My brother called me this past weekend and started off the conversation with, “Do you remember that red sweater you had when you were three or four? I think Mom knitted it for you, or maybe Grandmother.” Uh-huh. Of all the things I’d remember from when I was three, a red sweater is not one of them unless I had, say, sliced my arm open and bled all over the sweater. I might remember that. But no, I didn’t remember a red sweater. I did remember that my mother and grandmother never knitted a thing in their entire lives (a tradition that I have proudly continued into a new generation). I pointed this out to my brother who conceded that our mother never knitted and then he allowed, “I don’t really remember anything from my childhood.” This, I think, is his way of coping with the more unfortunate facts of his and my youth. Our mother developed a brain tumor when I was five and he was fifteen (it killed her about five years later). Our dad left the following year when I was six. Not a lot of good stuff to remember, really.
But back to the red sweater. Somehow this red sweater made it into my brother’s box of keepsakes and was worn by two of his daughters, and all these years later is still in his possession. He was looking to offload it on me. He even offered to frame this treasure from my youth. No way was I going to let that happen! “Tom, I have no memory of this sweater and you can’t palm it off on me with this lame story!” Â He kept up his efforts for a bit longer but eventually gave in to the fact that I was unwilling to take on the sweater or the memory.
The conversation did make me think about memory, and the how and why of what we remember, and what we don’t remember. Tom’s claim to have no memory of his childhood is not, of course, completely true. I know that. But my memories, or what I like to think are my memories are shaped as much by the things other people have told me as by what I actually remember – or in some cases even experienced. I mean, my mother died when I was ten, and my father was gone by the time I was six. What do I really remember of them? And of the things I remember, how do I know it’s actually my memory, or an apocryphal story that’s been told to me so often I have taken it on as my memory? Take that red sweater – it turns out the reason Tom thought that my grandmother or mother knitted it was because our older sister told him so and he bought into the myth and made it his own. As it happened, it wasn’t his memory at all. I have lots of memories like that. I treasure them and I want them to be mine, and over time, they have come to be mine. How about the time when I spilled cereal at my aunt’s house when I was three or four (was I wearing the red sweater, perhaps?) and cried, “Son of a bitch, I ‘pilled the cereal!” Sure, I remember that like it was yesterday – NOT! But it was my aunt’s favorite story about me and she told it so often in my hearing, I eventually felt like I could hear a much younger me actually saying the words.
As I get older, I find this myth of memory to become even more true. But now it’s not other people who embellish the event, it’s me. The true facts of a thing lose their sharp edges and over time take on a sepia-toned pleasant fuzziness where once there was cold, hard truth. I think now that it’s a kindness, that the harshness of reality over time becomes softened, gentler, by our minds. The outright bad stuff isn’t necessarily forgotten but it is relegated to the dark corners where it is much less frequently accessed than the shiny happy stuff.
All that being said, I guess if my brother wants to send me the red sweater I should let him, and then let him think that I have lovingly put it away somewhere safe. I don’t need to tell him about how I immediately gave it to the Goodwill. I’ll leave him to the myth of his memories.