

    It brings back a feeling of home with colorful flowers by the bed and a painting of a park bustling with people, but it’ll never truly be Mim’s. Back at her house, my Uncle Tom begins to sort through her personal items and decides what to save, sell, and trash. Going through her items brings memories of both happy and sad occasions. He found her old engagement ring—an antiqued cushion cut with a halo around it, small but beautiful just like my Mimi. It’s no easy task to sort through someone else’s life, especially without them there to guide you. What would Mim want most? How can you put a price on people’s memories? Do Mim’s items lose their value if she can’t remember the whole stories behind them? What if she isn’t there anymore to cherish them? That August, Mim passed away without ever having seen her home again.

    Uncle Tom came by early in the morning with his arms full of gifts and packages that were wrapped brightly with ribbons cascading down like waterfalls and bows bursting off the boxes. It was our first Christmas without Mim, and he came well stocked and prepared for all his nieces and nephews that he would see that day. I was last to receive my gift and it was easily one of the smaller packages. It came simply wrapped with just a plain silver bag with blue tissue paper sticking up out of the top. It was fairly weighted in my hands. I was surprised and couldn’t imagine what was inside this tiny bag that weighed so much. Removing the tissue paper and dropping it to the ground, I was able to see clearly, even if just for a moment, through the tears that began to flow; inside the bag was my butler. He had been saved and survived the sorting. I was so surprised and elated to have a piece of Mimi with me, and this wasn’t just any memory. It was the most important butler. I had wondered what became of her small townspeople and village, as well as some of her other knick-knacks and beloved decor. The one thing I was most curious about, however, was my butler. Although many of Mim’s Hummels had not made it through the sorting process, my favorite managed to survive, and it was going to be mine. With tears still streaming down my face, I felt my chest lift as if a five-pound weight was removed.

    Losing someone is always difficult, but sometimes even the smallest of gestures can lessen the brute force of the pain. For me, that small gesture was when my uncle gave me back a part of Mimi. I still feel the heaviness and pressure of losing her, but this lessens the blow. Although I’m unable to spend time with her in the same way I used to, having the Hummel doll gives me a new way to feel close to her. I know that the butler will never cook with me or laugh along to I Love Lucy, but having him allows me to go back to when Mim and I could do those things. I believe that through his eyes, Mimi keeps watch over me. Having the butler in my china cabinet gives me a piece of her to hold onto. I often look back to my Hummel and think about all the good times we had together during my afternoons at her house and imagine once more that he’s preparing for an afternoon picnic under a rose bush, but this time, it’s for me and Mimi.

    Katelyn Durst's Bio:

    Katelyn Durst is currently enrolled at Montgomery County Community College after transferring from Delaware County Community College. She is currently a Liberal Arts major engaging in a build-your-own degree program with a focus in criminal justice. After completing her prerequisites at community college Katelyn will be transferring to Temple University to complete both her graduate degree as well as her Doctorate of Law. She aspires to aid those in need through family law services as well as providing legal services to the underserved and underrepresented communities.


    After Reading

    1.Describe the vivid moments that Durst created in her memoir. What effect did they have on you as a reader?

    2. Which strategies did Durst use to create these moments?

    3. Based on what you observed in this text, what do you think the power of the memoir genre might be? (See “Memoir” Activity).

    5.3: “The Butler” -- Katelyn Durst is shared under a CC BY-NC license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by LibreTexts.