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

I stood on the end of my bed to lift the bulging thing from over the post’s finial, unobstructed by the bed’s canopy, which had been removed because it gathered dust and made me wheeze. How satisfying was the stocking’s weight and the way tissue paper wrappings crinkled from within it. This stocking was one I inherited from my mother and had her name, Carole, embroidered across its top. Below was an appliqued tree of green wool felt, decorated with pea-sized ornaments made of colored glass and candles fashioned from minuscule strips of white patent leather, each about the size of half a toothpick, an orange bead for a flame. As if it were still hers, I carried the stocking to my mother’s room to unpack its contents with her. With regard to the issue of Santa Claus’s identity, I teetered on a cusp between what I wished and what I feared. That it might have been my mother who had assembled so perfect an array of tiny gifts, that she could have known me so well — enough to penetrate my desires and satisfy them — was a more seductive and cherished idea than that of a jolly old man who squeezed down chimneys. In service to the latter conceit, my grandfather effected the standard transformations, reducing the cookies and cocoa left on the mantel to crumbs and dregs, a thank-you note written in an unfamiliar hand. And he performed a supplementary trick, dipping his shoes into the cold ashes and leaving a trail of footprints from there to my bedroom and back, a trail so convincing that I was afraid it was true, what I’d been told. Santa Claus, corpulent and sweating, had been far more perverse than I could have expected from my department store visit to his red velour lap, criminal enough to break into our home and creep about while we slept.

But as I wanted the stocking to be my mother’s work, I intended to watch her as I undid it, in order to gauge her investment in my pleasure. I remember — I can see — my mother’s bed, which, as revealed by the moonlight, had not been slept in, and I stood for some minutes holding the stocking and trying to imagine a benign reason for her absence. Was there such a moment? Had I a brother or sister, I would have gone at once to his or her room that we might confer over this unexpected — alarming — turn of events. But I was alone, and so I walked by myself through the hall to the shadowy living room, anxious speculations about my mother’s whereabouts rendering me immune to the sinister power of a portrait whose subject, I’d convinced myself, climbed out of her frame to do mischief unobserved. When I’d determined my mother was nowhere in the house, I went to my grandmother’s bedside and touched her shoulder. A light sleeper, she woke instantly and sat forward rather than up from her pillows, piled high to keep her that much more upright and offset the breathlessness caused by her rheumatic heart.

"What?" she said. "What is it?" When I told her, she swung her feet over the side of the bed and stamped one in anger. "If that doesn’t…" she began but didn’t finish. Instead she snapped on the light and woke my grandfather. "Gone!" she announced to his startled countenance. "How do you like that! She’s gone! Snuck off in the middle of the night!"

Immediately I understood that alerting my grandmother to my mother’s disappearance had been the exactly wrong thing to do. My mother wasn’t lost; she’d escaped. And I had betrayed her, I, who was always searching to discover the means of ingratiating myself, of proving my worth to my remote and distracted young mother, of insinuating myself between her and the lovely reflection in her mirror, between her and the novel in her lap, the telephone receiver in her hand. Meaning well, I had done something awful and irrevocable.

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