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

Within the embrace of psychotherapy, in whose arms I’ve spent an hour each week for 15 years, "The feelings are the facts." Which is all very well, assuming the availability of reality checks. Of, say, a brother who might call me on the claim of straight A’s: "There must have been a frigging B in there somewhere," he’d say. "PE," I’d answer, "and that doesn’t count." But maybe it would count to my brother, the one I don’t have. He might be a professional ballplayer, a perfect uncle for my son, who dreams of a glorious future as a New York Yankee. Or what about my sister, who might say, in her intimate knowledge of my flaws, "Piss off. You’re always hiding inside your head, behind your good grades, whatever." But I wouldn’t waste their voices on my grades — for topics like that, I have my boxes in the basement.

I didn’t mind being an only child, when I was a child. I understood the bargain it implied, that if I’d had siblings I would have lost the monopoly on my grandparents’ affection, halve or even more drastically reduce my mother’s infrequent attention. Like most children in such a position, I knew the stresses of the family in which I’d landed: a pair of guardians who were, respectively, 71 and 62 at my birth, old if not frail; a child-mother who never grew up; endless conflicts arising from our dwindling financial resources. Another child in the family would have applied that much more pressure to what was already as frayed as the carpets and drapes, the sprung sofa upholstered in an impractical pink chintz. Another child would have endangered me.

But as an adult, having long ago reached the age at which I’d expected to have left my only childhood far behind, I mind it very much. I want a witness, or better, two or three, to what I remember, a person or persons to whom I could turn and ask, "Remember that Christmas, the one when Mom…?"

Kathryn Harrison’s most recent book is Envy: A Novel (Random House). This memoir was adapted from "The Forest of Memory," which was recently published in Only Child: Writers on the Singular Joys and Solitary Sorrows of Growing Up Solo (Harmony).


Originally published in MORE magazine, February 2007.

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