The way I remember it.

February 17, 2011 § 11 Comments

My sister, Claudia, had never heard me do my stand-up-author routine when I got an invitation to speak in the Bronx.  I spent the night with her family in Manhattan and she and I set out.

I hadn’t been given much information about the event, but when we got to the gymnasium where I was to speak I learned my audience was a gathering of Special Ed students, great kids to work with but noisy and exuberant, and this group was huge, the gym an echo chamber.

Standing on the grey linoleum in front of a mike, the cord snaking back between my feet, I started out with the real-life story I’d adapted to create the pivotal moment in my book “Crossing Jordan.”

“My brother was a sickly kid.”  A few faces turn my way–sickness is interesting to kids.  “Sometimes when my sister and I went to school our baby brother was fine, but when we came home he’d be in the hospital.  For Chris, sick was normal.

“On the day this story happened he was sick—but just a little sick.”  I hold a hand up, my fingers a couple of inches apart.  “The rest of my family was downstairs eating Sunday dinner.  I was in my brother’s room reading him a story when I noticed he hadn’t interrupted, or asked a question for a while.  My brother talked a lot.”  I say this loudly, hoping to be heard over the interrupting and questioning going on in the room.

“I lowered the book and realized he wasn’t talking because,” long pause here to build tension, “he wasn’t breathing!”  The room quiets–immanent death is kind of interesting.

“During the time I’d been reading, his slight fever had gone up and up, and when it hit a hundred and five it triggered a seizure!” Long paus.  “Chris was white and stiff  and his teeth were clenched!”  This sentence is delivered through clenched teeth.

“I’d just learned how to give mouth-to-mouth resuscitation in Girl Scouts.”  I pause, mouth-to-mouth-anything always gets a look of disgust out of a young audience.  Everyone looks disgusted.  “I didn’t listen very hard during that mouth-to-mouth class.  You know how you think you’ll never use stuff like that so you mostly eat the snack and talk to your friends?  Well that day I had to use it!  I did everything I remembered, I tipped back his head, I squeezed his nose shut.”  I tip back an invisible head, squeeze a non-existent nose.

“But I couldn’t get any air into him because his teeth were so clenched!  I ran next door to fetch our neighbor, who happened to be an ambulance volunteer.  I remember that everything…slowed…down.”  I mime running next door, knocking and asking for my help, all in slow motion–my voice sounds like a 45 rpm record played at 33 rpm).

The story went on, my brother was saved!  My co-presenter, fellow children’s book author, Myron Uhlberg, did a magic act, pulling quarters out of kids ears.

“Tough crowd,” said my sister as we left.  She works with crowds too.  Hers are made up of investment bankers she’s training to sell financial services.  “And I liked the story too, only you changed it.”

“Changed it?

was reading to Chris that day.  You were downstairs eating dinner.”

“Was not!”

“Were too!”

She gave me credit for giving Chris mouth-to-mouth and running next door in slow motion, but we couldn’t settle the dispute over who was with him that day when the seizure began.  Our memories of reading the book and discovering that Chris was seizing were identical.  Only the point of view character was different.

We will never know whose memory is giving them more credit than they deserve.  My brother was too young to remember the incident and our parents are dead.

This “eyewitness” dispute is not uncommon.  When it comes to facts, memory is an unreliable witness.  But it is very good at identifying an event’s real meaning.  My brother’s seizure was the first time my sister and I had ever been at the heart of a life-or-death situation, and in each of our memories we cast ourselves as the one closest to the drama.

Through telling and retelling an important event gets refined down to its most salient elements.  It develops pauses and accompanying facial expressions.  Over time story replaces the event itself.

There are stories in my family that were told and retold about events I never witnessed.  Each has come to stand for some family trait and contributes to my sense of who I am.

Story 1: The Wedding Ring

My Aunt Kate never took her wedding ring off.  At best it was bad luck.  At worst it could break a marriage.  But she was desperate.  Her husband was out of work, there was no money in the house, her family, along with most of America, was being ground down by The Great Depression.  Something had to change.  She slid her wedding ring off and turned it around.  And things got better.  It is a little known fact that the back of the Depression was broken by Kate Fogelin, but it was.

Family truth: We are strong, resilient, brave.  We are not victims.

Story 2: The Fly in the Soup

My grandfather wanted to impress his fiancé so he took her to an expensive restaurant and grandly told her to order anything she wanted.  And she did.  Doing the math in his head he realized that he didn’t have enough money in his pocket to pay for the meal.  Humiliation always being one of his biggest fears he sat, as prayerful as he ever got… and a fly appeared.  It circled once, then dove straight into my future grandmother’s soup.  He let the fly drown quietly before raising a fuss about this bowl of soup that had a dead fly in it!  No!  They would not like another bowl of soup!  Just the check please!  Imagine, a restaurant that served soup with a fly in it!

Family truth: We are clever and lucky, masters of the art of bullshit.

Story 3:  The Engagement Ring

My future parents sat in the shade of a tree.  My future mother handed my future father back the engagement ring he had given her.  Her father and brother had convinced her it was her duty to care for them since her own mother was dead—this was what good Italian girls did in those days.  Unnoticed by either of them was the patch of poison ivy in which they were sitting.  My father got a light case, but my mother’s reaction was so bad her eyes swelled and sealed shut.  She was in bed when he came to visit her—and to repeat his offer of marriage.  Lying in the poison ivy induced dark Maria Bontempi realized that a man who was willing to swallow his pride to propose to a pile of shiny lumps was worth defying her family for.

Family truth: We are determined, resolute, fierce in our affections–and the gene for a strong allergic reaction to poison ivy is dominant.

Memory, over time, refines important events, turning them into stories.  Details that support the meaning of the story are given prominence, those that don’t are forgotten.  Truth is revealed as the story emerges—even if some of what happens in that story never really did.

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§ 11 Responses to The way I remember it.

  • tgumster says:

    Oh, I love Crossing Jordan; truly, I was just thinking about re-reading it. Always like the way it makes me feel. Thanks, Adrian, for telling us the “truth.”

    In my rag-tag bag of career junkets, I was an editor for a Wyoming daily newspaper in the 1970s. More often than not, I wondered how many stories–including the major wire services–wended around “facts” that did not fit, and was that important?

    I am almost convinced I was a concerned journalist but that’s not what I remember. My memory is falling in love with language and realizing college was in my future. It’s a better story, anyway–sometimes fire, sometimes ice.

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    • I tried journalism while living in the Keys, working for The Keynoter. The almost-true always seemed more interesting than the factually true. That’s when I realized I could either become a fiction writer or a damned convincing liar–oh shoot! Maybe they’re one and the same.

      Thanks for the kind words about “Crossing Jordan.”

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      • tgumster says:

        “That’s when I realized I could either become a fiction writer or a damned convincing liar–oh shoot! Maybe they’re one and the same.”

        In my life, they’ve always been a united front.

        Like

  • When my dad was a boy – the oldest of five brothers and second oldest of the eight kids – he and his brothers liked to play horseshoes. But instead of an iron rod in a sand pit, their target was the chinaberry tree in the side yard. One day Dad tossed the horseshoe so hard it lodged around the trunk of the chinaberry and there it stayed for 50+ years.

    Then in the late 60’s, Uncle LC went out to the old place on Cottonwood Creek and cut the chinaberry down – the city was about to build a park/playground there. He found that horseshoe buried deep inside the tree. Carefully, he cut the section out of the trunk and then gave it to Dad as a present and a reminder of the good old days.

    Fast forward about 10 years. Uncle LC’s memoir is published with great anticipation – anticipation that soon turned to consternation. He had made himself the hero of the chinaberry horseshoe story, as well as other stories about the boys’ adventures. He, not Uncle Nelse, was the culprit who blew into the mule’s ears every chance he got, finally causing the mild-mannered plower to bolt and almost trample their dad. I could go on, but I won’t. Suffice it to say, some of his brothers refused to buy the book or speak to him for some time, although Dad just chuckled and let it pass. There oldest sister Ethel, though, wrote her memoir to refute his. Such is the turmoil of life’s memory. Better to take the incident, change the names to protect the innocent (or guilty) and call it fiction!

    MLS

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    • I would love to know whether Uncle LC believed those were his adventures or knew that he had appropriated the best stuff from of his siblings’ lives–and I really believe our stories are our best stuff.

      What a great tale, Mary Lois, can I say that it happened to me?

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  • This post brims with treasure.
    First – how fabulous that on your first event with your sister in tow, it led to the very fun “my story/your story” discussion.
    Second, how empowering for a child to realize their mere action can save a life. How is Chris today?
    It’s so typical about every family having those disagreements. It’s also true that in some families, publishing those memories written “the wrong way” will lead to rifts. That happened between my Uncle & his little Sister, my Mom. They patched it up, fortunately, but it was bumpy there for awhile.
    Finally, I am thrilled to know that trick from your Aunt Kate, about turning a ring around & will keep it in mind for a future crisis.

    many thanks for Slow Dance Journal, Adrian

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    • My brother is 6’4, gregarious, and he retired at 50. He’s done fine.

      I have one more thought about memory. It is a wonder that a single “eyewitness” testimony can sometimes determine the outcome of a trial. The unconscious reshaping of events can’t be unique to family. A memory can be clear and vivid–and yet have never happened.

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  • Carl Fogelin says:

    Ok, this is Adrian’s brother “Chris”. Don’t let my using my first name rather than my nickname confuse you. As to the incident, I was rather preoccupied and young at the time so I don’t remember that happening although the story I had heard from Mom was that this event took place in a hospital and that Amy had run to get a nurse. Seeing as I was hospitalized at least 11 times by the 2nd grade, who am I to refute any version. And Amy, for family memories, I have one word for you: “AVONALLIV”. 🙂 – Bro

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    • You are soooo wrong Chris! Ask Claud. We are at least in agreement when it comes to location. The help came from Art Stoller. But yes, you were in the hospital all the time. I remember “oxygen tent” stays during which no one could even touch you.

      As for AVONALLIV, for those not fortunate enough to be Fogelins, we had a slide we loved from a family vacation of a boat moored at the dock. We wondered for years about the odd name until we realized someone had put the slide in the tray backwards.

      Like

  • Sheila says:

    First of all, Adrian, I cherish your “Slow Dance” blogs and save them for for when I have time to savor and reflect. Thank you for putting such beautiful , universal thoughts into the air.
    My mother was ill a lot when I was in elementary school, and a then-maiden aunt came to s stay with me for weeks at a time.
    My mother died in 2000, and now at age 90 my aunt and I talk about those days. We remember different things–
    she is so touched that I remember her making me small cousages each morning out of sweetpeas–it was something her father had done for her. She has no memory of doing it for me. She didn’t know that I by-passed saying ‘hello’ to my mother in her bed as she asked me to (obviously some 8 year old anger there). I don’t remember begging her not to leave when it was time for her to return home, but I do remember that every summer I visited her and her future husband and children I felt safer than anywhere else on earth.
    Now I cherish these telephone calls with such a special person even if we often can’t straighten out memories and she’s no help in finding out where my dark haired, dark eyed mother came from in a family that dates back to pure anglican blond, blue eyed stock!

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  • The workings of memory are so strange. How does memory choose what to keep, what to lose, and what to alter? Perhaps it doesn’t choose at all.

    The time you and your aunt shared and the memory of love it left behind is what matters.

    Like

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