January 19, 2013
My first "memory" which is very hazy is falling down an outdoor concrete stairwell entrance to a basement at the age of two, and losing a tooth. But the memory is so vague, and perhaps planted in my mind by stories told to me by my mother as I was growing up. At age four, I remember running naked into the street, and being spanked. I remember punching a friend in the eye, and marvelling at my own power, but also struck by horror over my actions. I remember walking in freshly laid concrete and getting into trouble for obviously ruining the setting of this concrete. I remember walking alone down hills of snow in the winter on my way to my first year in school in Montana, the snow piled higher than me, each step I would sink sometimes up to my head. I remember the bakery at the bottom of the hill that sold maple bars ( long rectangular donuts with maple sugar icing). I remember singing songs to myself, making up melodies and lyrics at age 6, the embarrassment of soiling your pants on the way to school, and then having to sit there the rest of the day in shame. I remember shoplifting candy, and kissing my first girl and playing with the Catholics next door, whose family of ten plus kids meant that there were always kids younger and older than my friend Kevin Sullivan, and how their whole house smelled like pee. And I remember my friend Alan with the chapped lips, crew cut who always chewed on pencils, erasers and the glue that janitors made from horses ( or so we were told, as I remember). And how I was surprised to learn that Alan kept gallon jars of his own urine under his bed, more than twenty gallon jars. I don't remember why he kept them, but perhaps I was too shocked or embarrassed to ask. I remember going on a day trip with friends of my parents in an early version of the SUV, perhaps a SCOUT, up the hills in Montana, and coming around the bend of a mountain only to find that half the road was no longer there, and trying to back up without having the vehicle fall off the cliff, and of course because I am here some fifty years later, successfully getting back down the mountain. I remember playing in the giant moving wardrobe boxes, and getting up to change the channel, and being scolded to not sit so close to the television set, and listening to late night talk radio from KGO in San Francisco from Aberdeen Washington under the covers with my black transistor radio close to my ear, hoping noone would hear me up past my bedtime. I remember going to a Cub Scouts function and seeing all these kids with physical defects, and mental defects, and one kid with water on his brain that caused his head to be about three times the size of a normal head. And I remember the first time I saw a kid in the hallways with severe acne, pustules all over his back and face, all seemingly ready to pop at any moment. And I remember walking to the center of town, and once getting mugged for my change by an older kid who threatened to beat me up if I told, and seeing in his face not only anger, but a strange kind of fear and fragility, as if this wasn't something that he had done before. And I remember my father carrying me in his arms up the stairs to my bed, and how safe and warm that felt, and I remember crawling into my parents bed after a nightmare and being surprised that my father did not have his pyjama bottoms on, and how warm his body was. Oh, he was my furnace my mother used to say. And I remember seeing him after a man had broken his cheekbones and jaw, with his jaw wired and eating soup from a large straw, and knowing that my father was vulnerable, and breakable, and how that made me feel. And falling off my bicycle and breaking my front tooth ( same tooth that I had lost as a baby falling down those stairs), and the tooth going through my upper lip and the lip swelling up five times the normal size, and my brothers calling me a Ubangi. I remember all the men who came to visit my dad at our house who worked in the sawmills, men with half an arm, or only three fingers on their hand. I remember my dad making rye and gingers, and my mother buying frozen creme pies, and frozen meat pies, and frozen fish sticks,and how we would have starved I think if we didn't have a freezer. And I remember when my dad shot a deer, and the smell of the blood, and the taste of the venison that we ate all that winter, and how I hated the taste, which reminded me of the smell of the blood.
It is strange which memories stick with us. Like tar. Like the tar-baby and the five Chinese brothers, and the sad joke my dad made about pecan pie, and the word he used for mandarin oranges, or brazil nuts, words that we all knew were wrong, words that he knew were wrong, and yet repeated like a dirty joke in the schoolyard, furtive, with bravado soaked in shame. These were the times I remember. Some of the times, as I remember much more. And these memories come back to me at the strangest times, in a dream, or in the daylight, spurred on my a word or an image or a song. Like my first boy-girl party I went to at my friend Johnny Mercer (Not that Johnny Mercer) where Johnny had a little suit on with a turtle neck, the epitome of the seven year old swinger, as we listened to the Beatles and danced. And how ten years later dancing under the moonlight on a beach in Victoria, naked in the dark in the summer, young thin bodies running into the waves, fuelled on alcohol and teenage hormones. And so I write them down to commit them to a written memory, so that when the actual memory fades or disappears, I will have them here, written down. And someone can read them to me.
And which ones will I remember? Which memories will stick with me like tar, unshakable, dark light black and white, forever stuck in my mind?