Tuesday, July 16, 2013
I started thinking about this several months ago: I can't remember a single birthday party from my childhood.
I quizzed my siblings about it and they had a few memories, but most of them were things like I remember when my eyelashes caught on fire from the candles, I remember that Mr. Pennisi was missing one year (a friend who was murdered), I remember friends being mean to me. They also remembered good things, certain people who were at the parties, and that my grandmother made the cake.
From trying to remember my birthday parties, I've been really concentrating on what else I don't remember, but then of course I can't think of those things because I don't remember them! But when I put together a list of what I do remember, it looks like this:
I remember when my grandmother pointed to a freckle on my foot and I was embarrassed.
I remember when I fell off my bike and slid down the hill on the side of my face. I remember going to school the next day, being in the cafeteria and very self-conscious of the bandage on my face.
I remember eating black construction paper in kindergarten (I was a paper addict) and the teacher jerking me off the swing, making me swish out my mouth with milk and how she called my mother to come get me.
I remember being afraid to go to the school store in first grade to buy a pencil and how my school birthday party got snowed out.
I remember being very homesick at my grandparents house and my aunt getting mad at me for it.
I remember eating cheese doodles and drawing with crayons and eating a crayon instead of a cheese doodle.
I remember the dark room where my sister and I went to Bible School at Carolina Beach.
I remember crawling on the floor looking for a needle that my mother dropped and it sticking in my wrist. I remember my mother trying to pull it out (only the thread was visible) and how I sensed her panic.
I remember standing on a stool and it tipping over. The leg hit me in the stomach and knocked the breath out of me. My grandfather said, "I told you not to do that."
In short, a lot of the things I remember about being a very small kid aren't the great birthday parties that my mother planned for days or the raft of toys under the Christmas tree.
I do remember a lot of freedom, especially when we were at my grandparents' house at the beach. We could walk just about anywhere, even as young children. I remember my grandfather rocking me and singing "Red River Valley." I remember my aunt listening to records. I remember looking up to my older cousins. I remember watching the peacock's tail turn colors. But I had to pull those out of my memory, and the others came easily.
I'm not a psychiatrist, so I don't know if we tend to remember the negative and shelve the positive. How about you? How do your good memories tally up against the bad ones?
Monday, July 1, 2013
Three years ago today my father died. Last year this piece was published in Prime Decimal, an online journal.
One: The doorbell rings. Your feet hurt a little as you walk from your bedroom to the stairwell and down the top stair. It’s Friday, it has been a busy week, and though the weekends are lonely, on Saturday you will put on your favorite gray corduroy pants and the red flannel shirt we gave you for Father’s Day, watch ball games and talk to some of us on the phone. On Sunday you’ll put on a suit, go to church and sing in the choir.
Two: The second stair, like the first, is fairly easy even though you are in a hurry to get the door, to pay the man who worked in the yard today. The money you pay him is so appreciated he always says, and though he does only a so-so job it is worth it because you are helping him. So many people you’ve helped through the years: giving donations, tutoring, baking pound cakes, sending get well cards.
Three: Three times a month you deliver meals to shut-ins. You, eighty-eight years old, get in your car and knock on the doors of those too old or too tired or too sick to fix food for themselves. You feel so fortunate as you walk down their stairs and sidewalks to drive to the house you’ve lived in for sixty years. “Three,” you think as you count your way downstairs.
Four: On the fourth stair you falter, grab the rail with a veined and arthritic hand. You re-balance and move on. Four times this month you have gone to funerals of friends; you know how fragile life is and how “like that” it can all be over.
Five: On the wall beside the steps is a picture of our mom, dead now these twenty-five years, with whom you had the five of us. Five children with children of our own, lives of our own, we don’t need you that much anymore and you try not to need us either. You keep the bad news from us: questionable doctors’ reports, high blood sugar, low energy, knees and back that ache as you move to the sixth stair.
Six: The knocking at the door has urgency now that you can detect even without your hearing aids in. We talk too loud when you wear them, too quietly when you don’t, make fun of you by saying, “Huh?” to each other when we think you can’t hear us. “One minute, I’m coming,” you call out as you move one stair closer to the bottom.
Seven: Your mother just died seven years ago. Maybe you’re only now beginning to feel free, an adult without a parent to answer to. You could live to be as old as she was—a hundred and one. You move carefully to the next stair.
Eight: Eight seconds it has taken you to get to this stair, eight seconds that your life is still productive; it’s still a time when you've never missed a Rotary meeting and go to work every day and sit in your chair in your house, yes, lonely but gratefully self-sufficient, so glad to be alive. And then for some reason you will never understand, you've miscounted the stairs—was it when you stumbled on the fourth one?—and your foot hits only air and you’re falling in a twist, landing heavily, awkwardly on the worn brown carpet. The pain is engulfing you so you can’t think and groans issue from somewhere inside you and the knocking at the door is more insistent; “Mr. Lewis? Mr. Lewis?” is muffled in your ears, but you can’t reach the doorknob or even the deadbolt key, and somewhere behind the pain, as frightening as what has happened to your body, is the certainty that you have counted your last stair.