I had an unexpected visitor this week. The little girl I used to babysit- on the east coast, in Irvington, NJ- was here, in Seattle, and sleeping on my office floor. She was on a road trip- a soul journey- the kind we all should take from time to time to sort out what’s next for us and what’s important to us. I’ve taken my share of those, so I was SO excited to finally play the role of hostess to someone on a journey like that.
Not that Eliana really needed any sort of sagely advice from me, or a soft place to land, exactly. You know you’ve both grown up in a hard place when you offer your guest an air mattress and she insists on sleeping on the hard ground because, y’know. We grew up in Irvington. What’s a little hard ground? In addition to being a damned good roadtripper, this young woman is also an accomplished musician, a fabulous cook (she makes a mean veggie scramble), and downright delightful company. We talked long into the night and laughed about all sorts of things (not the least of which was the most monotone, eyes-glazed-over, culty happy birthday song either of us had ever heard at one of the Sri Chinmoy eateries here in town).
We went out for food and drinks the night she rolled into town and we reminisced a little bit about our times growing up. Each of us dug way back in the memory banks for funny stories to tell Mr. Burdy- like the time we tried to bake a matzoh from scratch in the microwave using borrowed flour during Passover (Whoops. There’s a joke in there somewhere that starts “A Catholic girl walks into a Jewish home…”). Or the time I had to boost her through the window on the front porch because we’d locked ourselves out of the house. Or the time my brother told her he painted his nails black because it would hide the blood when he committed murders. Ah, childhood.
I would like to claim responsibility for this young lady’s remarkable outcome, but let’s be honest. I really didn’t have anything to do with it. I don’t mean that in any over-self-deprecating way, either. We were next door neighbors for eight years or so, sure. And we’d lobbed our share of water balloons and childhood taunts over the chain link fence separating our yards, but, it’s not like I taught her much in the way of life skills. And also, I once dislocated her shoulder. RELAX! I did it while we were dancing! FIERCELY! “Shiny Happy People” will inspire that kind of energy in young people.
It was her amazing parents that are really responsible for her outcome. And her community. And the fact that she’s always been a bright shiny star, a smart and charming and lovable human being- a personality that was formed way before I arrived on the scene.
Her visit reminded me once again of the inherent messiness of our memories. While we reminisced about all the minor damage we’d caused ourselves and others in our childhoods (there was the requisite Showing Of the Scars with Accompanying Backstories over gin and tonics one night), it became obvious that we each remembered such different things. She remembered the tile in her bathroom. I remembered that her brother was obsessed with He-Man. It always blows my mind a little how two people existing in the exact same space and time can produce such different memories of those times. I would think that I WOULDN’T be surprised at this point in my life. But, having three siblings, all of whom I feel very close to, has sort of skewed my sense of individuation when it comes to memory. We spent SO much time together growing up; it’s hard to remember a story without them in it. We four keep a memory alive in a way, I suspect, that a family of two or three can’t. There is often so much material between the four of us, so much adding and re-calling, that the idea that different people can remember different things occurs as downright bizarre to me, still. (I often dream of writing a book with the three of them, telling the same stories from four different angles. I’ve even figured out the cover: four line-drawn head shots, done up in primary colors like a Warhol painting.)
Recreating in a vacuum, which is how I’ve gone about writing the memoir I’m working on… that is challenging stuff. The theme of my life for the last month has been how shaky, at best, my memory is when I have to remember alone. It’s hard to recreate the past without the input of those other three lunatics who share my last name, or my former next door neighbor, or my former clients and coworkers. I’ve been working on the memoir almost daily, and aside from the challenge of just committing to a time every day to sit here and write, there is this: what I thought was there, just at the edge of my memory, ready to spill over onto the page, is in fact a tangled mess of chronology. I find myself stymied by questions of time and order. Did Mr. X do this funny thing in 2003 or 2004? Was I promoted before or after I almost set fire to the wall of my office? Did I work for that nutbag the same year I was almost hospitalized for exhaustion, or the one before?
It’s funny how much pride we attach to being to being able to tell a story and recall every single detail- or, how much we want to punish those who embellish (ahemJamesFreyahem) in the void. I’ve always prided myself on being able to reconstruct the past from just a few Polaroid snapshots. What this memoir is shoving right in my face is how, with the passage of time, those snapshots fade, and get replaced by new snapshots. What shelf the chocolate covered pomegranate seeds are on, what corner of the garage we crammed the tripod into, where I put those Christmas cards I bought on clearance at the end of the season last year… This is the banality of living that crowds out all that drama from so long ago. And thank goodness, really. My brain is overactive enough. The last thing I need to do is find the Christmas cards and then feel the urge to call 911 because I’m remembering an electrical fire from 2003.
It was great to rehash the past during Eliana’s visit. It was even greater to create new memories with her. It’s comforting in a way I can’t really explain to know my childhood is safeguarded in the memories of more than just a handful of people. It’s a blessing and a miracle to see that, despite our concrete jungle beginnings, some of us have been able to fold ourselves into the organic nectarine, fleece camping vest, sensible shoe wearing embrace of the soft west coast. We made it out alive. We’re taking roadtrips and seeing the world and asking big questions of ourselves. That, too, is comforting. Maybe somewhere in between the cuts and bruises and the shoving through windows, our two free spirited souls, unbeknownst to our conscious selves, were signaling to each other to meet on the West Coast in twenty years.
Oh, and Mrs. Kissner? That was three days for 8 hours a day at a rate of $3.00 per hour, so I will be sending you a bill for seventy-two bucks for the services of babysitting your daughter. She ate all her lunch and then some, I only ordered her to drink alcohol twice, and she doesn’t one have ONE new scar to show for her time here. Unlike my memory, I’d say my babysitting skills have greatly improved.