The way I remember it.
February 17, 2011 § 11 Comments
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.”
“I was reading to Chris that day. You were downstairs eating dinner.”
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.