Tag Archives: memories

Pages of life

A couple of days ago I was driving Miss Drama to a birthday party, following GPS directions through an unfamiliar part of town when I suddenly realized that unfamiliar terrain felt very familiar.

Backing up a few pages…

I was born in Memphis and until 9 years of age lived in the area known as Frayser. (Okay, technically the first 4 years were in Raleigh, but those areas aren’t that far apart). These areas are on the northwest outskirts of Memphis. In 1997 I returned to Memphis to attend college and my dad drove us through that area and past our old house, but it was almost dark and I wasn’t particularly interested, what with the excitement of starting college. So having been in the city for 19 years I have never sought out the house I lived in as a kid.

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It’s hard to say precisely what triggered that sense of familiarity. The trees? They beckoned like familiar friends. The gentle rolling hills? They reminded me of evening drives in the summer, windows down and the music of crickets, toads and whir of the car engine lulling cranky toddlers to sleep. After dropping off Miss Drama I pulled up Google Maps and plugged in my old address. I was literally a 5-minute drive away. If it had been farther, I probably wouldn’t have bothered. Five minutes? How could I not?

The moment I pulled up to the house recognition hit me in the gut. Someone was parked there momentarily, driving off literally as I pulled to a stop. A for sale sign listed sadly in the front yard. I expected, given the area and the general housing trends in Memphis, a significant degree of deterioration. Based on information on the lock box and a peek through the front windows, it was possible the interior is in better condition than my house.

The gates Papa installed when I was little, probably around the time we got our Beagle puppies, were long gone.The aluminum siding had seen better days, but in many ways it was still so very much the same, albeit much smaller than memory, because I am rather larger than I was the last time I watched the house disappear through a car window for the last time. The open backyard beckoned, a place of primarily happy memories, of make-believe and games, races and gardening, digging for worms, and swinging on the long gone swing-set. The gumball trees still lined the yard, leaving their prickly nuisances that made barefoot play impossible. The giant hill my siblings and I had rolled and sent our big-wheels down now seemed little more than a slight rise. Partly due to my adult size, but probably just as much due to 30 years of rain washing soil and leaves to the lower section of the yard.

I stood by the gumball tree and memories played out in my mind. I could almost hear our laughter. I could almost see the little girls that we had chatted and played with through the fence. When I walked back to the patio, in my mind’s eye I saw my sister trip in her little hard-bottomed infant shoes as she tried to follow me into the grass and tumble before I could catch her, unhurt except for the unfortunate insect bite which made her swell up rather alarmingly. Looking up at the rusting, peeling rod-iron railing on the back step I saw myself leaning over with a stick and string, pretending to fish. In the front yard the giant oak still stood sentinel. I spent many an hour as a child running my hands over that bark, wondering at the mysteries the tree might know, wondering if it had thoughts in its own tree-way. I smiled at the maple sapling that had popped up recently by the house. Papa was forever trying to pull up saplings that sprouted to close to the house. I was forever trying to save them, burying acorns and watering little baby trees I found.

It was all so clear, as if I could just turn the pages of time and it would all be there. It’s a bittersweet thing to see the pages of the past so clearly. It’s a comfort to feel that connection, to know each page and how it brought you to where you are. The sadness doesn’t come from a desire to re-live the past. No. I lived that chapter, and I am happily living my current chapter. The pain and sadness I felt were because in a way stepping into that yard put me closer to my brother’s memory than anything else ever has.

In that house my brother and sister and I became more than just siblings, we became friends. For a time the rest of the world didn’t particularly exist for us. We were an insular little tribe of three, exploring our tiny corner of earth, making plans and dreams. It wasn’t the house that was special, not then and not now. It’s just a house like any other, but for a time it was my world and for a brief few moments I got a peek through time’s pages and remembered what that world was like.

 

 

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Nine to Thirty-six

Yesterday as I drove home with Miss Diva we passed Audubon Park. I drive past it if not daily, than several times a week. Miss Diva was having a blond moment and didn’t realize it was a park until I pointed it out. She asked why we don’t go there. It’s close to us and quite pretty, but they lack proper restrooms or water fountains, and while not as much an issue now, their playground was kind of crappy. We’ve been there, but I much prefer other local parks.

My mother loved Audubon, likely because they have some gorgeous trees. We lived a good thirty minute drive or more from that particular park when I was little. The last trip to that park before we left Memphis was probably the in early fall of 1988. I loved trees too, but I was a bit disappointed when we made a trek to that one in particular. Back then there wasn’t a playground at all and swings and slides rank high on kid priorities. Still, we had fun. I think we had a take-out picnic and played frisbee.

I was hipster before it was cool.

I wore hipster glasses before it was cool.

I lived in Memphis for nine years before moving away and didn’t return until I was 18. Memphis was my home and at the age of nine I made the decision to return as soon as I could. I was just a little older when I decided to be a scientist and a writer and the president of the United States. I may have only been 9, but my record for achieving those goals is currently 3 out of 4.

Despite my nine-year old resolution, when I returned, it was just as much a strange place in many ways as other places I’ve lived. My connection to Memphis is now essentially the eighteen years I’ve spent here as an adult. Sure, I remember playing frisbee there, but far more clear are memories of taking Mr. Smarty-pants there when he was itty-bitty, walking with all the kids there and playing troll under the bridge.

Every once in a while though, my brain time-warps and I’m 6, or 7, or 8 again, running through leaves, giddy with the simple joy of freedom that running at that age brought. It was before asthma and chronic allergies stole all the fun. It was before I reached an age where I was self conscious. It was before I went through five long, painful years of bullying and isolation at school. It was long before grief and heartaches and the tedium of adulthood.

Chatting with Miss Diva about the park, I realized how integral our memories are. Our past may not define us, but it shapes us. I read a book recently in which the characters’ memories are wiped and then they regain them. While I enjoyed the story, something felt off and I realized the change in one of the main characters seemed too subtle to me. I can’t even list the number of ways different events have helped make me who I am today. I look back at pre-9 year old me and have no idea who I’d be if you erased all I experienced, but it wold not be who I am now.

Sixteen years ago today, I didn’t know it yet, but my brother had been taken from this world. Growing up with Justin influenced me, just as losing him changed me. Even knowing the pain of his loss, were I given the choice, I’d go back and do it all again just to hear his laugh one more time or hear his voice again.

Having hit 36, a number of people I know are saying goodbye to parents and other family members or friends. I know there isn’t really anything I can say or do to make it better. I offer my sympathy as that’s all one can do. Nothing ever makes it better. Not really. You move on. It becomes a part of you. So, for all of those dealing with loss, new or old, you are not alone.

Memory Lane

It’s funny how the mind can skip from one random event to another and draw connections. Our minds evolved to see patterns and connections because it helped us survive. So, it isn’t really all that surprising that your mind can go tripping through memories if you let it.

The other day I accidentally hit a bird with the car. I know. I was very sad about this, especially when I noted its bird buddies’ concern. I didn’t kill it, but it definitely was injured. I was already merging into traffic and couldn’t really stop. Normally birds are excellent flyers and get out of the way, and I usually slow down a bit to give them plenty of time. That day I was in a bit of a hurry and didn’t. 😦

For whatever reason, this reminded me of the time my sister came home all worked up about hitting a racoon. I believe there was more to the story, but I don’t recall it. That memory blip jumped to a time where I was carting one of Justin’s friends home. As we crossed a little bridge over a drainage canal I braked for an animal that was in the road. It was a HUGE rat. I may possibly have shrieked a little.

As my brain pulled up that incident, my eighteen year old self felt not so different from my nearly thirty-six year old self. I’ve lived nearly as much additional life now as I had up to that point, and yet while I’ve grown in many ways, I’m still very much the same girl who braked for a rat. My brother’s presence in the back seat and the kid in the front felt very close to the teens I cart around now and my own son. Mr. Smarty-Pants does not physically favor his uncle, but he got a heaping helping of his personality. Sure, he is very much his own person, but the similarities at times are striking. Justin teased me for braking for a rat, just as Mr. Smarty-Pants once urged me to gun for a turkey that ran across the road so we could eat it (I didn’t). It really isn’t a surprise that my brain can draw connections between events related only by an animal in the road and a vehicle barreling toward it.

My relationship with my little brother was a combination of camaraderie and motherliness, as being the eldest I felt it my job to watch out for my younger siblings. My relationship with my son bears the same combination of feelings, albeit in different proportions, and so of course, is prone to sparking that random memory connection. When speaking to family members, it is not uncommon for me to have to correct names, as the wrong one slips out. That rarely happens when I’m talking directly to my children, but add in the connection to my sister or my parents, or my grandparents, and my brain trips over a lifetime networked memories.

They say that the more connections one makes with regards to a memory, the less likely one is to forget it. We used to joke that my mother remembered everything. I don’t proclaim to recall everything, but people have remarked that I do have very good recall. I can tell you the plot of the first really long chapter book I read at maybe 10 years old. I can remember playing hide-and-seek with my mom and being eye-level with her dog. I recall visiting my brother in the ICU (although I buried that one for awhile), and  seeing my sister on the fuzzy ultrasound screen. I remember pulling up the carpet in the apartment at age four to watch the little ants underneath scurry about their little ant lives. I remember dissecting a washed and dried ball of paper when I was maybe 3 or 4 and wondering if there was something in it. Fast forward and I’m sitting at the dining room table at age 6 or 7 in the summer and my brother is telling some silly joke about trains. It was the kind of joke that only made sense to a kid and I’ve long forgotten the details, but that moment of pure happiness, with everyone laughing until their sides ached, that moment remains crystal clear. I can rattle off plenty more, some happy, some sad, some a mix, but the point is that they are primarily ordinary days doing nothing in particular.

All of that reminds me to cherish the little random moments in life. People make a big deal about the big key moments, life events, but in truth when your brain goes skipping down memory lane it’s snapshots of every day life that paint the portrait of your past. Years from now when my grandchildren are my children’s age now, more connections will be made and it won’t be the “big days” so much as the little things, like telling Ms. Drama that the window is not a door, or cuddling with Miss Diva while watching a TV show, or shrieking when Mr. Smarty-Pants sneaks up behind me and picks me up—his uncle did that too.

Just this past weekend I shared with Miss Diva the bit of wisdom that happiness comes from within you. It comes from living in the moment and seeing the beauty even in the midst of less than ideal circumstances. Happiness isn’t a destination or a reward, but a state of mind, a contentment that comes from love.

Moment in Time

Earlier today Soup King was hunting for some particular books, but most of the books had been packed in optimistic hope I’d land a job out of town. Instead, I’m working here, but unsure if I should unpack or leave the stack of boxes in the living room for the next year. In any case, in the process I rescued a pile of old snapshots, negatives, and a small photo album. I opened the photo album and inside were pictures from when I was in high school. I’ve seen them a hundred times, but this time it wasn’t a quick glance, smile, and close of the album.

My eyes lingered on a picture of my brother and myself. It’s possibly one of the absolute worst pictures of me ever, but my smile is genuine as is Justin’s. The moment, frozen in time on film captured our bond.  He’d helped me on a school project, adding his artistic touches when in truth there was no reason for him to do so. I think maybe my dad blustered him into helping and I begged. If I attempted to paint the shark on that cardboard boat it would have looked like ridiculous googly eyes.

Justin (14) Me (16)

Justin (14) Me (16)

There might be other pictures of us taken over the next three years, but I can’t really recall any. My senior year was filled with activity and the three grade levels between us meant we lived in totally different social realms. After I graduated, I moved off to college and my short visits didn’t really have much in the way of picture taking. Not to mention, he was at that age where he often avoided the camera because, dude, he was too cool for that.

As I looked at that photo I realized my son is just about the same age now. There’s a faint resemblance, although not a lot. Mr. Smarty Pants may look a great deal different and of course he is very much his own person, but he shares a remarkable similarity in interests, aptitude, and personality.

Both my son and my brother out-class me in sheer IQ power, but both preferred gaming to doing boring homework. Justin devoured history books for the sheer love of the subject. My son’s favorite reading topic? History. Mr. Smarty Pants inherited the same talent for art which turned that blank cardboard boat into a shark.  He has a deep, beautiful singing voice he’d rather no one heard, the same as his uncle. As the years go by, I find it hard to recall my brother’s voice, but I suspect Mr. Smarty Pants shares more than a passing similarity. Even the ups and downs of their report cards mirror each other.

Growing up with Justin gave me insight and patience that has aided me in maintaining a strong bond with my son. While mother-son is far different than sister-brother, I was the big sister and “little mother” growing up. So, while some days I just shake my head and roll my eyes at Mr. Smarty Pants’ teenage angst, I do so with the knowledge that these next few years pass by so very quickly. He’ll be a young man in just over four years and the maturity will come, sometimes at a frustrating snail’s pace and at other times frighteningly fast.

The teen years strained my relationship with my brother, and to a lesser degree with my sister. We had different lives and my life in college was vastly different than that of my kid brother’s in high school. The last conversation I had with my brother took place early January of 1999. We rambled about all kinds of things: plans, dreams, troubles. At that point though, all the prior tension of being in different worlds melted away. He was growing up and once again we were not only friends once more, but held mutual respect for each other. No matter that we were very different people, we liked each other and knew without a doubt we could rely on each other.

I used to wish I could have said more, been more present in the last few months of my brother’s life, but I let go of my regrets. People say that time heals loss and that you cease to grieve with time. It doesn’t work exactly that way. Grief is not so much an action as a part of you which you come to accept. With time it gets buried under all the other little pieces that make up who you are, but you are the collection of all those little pieces. It doesn’t take much to move aside the pieces and shine a light on that painful piece– painful because only love can leave so lasting an impression. It can blind you with its intensity, as wrenching and painful as the moment you first felt it.

Sixteen years ago I shared the last of many, many conversations and hugged my brother for the last time, but the love and laughter we shared remain.

Just Another Day

Today marks fourteen years since my brother’s death. It took my sister’s Facebook status to remind me.

You might ask how I could forget such a thing.

To me, this day is not as important as the seventeen years prior to July 17, 1999. I refuse to allow his killers that power. Since the day Justin’s ashes were interred, July resumed it’s normal place in my mental calendar, remarking only my parent’s anniversary. The days that get me are his birthday and the other 364 days of every year that has followed.

I was robbed of a brother and a friend, and time does not erase that. The biggest lie is to tell people that time heals all wounds. It does not. Soul-deep wounds merely become a part of who you are, manageable, like a chronic ailment.

Even so, I had seventeen years with my little brother. His memory is a part of me. On average, two siblings share in the neighborhood of 50% genetic code. I am half him, in some ways, and half of that was passed on to each of my children. My sister, likewise, is half, and her son carries a piece. He is not gone; not wholly. He’s there in my nephew’s silliness and my son’s scarily cunning intellect and wit. He’s there in my love of Batman, Transformers, and X-Men because he was my excuse for watching those cartoons when I was really too old for such “childish” things. Truth be told, I wanted something in common with him during those strained years where age gaps made it difficult to relate each other.

So, while today hurts, no more so than any other day, because my brother is always there with me, in my heart and mind.

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A different sort of lens

When I was about Miss Diva’s age I found an old camera at the resale shop and begged my parents to get it for me. It used 110 film, which was cheaper than the standard 35mm. I think it cost a whopping $3, so my parents relented. I’d save my pennies and quarters to buy film and with great care pick what I wanted to capture. My parents graciously covered the cost of developing them.

I captured plenty of accidental ground shots, blurry faces, and truncated body parts. I learned what my camera could do and what it couldn’t.  Action shots guaranteed a psychedelic blur of color. When it finally gave out due to an accidental gravity test, I think I cried.

As it happens,this week and the first part of next week is spend all my money on field trips week the last week of school. Miss Diva handed me a letter from the teacher advising that they could bring disposable cameras.

“So I can bring mine?”

“No. Yours is not disposable.”

“But it only cost $20.”

“That doesn’t make it disposable. Someone could steal it.”

“So can I have a disposable camera?”

I sighed. “Okay.”

We trekked to Target. I admit, I last bought a disposable camera around the time Miss Drama was born. I still have a used one lying around the house. I should probably get it developed.

Once upon a time one could find half a dozen different types of disposable cameras. Target had two, and only a few of each in stock. When Miss Diva opened it I explained the flash and winding mechanism.

“How do I see the pictures?”

“You don’t.”

“Can I delete them?”

“Nope.”

“How do you get them off and look at them?”

“You send it out to be developed.”

“What happens if a picture is blurry?”

“You throw it away. You only have twenty-seven exposures, so only take pictures of things you really want to capture.”

She sat in the back seat soaking up these solemn revelations. Later on, not two minutes into decorating her camera to make it different than all the other disposable cameras classmates might bring, she accidentally took a picture. I showed her that if she didn’t advance the roll, even if she hit the button again, no more film would be wasted.

I have albums and albums of pictures developed from cameras like her little disposable camera. I carefully picked poses and events, making those twenty-seven exposures last. Looking at the albums, one might think I ceased taking pictures after Miss Drama’s infancy, but I merely went digital.

While Miss Diva is looking at her antiquated camera with annoyance, I look at it and see an echo of my childhood and an end to an era.

From a Certain Point of View

The other day I was discussing very early memories with a friend. Here’s one of a handful of memories from when I was about two and a half years old:

My little brother was brand new and my mom had gotten him to nap at the time I was supposed to nap. She tucked me in for my nap and then went to take one herself. (Wise woman)

At the time we had a very old little dog, Pepe. My mom had gotten him when she was a teenager and he was getting up there in years. After an initial spurt of jealousy, he learned he stayed on Mama’s good side if he protected the tiny pink wiggly humans. So, he often kept an eye on my adventures in the apartment where we lived.

That particular afternoon I had no particular desire to take a nap, unlike many current afternoons. (Naps are wasted on the young.) So, quietly, as not to wake my baby brother or my mother, I tiptoed across my room and slowly turned the knob and peeked out into the living room. The coast was clear! Grand adventures without parental supervision awaited!

I stepped out into the hall and toddled into the living room. Pepe lay curled up on the carpet. He raised his head and looked at me. I froze in my steps. I had not factored Pepe into my shenanigans plan. He got up, and he did not seem pleased that I was interrupting his nap. We stood there eye to eye. I maybe had a couple of inches on him, but not much. Sure, we were buds, but suddenly I noticed he had teeth….lots more than me. He let out a low bark and I forgot all about the teeth. I raised a finger to my lips and said “Shhhh!”

He didn’t listen. He took a couple of steps down the hall toward my mother’s room, paused and looked over his shoulder, and let out another “Woof.”

“Okay. Okay! I’ll go nap!” I muttered, and ran back to my room. I waited a minute and peaked out, and the smart little bugger had parked himself in front of my door. He raised his head and I shut the door again.

I trudged back to bed; my dreams of unsupervised living room play dashed. I’m pretty sure I fell asleep minutes after crawling back into my bed.

~~~

As I relate the story, I can distinctly recall the emotions that I felt and the things I saw and did. It occurred to  me though that I have no way of telling that story without overlaying my adult interpretation. In fact, the story might sound silly and contrived if I attempted to write as my two-year old self. Some characters and points of view can broaden the reader’s perspective and give glimpses of fantastical worlds, and others can end up sounding far-fetched and trite.

In writing, deciding who is telling the story can greatly change how the reader perceives the events. Real life gives us many examples of this. Ask any two people about an argument or event and you’ll get two very different stories.

Sometimes it takes sitting down and telling a bit of the story from one point of view or another before finding the one that tells the story you wish the audience to read. Above all, don’t choose a point of view simply because you think it sells better. Always be true to the characters whose story you are writing.