Or how your memory fucks with you.
One of my earliest memories is of standing next to my sister’s bassinette when she first came home from the hospital. It was Halloween, and in my memory, I can feel the weight of my candy bag in one hand. I was barely tall enough to see over the edge of the low crib so I had rocked forward, up on my toes. In this crystal clear flash of memory, I see the baby so clearly, my new sister, a scrunchy-faced little interruption that didn’t belong there, dressed as a witch.
My mom had dressed her in a witch’s costume and even a pointed little black hat and shoes that curled up at the toes. I recalled this image with perfect clarity in a session with my psychiatrist, who commented, “How darling that your mom took so much trouble to dress a baby in a costume.”
Later that day I called my mom to boast of my razor-sharp visual recall of my spanking new baby sister. She was duly impressed, noting “That’s amazing, you were only three.” I went on to explain how I even remembered the baby costume, hat, pointy shoes, everything, causing her to pause a minute before saying, “Uh, Shari? Steffi was born on Oct 25th, she would have been six days old. I would not have put a newborn in a costume. Especially not a witch’s hat.”
Well that’s not how I remember it. Something wicked had my way come and I’m guessing in retrospect that I didn’t care much for the experience.
Up until that moment I was the baby, I got all the attention and hugging, and then this little hag shows up out of the seventh circle of hell and blatantly steals my mommy.
I was robbed.
My feelings for my sister improved vastly over the years, but apparently I’m not the only one with memory confusion. The demonizing of my sibling, it seems, is not unique to my mental processes, as I found out a few years later when my sister was recalling a different story at the dinner table.
Here’s how I recall the event under discussion. Growing up in Atlanta with lots of trees, we always had amazing rope swings. My dad would tie a thick rope to a high branch, put several knots in the bottom for standing or sitting on, and we would find a thousand ways to create new adventures.
I always loved a show (if only there had been some clue to my future!) and when my sister was about five, making me eight, we decided to put on a circus.
Steffi was smart, strong and flexible. So I set about creating tricks for her to do while using the rope swing. We worked up to her being able to hang upside down from it, holding on with both her hands and ankles, putting her in a position not unlike a human dart, her little body streamlined into an aerodynamic bolt, arms by her sides, legs straight up, and her face, the point, straight toward the ground.
Once she had that down I decided it was time for her to swing in that position, so far we had only done it with the rope dangling. So, with her holding on, back arched, toes pointed, I took hold of the knot and started to pull the rope back so that I could release it and see her fly.
But when I pulled the rope, she didn’t come with it. Instead, it came out of her hands and away from her feet and she dropped like a rocket, like the dart she was, face first, into the ground.
It still hurts when I remember the visual. She landed, nose first, rolled to one side and lay there. My recall is a little fuzzy after that. I remember parents fussing, a trip to the doctor-neighbor, to determine if Steffi’s nose was broken. It wasn’t, but the absence of skin and proliferation of bruising made for a pretty scrappy school photo that year.
I don’t’ remember my sister blaming me at the time. Just her little body sitting patiently on our neighbors’ sofa while the doctor gently prodded at her face and announced that her nose was not broken. I suppose I was relieved, but you know, as a kid there’s always that terrible fear that you’ve hurt your sibling, that you’ve been bad and that will suck because, you know, you get punished. I lurked around waiting to get into trouble, and I do not remember now if I was blamed then or not. Most likely I’ve selectively blocked that part out.
So it was a bit of shock, when, years later, I listened to Steffi tell the story at the dinner table. Except it wasn’t the story of two girls playing circus, rather it was a swift and condemning accusation of how I had deliberately pushed her and broken her nose.
And that definitely wasn’t how I remembered it. At all. Being accused of an action that was untrue hurt my feelings, and I moped about it, feeling the ‘poor me’ of being misunderstood. Or mis-remembered, as the case may be.
The visual of her falling three feet, face first onto the dirt, with nothing to break her fall but her nose, is seared into my memory, so I think I’m right. But let’s look at it from her point of view.
And her point of view was the ground, the earth in all it’s solid mass rushing up to meet her face.
Yep. I think it’s vaguely possible that the same moment might have registered slightly differently in her memory. So why do I keep feeling betrayed that she remembers it differently from the way I do? Why does that hurt my feelings like the child of eight I was when it happened, many moons ago?
Oh woe is me, the loneliness, the alienation, the lack of sympathy and love. No one understands me.
Because I know I’m right, damn it, and I will not concede! No matter how unhappy it makes me, how unreasonable it is, or how valid it is for someone else to feel differently.
The truth is…Memory and subsequent judgment are slippery little fuckers.
Don’t trust ’em.
Alas! The only way to clear my name and soul is to acknowledge that, though I’m not wrong, (universe forbid!) she might not be either. (grumble grumble) Though that’s as far as my indignation will allow me to chill. Which is stupid; human, but really truly stupid.
These days when I listen to someone who views a current situation in a way that I cannot even process, I try to remember that dichotomy of interpretations given by two sisters, who were both actually there, and multiply by infinity. We all remember things differently, each and every human being processes events and memories based on our very unique point of view.
So, even though not one single person’s perspective, in its entirety, will ever be accurately felt and understood by any other single person…
I still catch myself clutching my resentment and pain of feeling misunderstood tight to my chest like a beloved toy, a relic of childhood I should have outgrown. I’ll go on insisting my point of view is the only valid one, that I’ve been wronged, refusing to grow out of the hurt.
Cause memories are useful that way.
Shari, August 16th, 2016