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Category: memoir

Hanging

Photo source: Wikimedia Commons

Winter 1973

My first memory: climbing out of my crib.

I couldn’t have been even two years old, but people tell me no one has memories of being that young. The idea of someone invalidating my very first memory, probably when I first told the story around age 8, explains a lot about my psychological makeup. I’ve had a rich fantasy life since I first learned truth from fiction, but I made up magical, fantastical stories, mostly about being in a more interesting place with a creative, eccentric family. Why would I make up something as pedestrian as clambering out of a baby bed?

To be fair, my memories of traumatic events, and of events that occurred during and after my heavy drinking days, can be hazy, but I have a clear picture of this episode in my head. As a toddler, my brain was fresh and absorbent, untouched by anything more innocuous than cow’s milk and the occasional sip of Coke. I know this happened.

I remember waking up in the morning and hearing Mama in the kitchen talking to a neighbor. I knew they were sitting at the robin’s egg blue formica table, drinking coffee and smoking cigarettes because that’s what she and most mothers who didn’t work outside the home did in 1973 to unwind. Normally, I’d cry for her to come lift me out of the crib, but I didn’t that time. My grown-up mind tells me that I once and for all decided to stop crying unless there was something to cry about. I wasn’t hurt or scared, so why start wailing like a baby? And I didn’t want to yell out to her. Yelling felt like a vulgar bid for attention, but did my child’s mind already grasp the concept of suffering through life with a quiet dignity? It’s hard to say, but that was the first instance of my consciously deciding to do something my damn self that I can recall, and it became a lifelong trend.

The crib mattress was set as low as it could go. I grabbed the top of the railing with both hands, hoisted myself up, and slung my right leg over the top. Now, how to get the rest of my body over the edge? I hung there, sideways, willing my weak upper body to maintain its grip while I moved my chubby left leg around to feel for something to give me a boost. Finally, my foot landed on a toy (my Jack-in-the-Box?), and I pushed on it hard enough to throw my whole body onto the other side. I clung to the top of the rails desperately and looked down over my shoulder at how far I was from the floor. I may as well have been dangling from the top of a skyscraper. Years later, I would remember this feeling when watching Harold Lloyd’s silent film Safety Last with Daddy, who laughed like crazy at the character’s predicament of hanging from the hands of a giant clock on the side of a building. I didn’t laugh. Instead, my stomach lurched with empathy for that poor fool.

I had no choice but to let go. Maybe I landed on my feet. Maybe it was my hands and knees. I can’t remember, but falling is one of those things that happens thousands of times when you’re a kid with rubbery bones. The pain is short-lived and forgettable and feels nothing like falling as an adult.

I shook it off and walked into the kitchen. I must have stood in front of my mother for a full minute before she noticed me standing there. She jumped, because why would she expect me to not still be in the confines of my baby bed?

“How did you get out?” She took one last drag on her cigarette and stubbed it out. I’d like to say she waved her arms to clear out the smoke, but parents didn’t much care about their children’s virgin lungs back then.

In my ideal version of the story, I told her, “I climbed out. It wasn’t so hard. You can put me in a normal bed now,” but I’m sure I wasn’t that articulate. I probably just shrugged and asked her to turn on Sesame Street, or maybe I went and turned the TV on my damn self.

Small Talk

In the lunch room at work I hear snippets of conversations about a cat’s special diet, an oil change for the Honda, and a trip to Ikea to purchase a trivet.

And on it goes. As if anyone cares. But then I look around and see that others do care, as indicated by their smiles and nods. They even ask questions.

“What color was the trivet? Was it silicone?”

“No, it’s made of cork.”

“Oh, yes, I really like those.”

“But I did get some silicone oven mitts. They were green.”

“Nice! Lime green?”

“No, I’d say more of a grass green.”

Then I picture myself standing and saying to anyone who will listen, “You’re going to die one day. No matter how much you talk about dumb shit, you’re going to die, and endless chatter about the cheese ball you sampled at Costco won’t change that.”

I feel better just thinking about saying those words. I also feel better knowing I’m going to die one day.

Oversharing

Monday, February 6, 2017.

I’m at a private university, in a graduate-level memoir writing class that costs $1,869, which I couldn’t afford even if I get more than my usual 2-3 percent raise this spring. I’m not even in the damn master’s program. I’m just an employee of the university, using my tuition benefits. I know I can write, but do I belong here, with these six women who are so studied and polished? During our in-class writing exercises, they all have the most poetic prose on tap and pour it out on command like the finest craft IPA into a growler. I thought all writers cranked out shitty first drafts like I do and then whipped them into shape later. That’s what Anne Lamott taught me, but maybe that’s just me and her, and all other writers are brilliant their first go-round. I gather that some of these women are afraid to be less-than-perfect as they can’t even dumb down their writing when the assignment calls for it, like when the professor asks us to write in a child’s voice. Upon hearing one story, I want to comment, “How impressive that your four-year-old self used the words ‘bailiwick’ and ‘aubergine’ in casual conversation.” I’m a bitch like that, but not quite bitchy (or brave) enough to say those things out loud.

In the span of our three-hour class, I manage to split myself open. The professor had spent many years working as a therapist and assures us that we are in a safe space to share so that we can get to the truth in our writing. In an uncharacteristic moment of actually believing I’m among kindred souls, I leap at the opportunity to do some purging. When I’m done, I receive a smattering of awkward feedback from classmates and a concerned look from the professor, who asks if alcoholism and/or mental illness runs in my family.

People don’t quite know what to make of me. It’s a recurring theme in my life.

I walk out of class feeling raw and mangled, like I have just run my soul through a meat grinder. The night air is warm, but I zip up my jacket as if to hold myself together. This scattered feeling has me worried that I lost a few vital chunks of myself in the classroom, but I am still able to put one foot in front of the other and find my car, so maybe those pieces weren’t so critical after all. Maybe they were just familiar. In any case, I do not have the energy to sort it all out. I have to halt the racing thoughts and shift back into survival mode. Ahead of me is a 45-minute drive, in which I will need to stay vigilant and avoid cops because my registration is expired. Then I have to stop off at the grocery store, walk the dogs, and find out if my children had a good day.

When at last I get to close my eyes around midnight, I see faces I don’t want to see and hear a low hum of angry chatter, a garbled mix of those who have reinforced my feeling of wrongness over the years. My mother’s voice figures prominently, or is it my own? At some point, I took over where she and others left off and can’t differentiate among us. These voices are what those of a religious bent might call demons, but I know it’s just my mind running a loop of old stories that no longer serve me, stories I’m tired of telling myself. I decide that these stories belong somewhere other than my head, and I must free them with all the truth and love my fractured self can conjure up.