Thursday, October 27, 2016

some thoughts on memory

Childhood. Idyllic and fraught, it is the place where our ideas about the world and it's inhabitants are set. We learn what relationships look like, what self care looks like, responsibility, kindness, family, friendships. Some learn all of those things from a dark corner, overshadowed by abuse, or neglect, or isolation. But most of us have a mix.

My earliest memories live in a house and neighborhood in Connecticut. Most of these memories, I know, come from photographs. The ice fort my father built me, which included a few separate rooms and a working wooden door, for instance. Playing with our family dog, a birthday party at McDonalds. All lost memories but for the photographs. 

Then there are the moving memories. Vague memories, nebulous and shifting and untrustworthy memories. A neighbor boy chasing my friend Peter and I with a butter knife. I can feel the memory of knowing it wasn't really dangerous but thrilling at the fear and high drama of running away screaming. Standing at the bottom of the stairs, afraid to go up them into the big quiet aloneness of the second floor.  Sitting on the floor in the formal living room, eating my happy meal off of the coffee table. It must have been a special treat, but my mother's quiet and distant presence beside me made it feel lonely and a little scary. I cannot remember her laughing, though I'm sure she did. I cannot remember her crying. Though I'm sure she did that too. 

The one memory of my father comes from a day when I was playing house with the neighbor kids while our parents drank gin and tonics on the back patio. I imagine that their conversation and laughter drifted through hot summer air up the little hill to the edge of the pine woods where we played. I pulled my pants down momentarily in the 'bathroom' which was marked off with sticks and pinecones. As soon as my mother called to me in her sharp voice, I must have known that I was in trouble, and likely felt embarrassed at being sent inside the house with my father. He sat on the stairs with me, and explained that he was to spank me for pulling my pants down. That people ought not pull their pants down in front of the neighbors and their children. That he wasn't going to, as long as I understood not to do it again. I felt shame and relief and gratitude. 

There is one other, and it is strong because it is a story I have told. Here is the story. One day, I was out wandering our cut de sac with my friend peter and two boys who were 'trouble'. We came to a yard with a chain link fence, and within the fence were two dogs. A big dog, and a little dog. The boys started throwing things at them. Sticks, rocks, and pinecones perhaps. The dogs barked and finally, having had enough, the big dog jumped the fence and we scattered. The dog knocked me down, and bit me. In the ass. I was screaming and a neighbor heard and he came out of his house and carried me home. I remember being brought into the little bathroom downstairs and my mother pulling my pants down and bending me over her lap. It felt like the entire neighborhood was standing    there watching and I felt angry and humiliated and scared and also it hurt when she cleaned it and put on the iodine. I know that this is not what happened. Not exactly. It is the story of the story of the story. Each telling just the re telling of the last time I told it.

This realization feels powerful. I realize now that I can re tell the stories any way I choose. The heartbreak of my first hamster's death can be retold with the focus instead on the pair of earrings I got that day. Small dried peas with white daisies painted on. I loved those earrings. And just like that, I am the master of my memories.