Why Memoirs Have Disclaimers

Pre-ramble (that’s my ramble before the piece):  It’s super hot outside and so this piece takes you back to February of 1979, a very cold February.  It’s about memories and yes, that makes me pretty damn old this year.

I have said it before and I will say it again, my life growing up seemed uneventful to the point of most days being quite blurred one into the next.  I envy people I know who can write about their childhoods with vivid sensory descriptions because I don’t seem to have that.  I seem to be missing the scents and textures and sounds.  I have an odd catalog of snapshots in my brain that represent various personal family events and some local events.   Snapshots, not video snippets or Insta-story like memories, simple two-dimensional often black and white snapshot memories.

There were very few deaths that I recall growing up of members of our immediate or extended family or even family friends.  When they did occur, as children, we were not included in the funeral home showings or the funerals themselves.  Death was something that occurred on television and in the papers to other people often in sensationalized manners.  In a small town there is very little that is newsworthy going on outside of politics and sports.

I do, though, have an odd memory of a small child going missing just two and a half miles from where we lived.  I wonder if this was the beginning of my obsession with missing persons.  How do people just disappear?  How is that possible? I recently decided to look up this missing child, who I do recall was found deceased days later victim of an accidental death in a large container used for storage of newspapers bound for the recycling plant.  The container was located at a church less than a hundred yards from the child’s home. That was the extent of my memory, vivid primarily in its tragic theme, and only a bit of this has turned out to be correct now that I have done some research.

I find it interesting how much I remembered and how much was incorrect and colored with assumption over time.  Most of our memories are distorted from retelling these memories, even in our heads, over and over.  Facts get distorted, if we even had all of them to begin with.  That’s why memoirs are not called biographies.  They are filled with perception and enhancement.

I assumed this event took place when I was fairly young, 10 or 11.  My initial search parameters were based on the age that I assumed I was, plus or minus a few years, from 1965 to 1975.  That covers me from age 4 to 14.  I found nothing.  How was that possible? This was a missing child.  That was hugely newsworthy and nothing came up?  I decided to extend the upper parameter to 1980.  Not until I expanded my date range search in newspapers.com did I locate the first of a series of articles on the disappearance.  It took place my senior year in high school: 1979.  Truth be told, I was an immature seventeen as a senior, so maybe my thinking I was younger makes sense?  (To this day I like to present myself as 10 years younger than I am.)

That wasn’t the only glaring error in my memory.

The child wasn’t six or seven as I had implanted I my brain but middle school age: 14.  I was older than I had recollected and so it does not surprise that so were the missing.  Bigger error though was that it was not just one boy but two eighth graders who had gone missing.  Both students at the middle school I had gone to just four years before.  That makes the mystery of a disappearance all the more baffling to me as it did to their parents and the authorities at the time.

One person disappears, there are a host of different scenarios that the brain can play out for you in wonderment.  But two people, two boys, how can two boys disappear together?  Were they taken?  Did they run away?  If one had gotten hurt, the other could surely have helped him or gone for help.  If someone was trying to kidnap two boys, surely one would get free and run for help.

They went missing on a cold Sunday afternoon in February and the disappearance was front page news on Monday morning.  One of their parents had tried to take them to a movie at the nearby Rolling Acres Mall but it was sold out.  They returned home and went out together to look for beer cans for their collections.  They never returned.

They would be found right away, alive – that was the hope.  But snow overnight had covered their tracks in the snow.  They were front page on Tuesday and on Wednesday. Tips had not panned out.  Neither helicopter nor ground searches had come up with anything.  A tracking dog had followed their scent from the home of one of the boys a short distance away to a car wash where they had found beer cans for their collection previously.  My younger brother had collected beer cans around that time, too.

The dog stopped near a large container (the size of a semitruck or rail car) where people would stop and drop off bags and bundles of newspapers.  All homes got at least one if not two major daily papers and the smaller weekly papers in those days.  Papers would accumulate and burning them had become frowned upon. We saved ours in grocery store paper bags and would drop them off in this same container that was parked near the church.  It was a church fundraiser.  Not our church, but it didn’t matter. People were not always mindful about stacking their drop-offs neatly.  Some would but then others would just pitch their papers in from the open end, creating a slippery, sliding mass.  The doors of the container were always open.  I remember looking inside once.  It seemed awfully dark, too dark for me to want to brave entering.

The search dog stopped near the windowless container but did not go inside.  People later said they looked inside but saw nothing. Everyone seemed confident there was nothing inside but newspapers.

Anytime a child goes missing, minds wander off to abduction, molestation and worse.  Again, started the inevitable cautions to children of all ages to be more aware, more careful.  Parents who could hug their children no doubt felt somewhat relieved and maybe a little guilty because of it.  It was so cold at night in February in Ohio.  So cold.

On Wednesday the newspaper container was picked up, placed on a trailer and driven away into the city where the containers were emptied out.  Again, my recollection failed me.  I assumed it was still there at the spot near their home when the boys were found.  That is what I had in my snapshot of the memory. It seems interesting to me that it was even allowed to have been removed from a location so close to the target sight of the disappearance.

The bodies of the two boys were discovered among the contents of the container at the recycle plant after having spent the three and a half days so close to home.  The parents continued to feel foul play was involved.  It must have been, right?  But those that saw the bodies said that there was no appearance of foul play.  And the coroner’s report a month later would concur.  There were only signs that the boys had tried to free themselves from the crush of newspapers that may have smothered them or at the very least held them trapped until the cold temperatures took them.

Now that I found the clippings, have seen their faces and those of their parents in the grainy newspaper photos and have read the full details that are available, I have more of the story.  It makes clearer the memory in a way and yet now it is as though I have two different recollections running parallel to one and other in my mind.  I have my own recollection and the newspaper retelling. I am not sure I did myself any good by clearing up the details to be honest.

It does make me wonder about and perhaps take greater care when writing about my own personal memories of home and family.  They are my perceptions, my view from where I sat or stood.  My angle may not have been the best angle.  I know from asking my brothers about specific memories that we recall them very differently.  And most of them can’t be googled.  I process my memories through my writing in the hopes that I can at the very least achieve a sense of understanding of them and growth from them.

Post-ramble (that’s a bit after the piece):  Take memoirs with a grain.  Don’t label them lies or sensationalized, though some are.  Just as we do with anything we read, learn from it what you can and leave the rest.

Unbreakable

I’ve come to the conclusion that it isn’t at all that I am missing memories.  It is just that everyday growing up was much the same as every other day.  Every month the same as every other month.  Every year…you get where I am going with this.

For example, every meal we ate as a family ended with the table being cleared, plates scraped into a bowl for the dog, whatever dog was present at the time – my father gave them all the same name – Gypsy. Hot soapy water prepared and the dishes washed by hand by my mother and dried and put away by me into the cupboards across the room.  Let’s say we ignore breakfast and count lunch and dinner – two meals a day, seven days a week, 52 weeks a year for twenty years – That’s roughly 14,560 times we stood at that old ceramic sink and washed and dried dishes together, my mother and me. I don’t even want to figure out how many times I crossed that room to put away dishes.  It was a mundane task, performed repeatedly.  It blurs in the mind.  Laughter, tears, happiness, fear – that’s what makes one monotonous event stand out from the others in the fog of decades.  We weren’t exactly an emotional family.

I do remember the day the Corel dinner plate broke.  It was subtle, silent break lurking beneath the sudsy dishwater in the plastic dishpan in the sink.  My mother reached in and very quickly drew back her hand. Blood was already spreading from the slice through the calloused skin on her finger. It dripped back into the water coloring the soap bubbles.

“What happened?” I asked grabbing a towel to wrap her finger in.

“I don’t know.  Something bit me,” she said in disbelief.  How would a piranha have gotten into the dishwater?  I wondered but knew better than to make a joke.

I spilled the water from the dishpan slowly into the basin of the old ceramic sink. The dishes and silverware inside rose up as the tide retreated.  I thought perhaps one of the sharp knives we’d used for cutting the vegetables for dinner might have gotten her.  None appeared in the jumble. Then I saw something out of place.  Large and small white pieces of a dinner plate that had shattered at the bottom of the dishpan.

It wasn’t a deep cut.  The bleeding stopped quickly.  She supervised as I sorted out the spoons, forks, knives and other remnants of the meal we just ate from the harsh-edged pieces of the plate.  Like the forensic buffs that we were, we arranged the pieces on a towel on the counter and examined them.  It was splintered into a group of shards spiraling out from the center of the plate that used to be: Unbreakable.  That’s why we bought them, they were unbreakable.  Each broken piece tapered down to a fine point and looked worthy of a role as murder weapon in any domestic violence plot on television.

“Bandaid.”  My mother repeated.  I had been too deep in my examination of the pieces to have heard her first request.  “And Neosporin, I know,”  I responded turning for the first aid in the cupboard across the room.  Neosporin and a Bandaid were as important in our medicine cabinet as duct tape was in the tool box.

“I’ll finish the dishes,” I said.   I put everything back into the dishpan and cleared any additional broken pieces out of the basin.  Hot water was soon running and bubbling up.

“Be careful,”  she warned.

I had an odd desire to save the broken pieces.  For what?  I loved a good jigsaw puzzle.  It was kind of like that.  I was curious to see if we had all the pieces.  Curious to see if I could put it back together in a way that it wouldn’t be noticed.  It was a break in our routine.  It was broken and I always had a need to fix.  My mother swept them into a trash can as I was considering the possibilities.  There would be no fixing.

She was considering other possibilities as she shook the towel out over the trash can. “If one broke, any of them could break.”   Dinner plates, desert plates, cereal bowls, tea cups….one break and her trust was broken for the entire remainder of the set.  I nodded in agreement as I rinsed and placed each item in its usual spot in the drainer to the left of the sink.

It is the breaks I remember – the disruptions to the monotony.  Different types of glass break differently, causing different injuries.  It is the same with family.

The dish that broke that day had clean cracks that opened from a particular point of some stress.  A cut from them was a neat slice, not ragged, and would heal with little to no scar, especially if the area was cleaned and the Neosporin had been applied quickly enough.   There would be little memory of it.

Some cuts, from dull edges tear the skin more than slice it, creating a ragged edge to the wound.  First aid will do what it can.  It will heal, but it will be a lasting visual reminder.

Some glass creates small crumbs, deceivingly rounded looking but with sharp facets that can get ground into your skin.  Too small to be rinsed away or extracted.  Later they rise to the surface one by one to continually remind you of the pain that caused them initially.   Those memories are hard to escape from.

Most of the breaks in our family cut you like that, like sand when you skinned your knee but much worse.  They are small pieces burrowed deep into me, that I cannot forget because there is too much emotion attached.  I long for the ones I don’t have cluttering my mind.  There would be a peacefulness to their day to day sameness, their monotony.  There would be a lack of emotion that still connects me to the experiences but at the same time disconnects me.

 

#iremember #idontremember #unbreakable #broken

Paint Stripping

At our house, my mother painted the walls and ceilings in every room every year.  I never understood why she felt the need to do this when they weren’t scuffed or dirty.  What was she trying to cover up? The plastered walls all had this swirl pattern in them that was so layered with paint that in many spots it was nearly smooth.  I remember lying in bed unable to fall asleep and tracing the swirls with my small fingers and losing my place because the little valleys created by the swirl were nearly filled in.

One year she needed to strip the paint from the woodwork before adding more because there were so many layers the windows would not close properly if new paint were added over the old again.  She borrowed a heat gun from someone. It was a bit like an industrial blow dryer – hand held but so much hotter than anyone could ever safely use anywhere near their hair.  It was dangerous, slow work and she didn’t want anyone to help.  I watched it once when she let me stand nearby.   The heat, visible only in the way it distorted what I could see through it, roared from the open end and melted and peeled back the layers of paint, layers of color – one after another.  They softened gradually and she would use the scraper to remove it as much of the paint as possible and leave a smooth surface.   Melt and scrape.  Melt and scrape.  She repeated this for days throughout the house.

Years later my therapist used a similar system with me to remove some vivid memories.  She didn’t have a heat gun but she had a space heater that always made the room too warm for me.  We would address some of the more vivid memories one by one, peeling back the layers of emotions attached to them and addressing every emotion that came up until the memory held no more power.  It was as though for decades I had carried around these memories in my mind, like vivid Technicolor snapshots in a wallet. Heavy snapshots.  After we stripped away their power, they faded to a subdued black and white and were much lighter to “carry” around – if I even felt the need to carry them anymore. In most cases I did not.

They took up less space after that, those memories.  Freeing up space for a new coat of memories, new layers of thought and events and even dreams.  But it is a tough process to sit there in her office, which is like a small living room.  I am always too hot.  If she has the space heater on the hum of it effectively renders me deaf.  I close my eyes and go over a memory.  What do you feel?  Ashamed, scared, embarrassed, lost, invisible…..Where do you feel it?  My head, my stomach, my chest.  What does the water look like?  This is an important part of the visualization – you picture each emotion as water in a river – stormy, muddy, frozen, dark, choppy, dirty…. And then you let the water go. You let the water go downstream, down over a waterfall, down a drain, down down down. You let it go.  Each emotion gets a place in your body and water.  And you let each go over and over and over again until the memory doesn’t have any emotions left that you can feel.

It’s incredibly effective and a lot of work.  I keep feeling like I am not pleasing my therapist.  She wants rage.  She knows I get angry, like a switch, out of the blue, raging angry like the worst windy thunderstorm – lashing out, but it never happens when we work on these memories.  Do you feel rage?  I purse my lips, furrow my brow and look around in my mind for it, but it isn’t there. I shake my head.  No rage? She asks again.

She really wants me to be angry with my parents.  She’s a little passive aggressive on the topic of my parents. On the one hand, she says, they gave me food, shelter, clothing, education.  So what do I have to complain about right?  On the other hand, they were inept as loving, nurturing or caring for someone like me, she says.  Someone so “sensitive”.   Sensitive, but not in a bad way, she always emphasizes.  So they did their best, but they sucked? And I am supposed to feel some rage?  I don’t.

What layer of paint, I wonder,  is that rage hidden under?