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A Memoirist Gets the Last Word

After a conversation with her brother, memoir writer Elisheva Trenk ponders what stories to include in her memoir and how that impacts her family's history.

By Elisheva Trenk

September 21, 2023

“So, did you write about Ima’s last words in your book?” my older brother Donny asked. We were chilling in his living room discussing my new memoir about our late mother, whom we call “Ima” (Hebrew for “mother”). 

“Of course, I wrote about her last words,” I said. “You’ll have to finish my book if you want to know what they were.”

“I already know what they were. I remember that conversation very clearly,” Donny said. 

“Um, I wrote about the last words Ima said to me. Not the last words she said to you.” I said.

The last conversation our mother had with my brother was, in fact, strikingly poignant. Donny had only just found out that he and his wife were expecting a baby, and he shared that news with our mother. “It’s time,” Ima said, in what were likely the last words of her life. Eight months later, my brother and his wife welcomed a baby girl, whom they named “Chaya” after our mother.

As beautiful as this story is, I didn’t include it in my memoir, opting instead to write about the last words my mother said to me (spoiler alert: they’re also strikingly poignant). Because the thing is, every person who has been privileged to know my vivacious, strong-as-iron mother has their own stories to tell, stories that as much as I wish I could write about them, don’t fit within the boundaries of what my memoir has become.

I think of the phrase: “Every time you say YES to something, you say NO to something else.” Every time a writer says YES to a literary element—whether a plot point, a phrase of dialogue, or a specific anecdote—it shapes the story in a way that prevents the inclusion of a different one of those elements. 

As a memoirist, I find this a heavy burden to bear. Trying to do justice to the memory of my mother, while also crafting a story that speaks to my own lived experience, will inevitably discount the experience of someone else. 

The struggle with the “last words” to document in my memoir is not only a question of my mother’s literal last words, but it has a figurative meaning, too. While there are dozens of anecdotes about my mother that since the years of her death have become etched in our collective memories, the stories that are actually written down will be the ones that are most likely to withstand the tests of time. What I choose to feature in my book will one day be the defining truth of my family’s history; in other words, a memoirist really does get the last word.

I hope and pray that the words that ultimately become the final version of my book will honor the truth of our family’s shared experience.

And worst case, if there’s any extra-special story about my mother that I didn’t put in my memoir, well, there’s always the option of sharing it with the world in a blog post. (You’re welcome, Donny.)

Elisheva Trenk

Elisheva Trenk has been published in The Jewish Press and NY Jewish Week. She is currently working on a memoir about her strong and sparkling (and very well-dressed) mother.

Elisheva Trenk has been published in The Jewish Press and NY Jewish Week. She is currently working on a memoir about her strong and sparkling (and very well-dressed) mother.