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

It is only as I consider my early years with the express purpose of divining how I feel, or felt, about having been an only child that I understand — suddenly and with no little anxiety — why this story of Magritte and his mother’s suicide has compelled and disturbed me for so many years. Ever since I learned of it, accidentally, while pursuing the larger topic of memory and how reliably (factually) true it might or might not be, I’ve revisited the scene over and over, picturing the artist as he pictured himself, seeing a boy, a boy the same age as my son is now — how clearly, then, can I imagine his form, the slope of his shoulders, the balled fists at his sides — as he stands on the bank of a river to watch as the corpse of his mother is pulled from the water. Of course the body frightens the boy in its faceless nakedness, its flesh I see as if rendered by the surrealist himself, gray and shadowed, like the shuttered house in his 1954 painting Empire of Light, in which a simple nighttime landscape is made sinister by its having a brightly daylit sky overhead.

Magritte and I knew only the same few facts: One night we awoke; we found our mothers’ beds empty; we alerted our families; a tragedy ensued. That the artist’s story, far more dire than my own, included a set of ghostly footprints leading to a terrible truth would appeal, naturally, to a child who followed the ashy tracks of an intruder in her home, one who threatened to steal an idea she valued above all her possessions: that, contrary to appearances, her mother had been paying her careful attention all along. But if Magritte unconsciously fabricated a narrative to explain his terror, might the Christmas memory in question, over which I’ve puzzled for 40 years — holding it dear, the way one guards the instrument of a dangerous wound (the way, for example, a soldier might preserve a piece of shrapnel dug out of his chest) — might that morning never have happened? Or might it have happened very differently from the way I believe it did?

The pieces of the story are, all of them, as emblematic of my early unhappiness as are, say, a dove and olive branch ready examples of religious iconography. My mother’s bed that she hadn’t slept in was the bed I visited each day after she moved out, standing before the lie it spoke, its sheets changed weekly as if to suggest, like the rest of her room, that her return was imminent. The Christmas stocking, whose contents I fetishized and displayed each year, never playing with the toys or eating the candies but arranging them in a tableau on my dresser, a little altar to my fearful worship of my mother: what better evocation of the celebrated position of my single parent, who removed herself from the realm of the everyday mother to become a kind of holiday apparition? The night itself, when Christmas Eve becomes Christmas Day, is the one upon which a child’s worthiness — her naughtiness or niceness — is judged and found either sufficient or wanting. It well represents the everlastingly long night of my soul, obsessed, as I was to become, with the idea of my goodness and what it might afford me; if not the return of my mother, then some other reward, someone else’s admiration. The bedpost with its missing canopy recalls asthma, a looming threat of suffocation (and the grandmother, too, propped up on her pillows to avoid feeling smothered). And, finally, the most troubling aspect of the memory, that it was my actions that caused my mother to leave me, is almost too neatly textbook to be true. Don’t all children hold themselves responsible for their abandonment?

Do I remember this night so vividly, with a heightened, almost hallucinatory attention to detail, because it evoked my childhood so perfectly? Or did I unconsciously collect and/or fabricate symbols of my past to assemble them into a story in order that I might contain them within the mnemonic device of a narrative so as not to lose these critical aspects of myself?

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