Articulating Memory

My mother was born in the forties.  I was her fourth daughter, born a few years into her fourth decade.  But the number four has never seemed particularly important to me before now, just another series of facts creating the pastiche of my generational identity.  The stagnant facts of my life, the answers to getting-to-know-you questions don’t have much bearing on the life I remember.  I don’t recall the year of my birth, or the political climate at the time.  I don’t know what songs were most popular, or what fashions were en vogue.  I don’t remember the facts a biographer would find interesting.

I remember clowns and cacti.  My grandmother collected them.  Her apartment was a menagerie of porcelain dolls with painted faces and desert plants. Resilient things surviving on little.  Most of the clowns were crying, even jest can be melancholic.  My grandmother grew up in the Great Depression.  She was one third of the first set of triplets born in Iowa. I ran through her home, through piles of plastic canvas crafts, weaving between clowns and cacti in search of her wooden rocking chair.  Every time I traversed this path, my body became covered in the spiked needles from the cacti.  I was laid out on the kitchen table, yellow laminate with a leaf insert for holiday parties.  It was like attending my own wake, staring up at the ceiling, the light humming its brightness into the room.  My aunts, one never learned to drive, the other never learned to turn her hearing aid on, put Scotch tape on my legs and arms.  The sticky strips yanked away the cacti embedded in my skin.  All the while, I strained toward the rocking chair.

I was five when my grandmother died in the Walter Reed army hospital.  My mother says she felt the moment the life left her mother’s body.  Her father was a Comanche, dead long before my birth. He refused to live on a reservation, but I imagine some reserve of native knowledge was passed along to my mother.  How else could she perceive her mother’s death before the nurses in the room?  As I watched the uniformed men and women lower the flag outside the hospital, fold it into a triangle, I thought I must have a mystic for a mother. My grandmother willed her rocking chair to me. My father broke it in a fit of anger years later. But the soothing, oceanic motion of the chair, the wooden rods and rails wrapping around me in a steady rhythm lives in my memory as my closest encounter with divinity.

What I remember are the lines on my mother’s face.  Her skin was (is) soft.  The wrinkles around her eyes and lips softened when she read me stories at night.  She always smelled like drugstore face cream, clean but unpresumptuous.  I was a deeply frightened child.  My memories of life outside my mother’s family are denoted by anxiety and embarrassment.  I much preferred to curl next to my mother and listen to her read me stories of adventures than to seek my own adventures. The outdoors were dangerous where we lived.  Children were often kidnapped, or maybe it just seemed the way on the evening news. My sister would talk to anyone, anywhere.  I wouldn’t come out from under my mother’s broomstick skirts.  The world scared me.

In the early 90s, the race-charged politics on television- a black man charged with killing his wife, the trial set against the backdrop of the Rodney King riots.  My sister and I were the only white girls in our classes.  We rode a bus out of our gated machine-gun guarded military base home to a private school in Prince George’s County.  It had heavy chains on the doors, padlocks bigger than my hands.  Now, I wonder about the fire hazard- we all would have burned- but then it was the most effective way to keep the drug dealers, high school gang members and custody battling parents out of our school.  At the end of the day, we were bussed home, to our gated and guarded white neighborhood. The people in the world were dangerous. I stayed inside trying to tunnel through my closet. There was something happier waiting for me on the other side, but I never could make a hole bigger than a thumbtack.

My sister went outdoors, and often came home bearing bloody playground battle scars.  I spent my days sitting under the kitchen table, listening to my mother shuffle papers, pay bills, balance the checkbook.  She constantly worried about money.  My father felt entitled to the money he earned by fighting wars- never felt any attachment to his wife and children. My mother worked three jobs and took night classes and had the unfortunate tendency to treat her children like tiny therapists. I sat at her feet while she wrote school papers, fretting about finances.  I was obsessively concerned about bank accounts.

What I remember, always, is the cold.  The blizzard that piled three feet of snow in our backyard, our basset hound up being scooped up and tossed into its soft banks, then crashing back inside, collapsing sheets of snow in with her. When I pressed my palm to a dusk-frozen window, an imprint of fingers seeped onto the glass. The warmth and security I hoped to find inside don’t register in my catalog of memories.  What I remember are the momentary flashes of crisp autumn air, damp foggy mornings, ice crystals clinging to my tights.  When I am living in it, I detest the cold.  I hate the aching stiffness of my joints, fingers and toes like blocks of ice, my nails a perpetual purple.  But the shock and pain and discomfort of the cold live in my memory as a pleasant reminder of my miraculous existence. To be a sentient being is an unfathomable thing. To possess the capacity to feel discomfort is itself a joy. Even my small self could recognize that. Or maybe I was just looking for a stable presence in my life, even then.

I remember flashes.  Incomplete memories splash out across the canvas of my past life. There are so many empty spaces, unfilled gaps in space and time. There are parts of the narrative that I willfully erase, forcefully excise because to acknowledge them, to label those parts of my life for what they were is unbearable.  Every so often I try to find those moments, to bring them back, to prove to myself that I did not emerge fully formed in college. But every attempt (especially this one, perhaps) results in some uncomfortable rambling that feels at once pretentious and rudimentary, self-indulgent and sweeping in its generalizations.


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