Life is about memories.
Or, perhaps, it’s more about the way our brains perceive and store experiences.
Not everything we think we remember happened, and not everything that happens lodges into our minds and becomes a part of how we believe our lives happened. Some events bury themselves so deeply we forget them until they burst forth at the worst time in an ugly display of violent emotion. Some rest on the surface, always present.
There is a bridge I’m afraid of. I’m not scared of all bridges, just the Bay Bridge in San Francisco. Crossing it sends me, white-knuckled, back in time. I’m perched on the end of my parents’ bed. The comforter is blue with geese, and I am wearing overalls. I’m sitting how I always sat when I was little: with my legs bent into an M, knees out front, feet behind me. I don’t think we were actually packing for my cousin Marsha’s wedding in California, but in the memory we are. There are suitcases beside me, and I’m watching baseball. The Giants are playing which means something really important, but I’m not sure what. Then the world starts shaking. I’m perfectly still, but everything on the television is writhing. My parents are worried, shocked, but I don’t know why. Everything is news now. No more baseball. The bridge is twisting, cars are falling into the water, the upper level is crashing down onto the lower one. My mom asks if anyone was going into the city that day, but that may also be a lie. Somehow I learn that my Great Uncle Ray was on the bridge. This I know isn’t true—he was on the Golden Gate. Everything is happening in slow motion, over and over. Some of this comes from dreams I’ve had a hundred times since the event; some of it is true. Either way, I believe it all, and the moment the car is safely on land again I’m back safely in the present. Four-year-old Krissy is tucked back in until the next trip across the bay.
My grandpa smelled like Old Spice and clove gum. I can’t tell you for certain if he actually did, because he died when I was very young. After he died, I found Old Spice cologne in my parents’ bathroom. For years I snuck into their room so I could smell it. Occasionally I would steal bits of it and put it on a stuffed animal. It made me feel connected to him; there were times when I could hear his voice, and I thought if I turned around, he would be there. I remember him being proud of the way I played chess with him, and that he never let me win, but maybe he did. I can vividly recall watching sports with him, gardening sweet peas with him, and when he would sneak me pieces of turkey as he carved it. I’m not sure if any of these things happened, but I know for certain that he made me oatmeal, and I know that I couldn’t eat that particular meal for a decade after he left us. Eventually, the things I remembered about him, the flowers, the smells, the food, became my happy place. He’s gone, but he’s still the one that comforts me when things get too difficult. His memory turns me into a little girl, cuddling with her grandpa, without a care in the world.
My third grade teacher hated me. I was a good student, quiet, I did my best, and she had this beef with me. I spent most of third grade in this box. It was tall and closed on three sides. She told me I was causing problems, but I don’t remember causing problems. She told me I was lying to her when I said I had finished the reading assignments, and she told me I was behind in school and needed to do remedial work to catch up. At Christmas, she gave the other kids chapter books, and she gave me a picture book. I remember asking her why, and I remember her telling me she gave me a book that was at my level. That conversation seems a little farfetched. It seems unlikely that a teacher would be so cruel to a student that was actually doing her best, and it’s possible I only got sent to the box once, but this is how I remember third grade. Third grade was when I started to believe I wasn’t as smart as I thought I was.
Family was important to me when I was little. Family was important to all of my second and third cousins, my great aunts and uncles, people that I knew I was related to but I still couldn’t tell you why. We got together a lot to chat and eat food. I always felt like no matter what happened, things would be okay, because we were there for each other, because we never fought. There isn’t a family that never fights. At some point, and I can’t tell you exactly when because these are the memories I buried, my great grandma died, and my family fell apart. I told a friend that we were like the mafia: stay on the right side of things and we have your back, make a slip up and you find yourself in the river. I don’t think anyone ever apologized; people just started pretending like it never happened. Looking back, what I remember is being abandoned. That was the end of my belief that family trumps everything else. That’s when I remember my family turning their back on me.
It’s weird, how happy and sad things all mix together into a giant blob of history. I like to think for the most part I’m not controlled by my past, and the truth is that I’m probably not. I’m really controlled by my own interpretation of things that maybe never happened, but in the end, I’m not entirely unhappy with the past I’ve created. Fiction or not, without my memories, I’d be on shaky ground. In the end, I’m happy to have a foundation, no matter where it came from.
Nice piece – especially loved the Old Spice. Sorry about the nasty teacher. I had one like that, too. For me, it was fifth grade.
He did smell of Old Spice and Clove gum. I miss him too. And by the way, if I had known about that box there would have been no limit of trouble for that teacher. I am sorry you had to go through that.
Grandpa never let me win at chess either. I am glad that he didn’t. The best way to learn anything is by failing at it first. I never did beat grandpa at chess, but I believe I am a pretty good player now.
I love it… it was my second grade year that was so hard on me… I agree that memories can be funny things… I do not know how many times I thought I saw my brother after he died and books remind me of my mom. I think everyone has these connects to love ones and to their past. I love how you bring this all out in this…
Old Spice and Clove gum. Yep – thanks for reminding! Dad never let me win either. I don’t recall ever beating him at chess, although it may have happened when I was older….maybe….once. I do have some recollection of the sense of accomplishment of beating someone “unbeatable”. Why can’t I remember that?
Krissy – the bridge thing is pretty common (I hope). I grit my teeth every time I drive over the one that crosses the Snake River canyon between Glenns Ferry and Bliss.