I used to think that I understood memory: whether it was the fickle type (like Ronald Reagan’s during the Iran Contra hearings) or the persistent (like Proust and his madeleines), I always believed I understood how memory worked: an event occurred, and it was either remembered, or it wasn’t; there didn’t seem to be a whole lot of room for shades of gray. And then I had my daughter, Clementine, and I realized that, actually, there were more kinds of memory than had ever been dreamt of in my philosophies: not only were there such things as good memories, bad memories, and even false memories, but there was also something that could only be described as a contrary memory, or a memory that seemed to exist just to cause chagrin.
How else would you explain Clementine’s redacted memories of nearly every event in our family’s history?
Take pancake breakfasts, for example–the kind they hold at fire stations and American Legion halls. It has long been our family tradition to attend any and all pancake breakfasts; in fact, we have been sitting under portraits of JFK and eating rubbery pancakes off of paper plates since before we could even be considered a “family” at all–back when it was just my husband and myself. And, really, why wouldn’t we? I mean, where else will you ever get the chance to speak with the governor while an eight-year-old is trying to take your order? (This really happened–Fourth of July, 2005). And where else can you tuck into a meal groaning under the weight of it’s own carbohydrates without feeling a single bit of guilt? (Have seconds, even: it’s all for a good cause.) And so, with such a long history of public service eating, it was no surprise to find our family attending a recent pancake breakfast at the downtown American Legion Hall–a fundraiser for the local swim team, the Flagstaff Snow Sharks. Or, at least it was no surprise to anyone but Clementine.
Since this event had the audacity to take place in the morning (also known in our house as The Time of She Who Must Not Be Awakened), it was a very surly Clementine indeed that sat across the table from us, desultorily picking at her pancakes, and an even surlier one who finally pushed them aside and asked, “So, when did we decide we were going to start doing these “family” things?” In vain I tried to point out to her our family’s long history of attending pancake breakfasts, and, in fact, had just started in on a recitation of the many years we had attended this breakfast alone (complete with the corroborating evidence of the many times we had urged her to join the Snow Sharks while sitting at these very tables) when, continuing on as if I had never spoken, she added an equally petulant: “And how come you never let me join a swim team?
At this point my reply started to sound more like scatting than talking: in fact, I was so amazed that I found it difficult to even speak in complete words, let alone complete sentences.
“But I–you–we–what about–how can–crazy–don’t you remember?”
“No,” she said cooly, looking around the room and clearly imagining all the happy years she could’ve spent with her swim club pals, if only we hadn’t been so damn selfish. “I don’t.”
On reflection, I should’ve been prepared for both denials–the pancake and the swim club one. After all, she also has clear memories of all the times we didn’t allow her to learn to ski, wouldn’t let her try new foods, and how we, for years, fiendishly kept her from discovering how much she really liked baseball. To hear her tell it, it was a childhood straight out of Oliver Twist. Or at least the Clementine version of it.