In the memoir class I teach, I encourage students to choose single moments from their memories and expand them into vignettes. For starters, I suggested that they reach back into the past and try to recapture a very early memory — the earlier the better. I decided that I should practice what I preach, so I sat down with my notebook and rough sketched an early scene that I remembered.
This practice of rough sketching is, I’ve found, a creative way to capture images and scenes. I am no artist. Far from it. But I can draw rectangles and circles. It doesn’t take much imagination for me to call a rectangle a house — or a room — and a circle the top of a tree. Do you see what I mean? I just let the pencil roam — and create some semblance of the place a memory came from. Even stick figures are OK because this is a rough sketch and is not expected to be anything more.
So this particular day, I let the pencil draw the inside of the living room (called “front room” in those days), and I added the stick figures who inhabited that space in that particular moment of time. For what happened really didn’t take much more than a moment — though in my memory it seems now like so much more.
Here is the memory I captured. I started out by calling it VERTIGO because that’s how it made me feel. But for now, let’s just call it . . .
A Moment in Time
The house was full of people moving around like flies that couldn’t settle. They sounded like flies, too. Humming and buzzing. Not saying anything meaningful.
I stood among them, not knowing which way to turn, but watching . . . watching, as my grandfather, Papa Carter, came through the front door, half-carrying Mama. The screen door slammed behind him, but Mama didn’t say, Close the door quietly, like she usually did. Papa helped her to the couch, and Auntie Bess, Daddy’s sister, made her lie down. Then Auntie Bess looked around the room. She wore a searching look, and I headed for my safe place behind the easy chair in the corner, next to the fireplace, where my not quite three-year-old body fit perfectly.
There was no fire, though it was January. I was cold, yet not cold — hot on the outside, frozen in the middle. I reached my left arm toward the chimney seat that had our firewood inside, and a stack of books piled on the lid. I wanted to look at Noisy Nora. I couldn’t read the words yet, but I could look at the pictures and remember how the story went. It was about a girl who chewed with her mouth open and got put outside to eat with the animals. My sister told me that’s what would happen to me if I didn’t have good manners.
I should never have moved my arm, for it led Auntie Bess to me. “Com with me, dear,” she called. “Come right over here.”
I peeked around the corner of the chair. The room seemed like an image in Grandma’s stereopticon, except the people were moving. Especially one of them. Auntie Bess pushed past Mama Birdie and Grandma, took hold of my arm, and pulled me out into the open. “Your mama needs you,” she said.
She steered me over to the couch. I didn’t want to go. I wanted to be somewhere else. For a second, I considered running . . . running to the screen door. I would bang it behind me as hard as I could. All the people would jump from the noise. I would find Buster, my dog. We would walk up the street together, my hand on his back. Walk away . . . walk away . . .
Then Mama looked up at me. Her eyes were sad. I knew because it was the way people looked when they lost something and didn’t know where to start searching for it. She held out her arms.
No! I thought, but only for a second. Even if the eyes looked different, Mama would be the same. I climbed up and fitted my small body next to hers.
“There, now,” she said, as if those words solved everything.
I closed my eyes. I was suddenly tired. For the past few days I had stayed at Auntie Brown’s house next door, or at Mr. and Mr. Virgil Smith’s house across the street, where Mary Lou Smith never even yelled at me for sitting on her favorite record and cracking it in two pieces.
I had not slept in my own bed. I had been like a ship at sea. I had heard the family talking around the kitchen table after I was supposed to be asleep — but was listening instead. Uncle Will said that ships were sometimes set adrift. Those were his exact words: set adrift. He said that meant those ships didn’t have any anchor and they weren’t where they were supposed to be.
I had been adrift, but now I was home again, and as soon as all these people left, everything would be all right. I snuggled close to Mama’s belly, wondering if that could be my anchor. They I heard Uncle Orlyn say in that deep, slow voice that made him sound like he knew all the answers before anybody got a chance to ask a question:
“It’s a hard thing when a child’s first memory is of death.”
I knew about death. Uncle Walter had told me about his Uncle Nephi, who got killed by a grizzly bear in the mountains. After that, he was dead. That’s what Uncle Walter said. He couldn’t get up and ride his horse down the mountain any more.
“He went to Heaven,” Aunt Nellie told me.
“I doubt it,” Uncle Walter said.
I also knew about close calls because Auntie Brown told me about when she lived in a farmhouse, and it caught fire, and Uncle Brown wrapped her up in the bedding and threw her out the upstairs window. “It was a close call,” she told me. “I could have died, but I didn’t”
I knew that we killed ants, and sometimes a dog or cat died. They got stiff and smelled bad, and somebody had to bury them in the ground. Not the ants, though. They just shriveled. Once I stepped on a caterpillar, and it oozed green slush, and Papa told me I had killed it.
But I wasn’t sure what Uncle Orlyn meant by it’s a hard thing when a child’s first memory is of death. There wasn’t anything dead around here as far as I could tell. Uncle Orlyn was looking around the room when he spoke, but I knew the words were meant for me, for I was the only child in the room. And I knew he was telling everybody that this day would be the first memory I would carry with me for the rest of my life.
But he was wrong. If he hadn’t turned away and started talking to somebody else, I would have told him that I had lots of memories before today. I remembered saying the nursery rhymes that Daddy taught me. We would say the words together — him first, then me — until I got them right. Not just the words, but the rhythm. I liked the rhythm. It was almost like singing.
I remembered walking around the rocks that edged the big fish pond while Daddy held my hand so I wouldn’t fall in. I remembered the Christmas when I didn’t get a sack of candy at the church program — even though I recited my piece without a single mistake — and Daddy walked all the way back up the hill to get one for me. I remember that night he picked me up and held me so I was as tall as anybody else and taller than some.
I remembered him reading about the adventures of Tinker Town Tom from the book that had my sister’s name in it, but was really his and mine. I remember the time I crawled from under the dining room table into the front room where he was listening to the frost reports on the radio. He smacked his newspaper at me, and I squealed and scooted backward. Then we looked at each other and laughed.
I had lots of Daddy memories. I opened my eyes. Where was Daddy? He should be here with all the relatives. What could he be doing? I wanted to go through the house, room by room, and find him. I wanted to call, “Daddy! Daddy” and wait for him to come.
But I didn’t move. I lay on the couch, snuggled in Mama’s arms and wondering, Where are you? Where are you?
Just before I fell asleep, in some secret part of my almost three-year-old brain, far from the humming, buzzing voices, the words called out to me,
Then it was dark all around me, and the voices drifted away into muted patterns of sound. I slept a peaceful sleep. For I wasn’t yet able to put into words the thing my child-self unconsciously realized.
We have only one chance to capture each moment in time.