Sunday, July 31, 2011

Childhood memories

The trouble with memory is that it’s always in flux. You want to hear a story from my childhood? I’m sure anything I could tell would be an invention. The events of the past are like clay ready for the potter’s wheel: what was a shapeless mass of sights, sounds, smells, tastes, and feelings becomes, in the hands of my imagination, elaborate pottery glazed in clear, vibrant colors. What I distill from the past, bottled as ‘memories,’ are my subjective understanding and narration of a messy stream of information filtered by my imperfect perceptions and my perpetual re-readings of events. There is nothing factual about what I remember.

Describing a memory, then, is remarkably more like fiction. But isn’t that what any kind of writing really is? No scientific report tells the whole story of the complex system it purports to explain. No news article can be entirely ‘objective’ for the same reason: journalists must choose to frame the information they gather in a way their audience will recognize and understand – always choosing to exclude some details and include others. Is fiction maybe more honest than what we call ‘non-fiction’? The first proudly admits its own incompleteness, its own biases, its own fabrications, where the second rather disingenuously claims to be comprehensive and impartial.

In any case, my childhood memories rarely resurface as complete stories but rather as glimpses, flashes of light and color, snatches of conversations, brief scenes completely devoid of any real context. For example, I very distinctly remember – or think I do – sitting at my friend Elise’s kitchen table and waiting rather impatiently for my hot chocolate to cool. It was winter in Salt Lake and we had perhaps gone sledding at the hill by the elementary school or ice skating in the makeshift rink behind her home, or perhaps I had just walked across the street to say hello. As we sat at that table, shape and color of which escape me now, Elise unwrapped Starburst after Starburst – tropical flavors, I think – and dropped them into her mug. I can’t remember what was said, or who else was present, or what happened after, or even what hot chocolate-flavored Starbursts tasted like.

I also remember lying on Elise’s bed – canopy? trundle? four-poster? – and telling her my great-grandfather had just died. That meant making the trip from Salt Lake down to Orem, which at five seems like an eternity. It must have been spring because I remember the hearing the birds chirping outside her window, and late afternoon because her bedroom window faced west and the sun illuminated the gauzy curtains I can only vaguely make out now. She was telling me that three – or was it two? – of her grandparents had died. Looking back it almost sounds like bragging.

Then I remember the funeral, or at least I remember sitting on the front row of the chapel next to my Aunt Emily, who must have only been seventeen at the time. Emily was crying and kept fishing tissues out of her bag, some of which she divided into thirds and let me braid. For me, the funeral was, braiding aside, a rather boring affair. I had barely known my great-grandfather, and visiting him and my Great-grandma Sugar Pie (whose name is another story altogether) was always a little frightening. At five, I was a bit unnerved by their loose, wrinkled skin and their age spots and their rheumy eyes. Death wasn’t quite real for me. I hadn’t watched Great-grandpa Vern die – one day he was there and the next he wasn’t. Nothing was as real for me as the April sunshine or the sound of my black patent leather shoes clack-clacking down the sidewalk in front of the chapel.

The next funeral I attended was my grandfather’s. This time things were different. This man I knew. I had grown up visiting him and my grandmother in Topeka. My grandfather smoked from his boyhood and their home had that stale, acrid, heavy smell of years of cigarettes. When we returned home after a weekend there we carried it in our hair, our clothes, on our skin. Still, I loved him dearly. I was his first grandchild and the daughter of his only child, my father, and he had a special affection for me. He taught me to use his big computer, his adding machine. He let me type up and print what I called newspapers, but which were really pages of letters and symbols and numbers:


and scolded me when I pressed the keys too hard. He flipped coins with me and let me keep the ones I called right – “Heads!” or “Tails!” Every Christmas he bought a tree so tall it had to be hung from their high ceiling, and he looked the other way when I snatched the grape candy canes that decorated the branches within my reach. It was my grandfather who first told me about the new books he had just discovered about a boy wizard who attended a school for magic.

I can’t remember when he first got sick, but I do remember visiting him in the hospital after a surgery. I remember him moving aside his blue- and white-checked gown to show me the staples in his bloated belly. I remember my father taking his illustrated medical textbooks out to explain what a pancreas was, and that grandpa’s had tumors. I remember him growing weaker and weaker. I remember the last time I saw him, his eyes sunken, his skin yellow, his belly frighteningly “distended,” as my father said. I remember being scared to talk to him, feeling shy around this man I only half-recognized. Where was the man who chuckled at all my silly jokes, his toothpick bouncing up and down between his lips? Where was the man who taught me to play Solitaire? Why did he stare so intently at me? It was the first time I saw death, but at ten I still couldn’t look it in the eyes, hiding my face in the crook of my father’s arm instead.

I remember very little of his funeral, except that my cousin Nelson played my song, Amazing Grace, on the bagpipes, and that my father wept.

I suppose I don’t know if anything I’ve written here is true in the sense of historical accuracy. Perhaps someone else – Elise, Emily, my father – remembers these scenes differently. But these are my memories, fragmented and disconnected though they may seem, and they live on with me.


  1. you dismissed this as rather thrown together, but it still read well to me. Your diction is assertive and the descriptions are fleshed out. Do you find that you like your writing better upon revisiting it than you do just after "completion?"

  2. Actually no - the more removed I feel from my writing, and the more time has past since I finished a piece, the more I find wrong with it. Rereading this today I'm less satisfied than I was when I posted it yesterday. But thanks for the positive words.

  3. I enjoyed reading this Grace. Somebody else told me the same things about "invented" memories. I wholeheartedly disagreed with the idea ( and unfortunately, I let her know it). While I still feel that most of my memories are pretty accurate, I still found this an interesting read.

  4. Grace! I loved this, especially the part about Grandpa Stephenson. Since I never really knew him it was awesome just to hear your memories. Good job. I feel the same way about memories. Sometimes I can't tell if something happened or if it was just a particularly vivid dream I had, at the time or since.