Speak, Memory: An Only Child Remembers

With her parents gone and no siblings to help her remember her childhood, Kathryn Harrison wonders: What was growing up really like?

By Kathryn Harrison

But what of my memories, decades old and unavoidably inaccurate? I try honorably to remember things as they really were, but the context in which I revisit a scene from my past — walking through a park, listening as my daughter practices piano, alone or in company — whatever my preoccupation, it necessarily contaminates the original. If biology, chemistry, and psychiatry can agree on anything, it is that memories are not received but created. What’s more, they’re subject to automatic, unavoidable revision. Honor is useless here.

Just last evening, my husband alluded to a mishap he believed he had witnessed. In 1994, our daughter, then 4, and our son, 2, stepped into an elevator while I was folding his stroller. I looked up, the doors closed, my children ascended without me. As we were visiting a big apartment building, with a whole bank of elevators, an hour of panicked weeping elapsed before a woman who found them in the laundry room reunited the three of us in the lobby.

"You weren’t there," I said, disagreeing with my husband.

"Yes, I was."

"No. If you’d been with us, if there had been two parents in that situation, it never would have happened."

"But I was sure I was there." He looked at me, confused.

"It’s just that we’ve spoken of what happened enough times that you think you were with us, but you weren’t." He nodded slowly, not quite convinced. "We could call Lori," I said. "She’ll remember that it was just me and the kids." Lori was the friend whom I’d taken our children to see and who enlisted her doorman and neighbors to help find and return them.

My husband shrugged and went back to what he had been reading. "That’s okay," he said, choosing to believe me because I had the means to correct his misperception.

And what of my childhood memories? There is nothing that unfolded in the house of my childhood that anyone can confirm or deny. Countless transactions, most without consequence, but some fraught with significance — primal, formative, determinate — lack any witness other than myself. In the abstract, my being free of siblings, of parents, of anyone who might object to my dissembling or even take note of an untruth, might provide me a tempting invitation to reinvent history. But only in the abstract, only in theory. When I test the idea, contemplating how completely possible it is to rewrite my early years, it frightens me. What I feel isn’t freedom but a free fall, and what could check the speed of my descent? Humans agree that what we call reality depends on its being observed by at least one person. When a tree falls in my forest of memories and no one else hears it, has it happened? Is there a sound of one hand clapping? To be less philosophical, imagine yourself at a cocktail party, moving from one clot of guests to the next, one conversation to another. Are not these inadvertent opportunities to eavesdrop on the self as it slides from one context into another, shedding some pretenses, picking up others, revealing what, minutes before, it had hidden, sufficiently disturbing? If identity is fluid under these pedestrian circumstances, how reliable is the self whose past exists only inside her own head? How, without parents or siblings, can I really know what or who I was?

Replaying the Scene

Among my memories, that part of my history represented by nothing more material than traces of neurochemicals in my cerebral cortex, Christmas morning 1966 is the most puzzling of all I possess. I woke up early, so early that it was still dark outside. But winter mornings were dark, and I was always up before my grandparents or my mother. I got out of bed; I didn’t check the time. Either I couldn’t yet read a clock, or I was too intent on the stocking that hung from one of my bed’s tall posts. My grandparents’ house included a hearth that was greeting-card perfect for hanging a Christmas stocking; the mantel was carved from a massive oak beam and outfitted with hooks from which dangled pokers and pincers and bellows, even a bed warmer and a chestnut roaster, but I was not encouraged to leave my empty stocking in their company. I wonder whether this wasn’t because a single stocking looked too forlorn there by itself, too only.

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