Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Addressing memories

Memories have become a physical possession of mine. They require closet space and storage bins. If I were organizing them I might do well to separate the bins by state of residence at the time of the memory. The childhood memories, mostly crafted in the same state, could be divided into smaller bins. First, a tiny cup, or maybe a cleaned up baby food jar to hold the amorphous, humid memories I have of my first few years in Florida. I'd put the snap of an alligator's clapping maw in there with some tree frogs and fire ants. I'd put the sight of my grandmother sitting in a metal lawn chair in there, too.

The next container should be a bit larger, and accommodate a haphazard collection from adolescence. A large shoebox is about right, the kind that once held tall boots. I'd label it Lodi, NJ, even though some of the earliest scenes at the bottom would really have taken place in Elmwood Park. I'd have to toss in the hand-quilted afghans my father's mother made and laid out on what I recall was a mattress on the floor in the back room of the Martha Ave house. In the box would be pieces of orange and brown linoleum and whatever fluff or springs remain from a wind-up, musical stuffed donkey that might have played "it's a small world (after all)." It would hold the spilled contents of the kitchen knife drawer. It would hold the sound of my mom slamming the front door and later click of her opening it again to retrieve me.

Projected on the back of the boot box would be Solid Gold, the TV show that marked the most boring stretch of Saturday afternoons when my mother and I lived in our first dad-free apartment. It would also house a chip of damp stucco that I'd popped off of the outside wall of the building we lived in. There would be a soggy mass of washing machine lint from the portable unit my mother scraped the money together to buy to save us from the laundromat. I can still see it hooked up to the kitchen sink while Solid Gold played in the background. It would hold the memory of my mother's first date as a divorced woman, even though that memory is not mine, but I like to imagine it and look at my stepfather as the boy he must have been then at 21. A picture of Mouser, my beleaguered black and white kitten is in there.

There would have to be room in the boot box for the second dad-free home---much better than the first. I'd put clothespins from my grandmother's laundry line in the box and my cousins' first Atari system when we'd all lived together, packed into grandma's tiny cape, wondering when we'd have a chance to stretch out. That house was also the house of the snoring grandparents. The ones who fell asleep watching Murder, She Wrote while sitting in the living room next to my bedroom. I'd stare at the dark ceiling that looked like it might as well have been 50 feet above me for all I could see in the darkness. I'd stare and count the window rattling snores like so many sonorous sheep. My mom worked close enough then that she'd been able to come home and make me lunch when I was ill; I most miss those greasy, delicious burgers with nothing more than ketchup (maybe cheese) that I smooshed, hot and gooey, between slices of white bread. The bread would cling to my fingertips while I ate. I admit I was only physically sick on some of those days, the rest I was home sick for my mom's company. Among the items from that house would be a small square of paper dressed with the quick, graceful sketch of a young woman's profile that my grandmother made for me along with her confession that she'd once wanted to pursue a life as an artist.

In that crowded corner I must also cram my first experience with my would-be stepfather's epilepsy and grand mal seizures; those are coincident with my first memory of real empathy and choosing to love someone because I wanted to, not because I felt I should.

After grandma's house we moved to our second and poshest apartment. Its memories are the most tangible, tactile. I can feel the scabs crusting on my knees after a girl at school dragged me across the playground by my wrists. I can taste the microwaved food we ate because we could, because my grandfather had brought us a juggernaut of a box that I once exploded an apple in. Flickering images of MTV and my notes from the night I tried to stay awake until morning (2:13 AM, DJ Jazzy Jeff and The Fresh Prince---again) would be pinned beneath a memory of a birthday party spent watching Desperately Seeking Susan. Maybe the puffball tail of the Popple I'd had then would be in the carton. That I remember because the girl with cooties---awkward and universally unliked---had invited herself to my house for a sleepover and hit me with the puffball tail while I slept. My mother had wanted me to take pity on her. By morning she'd realized some people earn their banishment. This was also the place where I could climb in through the back window if I clambered up on the bulkhead door shed any of the umpteen times I left my key behind.  I was a latch-key kid then. A phrase that pretended to mean a kid who was wild, nearly parentless, and as pitiable as a girl with cooties.

That was the last Lodi place. After we moved I'd have taped down the shoebox lid. In that place the three of us promised to become a family and move to a better suburb, a better life, a better existence. The memories from this last apartment, the one before our first house, are also the memories I cut off and sealed away from the new ones I'd make with my mother and stepfather (later my baby sister and brother, too). Lodi belongs in a box. There is happiness in it and there are the treasures whose value only I can estimate. But it's also a place best left in the darkest part of the closet, leaving plenty of shelves in the sunshine for more temperate memories to repose.