Madeleine Robins

I Remember It as Clear as Day

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Last time I was here, I talked about my earliest memory. I have long considered (because I’m a writer and my brain works that way) that it has some metaphorical connection to the person I became. And because it’s my life and my metaphor, I can say that. Years from now, when my life is being taught as a cautionary tale on millennial writers (as if), an educator can tell their version of what my life was, and why my mother going out to get lemons and leaving her 2 year old at home had nothing to do with anything.

What was lovely about that post was that people started posting their earliest memories, here and elsewhere. I really enjoyed reading them. But they also got me thinking about a memory I have that is utterly false, and yet still compels me.

From three-and-a-half until 13, I went to a school in Greenwich Village: The Little Red School House. It was very small, very lefty, academically very good, and formative for me in ways both excellent and not so excellent. I was a gormless little kid who generally did better with adults than my peers.  I was also physically small and clumsy. If this sounds like a perfect recipe for attracting the less kindly among my peers, you’re right. I suspect, with the wisdom of age, that I was the kind of kid who begged to be picked on because I was so clueless and annoying. Which doesn’t justify bullying, but does explain something of why it was me being bullied.

Anyway: the memory.  Until we were in second grade our “gym” period was held on the roof, which had some playground equipment, balls, etc., but also these big wooden blocks. The blocks were made of plywood, painted a deep forest green, and as best I can estimate from half a century on, most of them were 18-24″ long by 12″ by 6″. Big enough so that a little kid could carry one of them at a time. They were used on the roof only, for building the sorts of things one builds with blocks. And though it wasn’t allowed, the structures were frequently built by the kids to be stood on. I swear, it’s an amazement to me that we all survived to adulthood.

My memory is that on a rainy day, somehow the blocks had been brought down to my classroom (the 4s, or nursery school) and some of the boys were building a big wall out of them, six blocks or so wide and five or six blocks tall. That one of my chief tormentors, a kid named Mark, climbed to the top of the wall and stood there threatening to jump on me, and that suddenly the wall fell. My last memory is of those forest green blocks coming at me. The rest is silence.

And this never happened. I checked with my mother. I checked with my nursery school teacher (the perfectly wonderful Gertrude Asher of blessed memory). Neither one remembered such a thing; each was ready to say categorically that it never happened, because an incident that resulted in one kid being knocked out cold would have been reported, to say the least. Also: those blocks were never brought downstairs, regardless of weather. Also… see incident reports and repercussions to the aggressor party, etc.

And yet it’s one of the clearest memories I have of early childhood. There seems to be nothing else in my history which I might have conflated with school life to create the memory. I made it up out of whole cloth, or it’s a dream that lodged in my psyche and wouldn’t let go. Did I feel small and at the mercy of larger kids? You bet. And I have the m/e/m/o/r/y dream to prove it.

As a writer, this becomes part of a larger conversation for me about truth, and the difficulty of sorting out the objectively true from the subjectively true from, and how a false memory can color all the true memories that surround it. And in practical terms, how can you nest believed truth, perceived truth, and (for the purpose of fiction) actual truth in a way that works for–and perhaps even surprises–the reader. I have more than once used a dream as a way of illuminating a character’s state of mind or beliefs*; talking about this now, I’m suddenly intrigued by the notion of writing a character whose behavior is shaped by a false memory. A false memory that is so seamlessly integrated into the long line of memories that shape belief and behavior as to be unquestionable.

For the purpose of the story, the character would then have to discover that the memory is false, not in terms of perspective (“No, I was sitting there too, and Grandma didn’t eat the last cookie herself. I could see her give it to the dog.”) but in terms of possibility (“Grandma was already dead by that time.”). When a foundational memory gets removed from your structure, do you just go on with the life you’ve based on that memory? Do you actively reject that life? Does it continue to represent itself as a memory?

As the ever appropriate Mr. Shakespeare put it, “When my love swears that she is made of truth/I do believe her, though I know she lies.”

* It is not either cheating. Or a cliche. Sometimes it’s the fastest way to tell the story. So there.

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