Wednesday, December 06, 2006

My Memory

This was a piece I wrote a few months ago that I shared with my writing class.

Most people make fun or are intimidated by my memory. I don’t know why. When my uncanny gift is revealed to them in some way, their eyes turn on me. I can see it. They narrow and puzzle over how such details could be preserved in my mind. Or, their eyes widen, wondering how the neurons in my brain carry such seemingly forgettable details, both significant and not, of a time so long ago.

I’ve read all different kinds of theories and explanations of memory, including exercises that supposedly enhance one’s ability to memorize. You remember when you repeat. You remember when you associate with something else. You remember because you want to. You remember it short-term. You remember it long-term. You remember when your senses are stimulated. You remember, you remember, you remember.

This is my assertion: I remember what makes me feel. It’s not about the level of importance or frequency; it’s what makes me feel. Language, the candle’s scent in a room, the waterfall of hair when she tilted her head, ever so slight lisps, that hum of air-conditioning units from the neighbor’s house, the number of steps at the funeral parlor lobby, the shading at the community pool. Why certain aspects of life strike me to feel and then forever crystallize it in my mind, I cannot and do not know.

Even as my mind is recording something, I really have no idea it means anything at the time. Moments, days, even years later, something will jog it and I will, sometimes on my own or in correcting someone else’s commentary. I will realize I remember it perfectly and can describe what happened. I can describe not only what exact words were used, but how they were pronounced, what their cadence was like, what gesture was done and how quickly their fingers flew threw the air, and how their hair was styled and how a lonely piece of thread trailed the back her skirt when she stood up and walked away.

Most people press with the common reaction, “How do you remember that?” If it’s someone close to me who is all too familiar with my rich re-enactments or ease with rewinding life, “How in the hell do you remember that shit, Leese?” Sometimes I quip that perhaps they should pay more attention to their life or how I need to work for the FBI and make a fortune utilizing this special skill. But, usually, I just give an open grin and shrug my shoulders. If the conversation has turned onto another topic, I store away the rest of the unsaid details that I chose not to share. They think I’m freaky enough as is.

The larger who, what, when, why, and why of a memory is sometimes lost. I can remember and describe every dash on a ruler, but can’t tell you what purpose the ruler may have been serving. My memory is as fragmented as it is sharp, in shards as it is accurate, like broken pieces of a huge mirror. Broken, yes. Does it still precisely reflect? Yes. My internal vat is like an enormous, gaping hole in the earth where things - random things, sacred things - are thrown.

There are only a handful of details I remember from my 9th birthday party: boys called my house for the first time wanting to come over; I created my own trivia game with homemade questions. One of them asked for the nationality of Rocky Balboa’s boxing opponent in Rocky IV. It was my favorite movie and I loved that no one could answer that one. I remember that when I opened my gifts, I leaned against my parents’ old, small wooden TV stand that had been cleared for party use. I remember the end of that wooden stand had been stripped of its artificial coating and was rough to touch. My 9 year old bum sank into that roughness for nearly an hour. It hurt and was so uncomfortable, but I didn’t want to move because I was so excited my friends were there – answering my trivia questions and competing for small goody bag prizes. I don’t remember one gift, what food was served, or if one or both of my parents were there. I just remember my excitement superseding the pain of a wooden stand up my ass.

That is how my memory works. I remember something innocuous and upon deeper reflection, I find it is linked to a larger emotion, a larger detail. I’ll walk around a thrift store and find an old wooden TV stand and in the blink of an eye, I’ll feel the surging waves of excitement. I remember the excitement of that 9th birthday party. My excitement was not just because I had just turned nine and was that much closer to being a teenager, for which I could barely wait. It was because my 9th birthday was my first birthday in Ohio. My family had just moved from New Jersey and my father worked as a psychiatrist and we lived on the grounds of the state hospital. My house was one of two brick houses; our house was shaped with sharp 90 degree angles, cut so perfectly square that my siblings and I gave it a name. We called it, “The Cube.”

While most of my friends lived on bike-riding, ice cream truck visiting streets, I looked out the living room window and saw the state’s most mentally ill citizens on daily basis. Welcome to Ohio! I observed the patients all the time. Some tried to simply walk off the grounds or others would stare at the grass for hours without moving. Other patients yelled into the open fields – my front yard. On a few occasions, patients would walk right up to the porch and peek into our living room window. One even sent my dad ripped out pages of the bible, marijuana leaves, and a death threat after my father testified that he was not yet ready to leave the hospital and be immersed back into society. All of this happened during the height of the popular television show, Unsolved Mysteries, and I was convinced that someday I would be on that show as an unfortunate victim of a senseless crime committed by a mentally ill citizen. At eight years old, I had no idea I would someday be trained as a mental health therapist or understand that cognitive disorders of the mind are of nothing to be frightened. At eight years old, I was scared. I was scared to let people know where I lived. I wanted normalcy and normalcy meant New Jersey. I absolutely dreaded the well-intentioned parents of my friends, offering me a Toyota lift home from school. I hated it because I was so ashamed. No one would ever understand what it felt like to be so different.

Terrified to have any friends over, I believed they would make fun of me and call me mentally ill for living there. I was still the new kid. I didn’t want to be called the new crazy. Then something happened when I was on the cusp of turning nine. Tired of being afraid, I decided it was time to grow up, time to shed my fear. Taking a deep breath, I carefully selected my birthday party invitations. I wrote out each one myself. Slowly, but confidently, my new friends were invited to The Cube. When the time came to put my address, I wrote 25 times on girlie pink invitation envelopes: 3000 South Erie Street Massillon, Ohio 44646 (on the grounds of Massillon state hospital).

Some parents called my mom, wanting to be assured it was safe and my mom reassured each one that their daughter would be fine. Every person came. They were inquisitive and asked a lot of questions. Does the school bus pick you up? It did. Do you talk to the patients? No. Are you scared? A little, but you get used to it. I tried to answer every question to show I was just like them. Eventually the questions died down and their curiosity turned to excitement. The verdict: they thought it was cool and loved coming over. Eventually my friends were begging me with a favor. With the mental hospital as the backdrop, it was perfect for a Halloween party, they said. I happily obliged.

It’s never just about what you remember. It’s what makes you feel.

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