Monday, February 25, 2013

Memoir and memory, part two

Adorable Tommy, free from my jokes.
I remember everything, I remember some things, or maybe I remember nothing. I have glimpses, I have bits of stories, I have impressions. I remember the white strip of light under the closed kitchen door. I remember being told not to touch the dining room curtains because we didn't want to spook the birds at the feeder. I remember "Miss Burns Fills the Bird Feeder," but I do not remember what it meant; it was just a silly thing that Guv said, pretending a lisp.

Those who were there at the time offer corrections. That's not how it happened. That's not why it happened. That was in Louisville, not Duluth. No, it couldn't have been Louisville. It was Duluth. Our back stoop wasn't concrete; it was wood. By golly, it was wood! How did I get that wrong? Mr. Hammer didn't have pear apples, he had peach apples. Pear. Peach. Pear. Peach. The words become meaningless, I forget which side I am arguing, but the memory stubbornly remains.

Mostly, I remember feelings. I remember trying so hard, always, to figure things out. What did this mean? What should I do? What is the right way for me to react?

There was joking at the dinner table, joking I didn't understand. The older kids would say something that was quite obviously not true, and Guv would laugh. Why? Why is it funny to say something that isn't true? Why is that not lying? It's sarcasm, I was told. It's irony.

I wanted to try. I wanted to make people laugh. My mother called for Tommy, and I told Tommy, "Go hide in my closet." And Tommy did.

Trish called and called. She came upstairs. "Have you seen Tommy?" "No." I stifled a giggle. I was being ironic. I was being sarcastic. I couldn't wait for the laughter. She went downstairs, checked the basement.  Pretty soon I heard siblings fanning across the neighborhood, calling, "Tommy! Tommy!"

Tommy tried to emerge from the closet; I shoved him back. "I think I should come out now," he said, his muffled voice sounding worried. "No," I said with great false confidence. "It's a joke." But I was beginning to feel doubt. When was the joke over? When would there be laughter? I didn't understand the endgame.

Trish came back upstairs. "Are you sure you haven't seen Tommy? We can't find him anywhere!"

"No," I said, but this time Tommy came wriggling out from behind the shoes and skirts and boxes of stuff.

Later, sobbing through my punishment, I tried to explain. "It was a joke! It was supposed to be funny!" And no one could tell me to my satisfaction, to any comprehension, why it was funny when Kristin told a lie at dinner but not when I told a lie in the afternoon. It was all the same to me: truth, and untruth. The injustice of it inflamed me, made me cry harder. It wasn't fair! "Life isn't fair," Guv said. He might not have said it then, at that time, but he said it often, and it always made me gnash my teeth. "It should be!"  Shrug. "It isn't."

What was the joke Kristin told? Who came upstairs to soothe me as I wept? I wish I knew. I remember only the delight at playing the joke, slowly supplanted by doubt, and then by frustration at being so completely misunderstood.

I remember the light under the kitchen door. I remember birds in the back yard, pecking at the seeds on the snow. I remember Miss Buhns filling the buhd feedah. I remember standing on the low rung of Mr. Hammer's fence, reaching through the bars and stealing pear apples. Peach apples. Pear apples. I remember my first joke, and it was a disaster.

9 comments:

Eulalia (Lali) Benejam Cobb said...

Exactly. We have no idea what memory is. Except that it makes us who we are.

Far Side of Fifty said...

Your memories are yours and no one elses..nothing will change that:)

Deborah said...

Like you, I remember feelings more than anything.

Lane Mathias said...

This piece made me remember something very similar. That's the power of memoir.

Green Girl in Wisconsin said...

I don't trust my memory, so I admire people who do. Writing memoir strikes me as the most challenging genre.

Bookwoman said...

I agree with Far Side. Who's to say your memories are inaccurate? They are yours - no one else was standing in your shoes when those memories were made. And those feelings you remember may be more important than the technical aspects of the memories they sprang from.

Naperville Now said...

brilliant -- you've captured the child's viewpoint in a world that whirls (mostly incomprehensibly)in and around grownups.

Flea said...

Growing up sucks. Period. There are delightful parts, but growth is painful. My own teenagers are already rewriting their own pasts based on their memories. I'm caught between the memories and the reality, trying to determine what I should and shouldn't correct. Finding it doesn't matter much, since they correct each other. Letting photos and journals and baby books speak for themselves sometimes. *sigh*

Pamela M. Miller said...

You're pretty funny now, though! :)