They say you always remember your first time. I have the distinct first memory of floating in my mother’s womb, kicking and waiting to be born. I recall emerging from her body to bright lights, getting slapped, screaming on arrival. I remember my crib had a swirling carnival of circus animals above it. I pooped a lot. I recall the first time I stood upright, teetered for a few steps, and then fell back on my butt. My parents applauded as if I had just flown solo across the Atlantic. My first words were a bunch of gibberish, a cross between “mama” and “caca-sissy-boom-boom.” My first birthday party was most noticeable for the number of adults in the room chain-smoking cigarettes. It was the early 1950s and the Marlboro Man was just as likely a doctor as a cowboy.
Of course, I remember no such events, at least not consciously. In fact, I can’t recall much of my life before the age of seven. I probably ate my fair share of paste and occasionally wet the bed, two accomplishments considered neither preconscious nor book-worthy.
Henry James encouraged writers to be one of those upon whom nothing is lost. Joseph Conrad piled on with his rule claiming the task of a writer is to make readers see. But what about those of us who set out to write a memoir yet are equipped with faulty or incomplete memories, writers with recollection skills that are less Sherlockian and more like what popped out of Mrs. Malaprop’s mouth?
Watch any Godzilla movie and you’ll probably see someone looking away at the precise moment of debacle, unaware that the great monster of film lore is about to roast another metropolis. I am a kindred spirit to that unaware person, which makes writing a memoir especially challenging for me. I admire writers who can plunge the depths of their life like James Cameron in a submersible and bring up jewels. I splash around in the shallow end of the memory pool and call it a day.
Perhaps that’s because other writers are better armed to wrestle with their past. James Thurber, for example, claimed a near-photographic memory and, even late in life, said he could recall the birthdays of his fellow students from elementary school. I can’t recall what I had for breakfast this morning but I believe it involved whole-wheat toast.
Then, of course, there’s Marcel Proust, the father of all memory writers, who after savoring not toast but a French cookie known as a madeleine, went on to write a seven volume novel based on the experience and titled it Remembrance of Things Past. That’s an exaggeration, of course. His seven volumes cover more than a cookie.
I have my own cookie memory. During my senior year in high school I lost twenty pounds to “make weight” for the wrestling season. My parents didn’t know what to do because I was starving myself by sticking to a diet of five hundred calories a day, supplemented mostly by laxatives. Before long I was as emaciated as a vegan on a cattle drive. My Swedish grandmother came to my rescue and made me a five-pound tin of butter cookies; I ate them all in one day. My cookie memory is only a paragraph, not seven volumes, but that’s my point.
Maybe I had pancakes this morning?
Put another way, I write with the broad strokes of an Abstract Expressionist rather than the tiny dots of a Pointillist. As a más o menos kind of writer, I round up or round down without distinction and as the mood fits. I like to think of myself as a big picture sort of writer. I may not reach for all the gusto I can get, but I grab for the Gestalt.
Case in point, my “Uncle Teddy” episode.
I was eight and my sister was ten. Whenever we visited relatives in the San Francisco Bay Area, we always stopped by to see Great Aunt Selma, a feisty old woman who drank far too much whiskey, read The Police Gazette with the religious conviction of reading the Bible, and resided in a quaint cottage, along a curved cobble-stoned path, behind a large house in Alameda.
At the time, Selma lived with Teddy, her third husband, a retired Merchant Seaman confined mostly to bed. It seemed all he did was sleep. But to me, Teddy wasn’t just an Old Salt collecting a Seaman’s pension—he was a pirate. And to reinforce his pirate status, Teddy wore a patch over one eye.
Every visit ended the same. Before we could leave, Aunt Selma would ask us to “Come and see Uncle Teddy.” My parents would remain behind in the living room, while my sister and I cautiously followed the old woman, Hansel and Gretel-like, into the bedroom, a dark and smelly place. Aunt Selma would turn on the brass light by the bed, rouse her husband awake, roughly shaking him by the shoulders, and, using both of her hands, pry open his one good eye. “Look who’s here to see you, Teddy,” she’d tell him. “Look who’s here to see you!” The groggy ex-sailor would mumble something and fall back to sleep.
After a brief pause, my great aunt would pull back the sheets and expose the decaying fish-white body of her husband. She’d turn to my sister and say, bitterly, as if warning her to stay away from all males, “See what I ended up with?”
Any writer with a better knack for detail and a mind capable of remembering things past would be able to describe the exact perfume Aunt Selma wore, by brand and fragrance, and would flash back to days gone by whenever catching a whiff of the same in streets or stores. If I were better at my job I would instantly recall the color of the bedroom carpet and could devote an entire chapter to discussing its texture. I could make you, the reader, smell the thick stench that hovered in the closed-up room like a peat bog, see what long-forgotten TV show was flickering on the small black and white set topped with rabbit ears. The truth is I can’t even tell you which eye Uncle Teddy covered with a patch. To this day, I don’t know for sure, but since Teddy wasn’t a spider I can guess one of two eyes and have a fifty-fifty chance of getting it right.
There’s an old joke about a visitor to a cathedral. The bishop in charge is giving the visitor a tour. They end up in the bell tower, just as the bell-ringer pulls the rope to do his job. The rope snaps in two and falls to the floor. Undeterred, the bell-ringer swings into action. He runs head-first as fast as he can into the bells. The bells ring once. He takes another run at the bells and rings them a second time. He charges at the bells and rings them still again. The bishop and visitor watch in amazement. Finally, the visitor turns and asks, “Who is that man?” The bishop says, “I can’t recall his name. But his face sure rings a bell.”
If we meet on the street and I can’t remember your name, I ask your forgiveness in advance. I wish I could blame my limited recall on the aging process. But I’ve never been good at remembering details or paying close attention to them. I suspect the only practical reason I still carry around a photo ID is so that I won’t forget who I am.
The stories in this collection take place long after my seventh birthday and are all true, except the ones that aren’t. And at this point in my life I’m not sure I can tell the difference. That’s because, unlike James or Conrad or Proust or Thurber and so many other writers I respect and admire and envy, I have a mind like a steel sieve.
Now I remember. I had a bagel for breakfast. With a schmear.