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.

Keep Drawing Your Picture

I remember peeling down past the wave on a brand new purple Crayola® crayon.  Wax was caught under my fingernail that would distract me even more from the fact that I did not know what I had wanted to draw and only took the purple crayon so that no one else could have it.  The wrapper did not need to be pealed yet.  The tip was still that polished shiny new point full of possibilities. I was stalling.

I used to color with abandon.  I could draw fields of flowers with beautiful skies. I could draw people and animals in great detail that actually looked like what they were intended to look like.  Then it stopped.  I stopped. Indecision and insecurity set in.

When I was in second grade one day on the way home from school, Deana Case (not her real name) was sitting with me on the bus.  This was in a time when the seats were a simple molded plastic with no padding.  When the driver rounded a corner too fast, we would all slide in the opposite direction if we weren’t holding on in anticipation of the sway.  It was exciting and fun and lent adventure to my imagination.  The bus was always loud with chatter and laughter and the noise from the engine, wheels and breaks that would squeak and squeal as the bus came to a stop at the end of someone’s drive way.

Now that I think of that bus, big yellow orange container of so many different children.  It was like a rolling box of crayons itself full of so many different personalities and potentials.  On that one particular day, Deana pulled a drawing out of her bag.  We had a rare free time period that day and could draw and color anything we wanted. I had mine too. I loved what I had drawn and then I saw hers.

Wow.

Wow. The sight of her drawing froze me with awe.

Comparing her drawing to mine was like comparing the Sistine Chapel to the Sunday funnies.  I did like the Sunday funnies and to be honest, that may have been partly where I learned to draw so well. I noticed the lines and how a simple curve or swirl could make all the difference in the emotion or humor of a piece.  What she had done was foreign to me.  It covered the entire piece of paper from edge to edge and was an amazing scene with flowers, a house and a beautiful night sky.  She had blended her colors in a way that I had never imagined doing.  I did not even know you could do that with the box of broken and stubby crayons we passed around the classroom. Her drawing had a depth and perspective I was only on the verge of understanding in the simplest of terms.

Wow.

It was so beautiful.  I told her how beautiful it was.  Then I was embarrassed for the very first time to show my drawing to someone.  I did.  She liked it.  She complimented it as well.  I believed her because I knew Deana didn’t lie, but I still felt at a loss to understand how suddenly I was not as good as I had thought.  Had people been telling me I was good when I wasn’t?

I believe this might have been the start of my long-held inner belief that I was simple not really better at anything than anyone else.  Nothing I could do was any different, any more special or even good enough to compare from that point forward.   I got excellent grades moving through high school, graduating in the top 10% of my class and earning a scholarship.  I got excellent grades in college and was on the dean’s list several times during my freshman year.   My assumption, however, was that everyone was getting excellent or ever better grades.

There were some areas of curriculum that required I worked harder than others.  I loved geometry but could not wrap my head around advanced algebra. I loved English and all the stories and books we read – but could not embrace the ancient stuff. Beowulf for example.  I knew I had strengths and weaknesses, but again, my assumption was that everyone else only had strengths.  Even when I was called upon to tutor someone older than myself in middle school, I did not realize that this meant anything other than I was a good reader and could help this person with words just as I had helped my older brother with his math at home.

It did not mean I had any special knowledge or skill, right? I was nothing special.

While I think parents today often over-whelm their children to the point of delusion with how special, wonderful and talented they are, forever losing in them a sense of what it is like to really accomplish something from hard work, I do wish someone had noticed this in me earlier and helped me realize the truth.  It’s a fine line parents need to tread.  I was as special as anyone else. I was extremely resourceful and had talents in many areas that often outshone others and that was important and should have built confidence.  It didn’t.

No one had noticed.

On a job I had at Borders Books & More (I miss that store so much!) after college, my manager, a new manager not much older than myself, came out and asked me very pointedly:

“Do you know how smart you are?”

I shrugged it off.  It had to be some silly trick to get me to do more work.  I was prone to respond that way to a compliment.  I would work hard to please the person even more and people seemed to know this about me.

“Really,” she said, “Look at this.”  She pointed to the floor in front of my section – Reference and Foreign Languages, at that time, where hundreds of newly arrived books were stacked in front of their respective shelves waiting to be inserted into their proper places among the floor stock.  I didn’t really get what she was trying to say, which was that I was a monster when it came to getting the new stock out on the floor in the shortest amount of time.  Most staff would bring out one v-cart at a time, without putting it into order first and shelf the books one book at a time, here, there, wherever until their shift was over.  I organized my entire task putting two or more v-carts into action, then broke it down into small steps by placing the books near their final destinations first.  Lots of easy little successes in shelving that lead to getting done quickly and efficiently so that I could move on.  I also neatened and shifted and “frontalized” while I was putting out the new stock instead of going back and doing this later as a separate step.  I didn’t realize I had put any more thought into the task than anyone else. It was just the way I felt it needed to be done so that I could browse in other areas.

Admittedly, it was efficient, but it also could only be done this way during times when the store was slow.  This system had to be revamped during those times when people were rampantly shopping, were laying on the floor reading, stalking some pretty girl in the art section next to reference or wandering around with a no-foam, half-caf, mocha latte espousing brilliant philosophical thoughts to no one in particular.  I guess that was something else she was trying to point out to me.  I not only could organize a vast amount of materials so that they took up the least amount of time, but I could be flexible and perceptive enough to realize this had to be adjusted based on the store’s foot-traffic.  And all this time I had believed the guys on staff when they told me I shelved faster because I had large hands.

It was nice of her to have pointed this out.  This was the first time anyone had complimented something my brain did that seemed automatic to me.  I wanted to get done so that I could go look at new books in the Anthropology or Sociology or fiction sections.  This was the first time I was given an inkling that my brain worked differently than others and that this was actually a good thing.  I knew my brain was different.  I knew I was different, but my assumption had been from childhood that this was not a good-different.  And here was this person, a person in authority, putting an idea in my mind that my form of different could actually be a potentially useful and wonderful thing.

It took many years after that to actually flesh out that idea to a fully formed image in my mind.  Her words would come back to me in different situations where I had done the same things – automatically. This was a new perspective that no one else had ever given me.  And it isn’t at all about parenting.  Everyone needs to re-parent themselves as they grow up and learn about the world and who they are in it.   I had set myself in a picture of my world early as the underachiever. I needed to pick up crayons or markers or pens and start drawing again and keep filling out the pages until I have properly redrawn a more honest representation of who I really was.

I suspect this is drawing that will continue on. It seems the more I learn, the more I change, the more there is to draw.

 

#keepcoloring #keeplearning #crayons