I Remember It as Clear as Day

blocksLast time I was here, I talked about my earliest memory. I have long considered (because I’m a writer and my brain works that way) that it has some metaphorical connection to the person I became. And because it’s my life and my metaphor, I can say that. Years from now, when my life is being taught as a cautionary tale on millennial writers (as if), an educator can tell their version of what my life was, and why my mother going out to get lemons and leaving her 2 year old at home had nothing to do with anything.

What was lovely about that post was that people started posting their earliest memories, here and elsewhere. I really enjoyed reading them. But they also got me thinking about a memory I have that is utterly false, and yet still compels me.

From three-and-a-half until 13, I went to a school in Greenwich Village: The Little Red School House. It was very small, very lefty, academically very good, and formative for me in ways both excellent and not so excellent. I was a gormless little kid who generally did better with adults than my peers.  I was also physically small and clumsy. If this sounds like a perfect recipe for attracting the less kindly among my peers, you’re right. I suspect, with the wisdom of age, that I was the kind of kid who begged to be picked on because I was so clueless and annoying. Which doesn’t justify bullying, but does explain something of why it was me being bullied.

Anyway: the memory.  Until we were in second grade our “gym” period was held on the roof, which had some playground equipment, balls, etc., but also these big wooden blocks. The blocks were made of plywood, painted a deep forest green, and as best I can estimate from half a century on, most of them were 18-24″ long by 12″ by 6″. Big enough so that a little kid could carry one of them at a time. They were used on the roof only, for building the sorts of things one builds with blocks. And though it wasn’t allowed, the structures were frequently built by the kids to be stood on. I swear, it’s an amazement to me that we all survived to adulthood.

My memory is that on a rainy day, somehow the blocks had been brought down to my classroom (the 4s, or nursery school) and some of the boys were building a big wall out of them, six blocks or so wide and five or six blocks tall. That one of my chief tormentors, a kid named Mark, climbed to the top of the wall and stood there threatening to jump on me, and that suddenly the wall fell. My last memory is of those forest green blocks coming at me. The rest is silence.

And this never happened. I checked with my mother. I checked with my nursery school teacher (the perfectly wonderful Gertrude Asher of blessed memory). Neither one remembered such a thing; each was ready to say categorically that it never happened, because an incident that resulted in one kid being knocked out cold would have been reported, to say the least. Also: those blocks were never brought downstairs, regardless of weather. Also… see incident reports and repercussions to the aggressor party, etc.

And yet it’s one of the clearest memories I have of early childhood. There seems to be nothing else in my history which I might have conflated with school life to create the memory. I made it up out of whole cloth, or it’s a dream that lodged in my psyche and wouldn’t let go. Did I feel small and at the mercy of larger kids? You bet. And I have the m/e/m/o/r/y dream to prove it.

As a writer, this becomes part of a larger conversation for me about truth, and the difficulty of sorting out the objectively true from the subjectively true from, and how a false memory can color all the true memories that surround it. And in practical terms, how can you nest believed truth, perceived truth, and (for the purpose of fiction) actual truth in a way that works for–and perhaps even surprises–the reader. I have more than once used a dream as a way of illuminating a character’s state of mind or beliefs*; talking about this now, I’m suddenly intrigued by the notion of writing a character whose behavior is shaped by a false memory. A false memory that is so seamlessly integrated into the long line of memories that shape belief and behavior as to be unquestionable.

For the purpose of the story, the character would then have to discover that the memory is false, not in terms of perspective (“No, I was sitting there too, and Grandma didn’t eat the last cookie herself. I could see her give it to the dog.”) but in terms of possibility (“Grandma was already dead by that time.”). When a foundational memory gets removed from your structure, do you just go on with the life you’ve based on that memory? Do you actively reject that life? Does it continue to represent itself as a memory?

As the ever appropriate Mr. Shakespeare put it, “When my love swears that she is made of truth/I do believe her, though I know she lies.”

* It is not either cheating. Or a cliche. Sometimes it’s the fastest way to tell the story. So there.


About Madeleine E. Robins

Madeleine Robins is the author of The Stone War, Point of Honour, Petty Treason, and The Sleeping Partner (the third Sarah Tolerance mystery, available from Plus One Press). Her Regency romances, Althea, My Dear Jenny, The Heiress Companion, Lady John, and The Spanish Marriage are now available from Book View Café. Sold for Endless Rue , an historical novel set in medieval Italy, was published in May 2013 by Forge Books


I Remember It as Clear as Day — 4 Comments

  1. I’ve discovered in talking with family members that indeed they remember things differently, or symbolically. Like, my daughter was almost four when her cousin was born, and this being the early eighties, my sister had wanted us to be there so the cousins would grow up close.

    Well, my daughter took one look at the proceedings and zipped straight out the door to wait in the hall. Then some years later, she was telling this story to someone else, and related it in a way that didn’t happen, one of the component parts being that the walls of the hospital room were blood red. Well, no, they were a very bland pinkish beige–all the adults remembered them that way.

    My guess is that you might have been lying down when Mark made a small wall of blocks, so you looked up at him, and he might have kicked one toward you and it bumped you in the face, or something like that. It would be the shock rather than the pain, you might have cried like the dickens but not otherwise been hurt, certainly not knocked out. But the memory of the moment of shock was the equivalent of being knocked out: you certainly didn’t feel safe around him.

  2. “I was a gormless little kid who generally did better with adults than my peers. I was also physically small and clumsy. If this sounds like a perfect recipe for attracting the less kindly among my peers, you’re right. I suspect, with the wisdom of age, that I was the kind of kid who begged to be picked on because I was so clueless and annoying. Which doesn’t justify bullying, but does explain something of why it was me being bullied.”

    Yep (raises hand). Me. In spades.

    Sounds to me like it was a dream. But one which so graphically and succinctly embodied your feelings of intimidation and helplessness at the hands of your tormentor that it became embedded in your memory. And I suppose you could say that even though it isn’t a “real” memory, it’s still a “true” one.

    Funny, I have memories of childhood dreams that are so vivid that sometimes I forget that they were actually dreams and not real events. But I do know that we never in fact had an escaped tiger slinking down our road…

  3. I’ve had personal experience with both aspects.
    I sometimes dream about real-life situations in such a realistic way that tge memory of the dream is indistinguishable from a memory of a real event, unless I remember waking up from the dream (and thus tagging it as a dream in my memory immediately upon awakening). These are often small incidents, like noticing a loose button on my blouse and thinking I should tell my mother, then dreaming that I tell her (not actively waking up to that dream, but probably very shortly after), and a few days later (when I think of it again) asking her if she’s repaired my blouse – whereupon it turns out I never told her it needed repair, I just dreamed that I did.

    These small incidents of mistaken attribution are often hard to spot, and fairly rare. When it happens in reverse it soon becomes obvious: when the alarm goes off and I turn it off in my sleep, turn on the lightswitch and swish open the curtain beside my bed (my arms can ‘sleepwalk’ those three motions without me being awake, though luckily I don’t do any real sleepwalking), and then continue dreaming that I’m going through my usual morning routine. Because my sleeping mind thinks I reacted properly to the alarm and am now getting up like I should, I can blissfully sleep on until something else wakes me. At that point it’s obvious that my memory of waking up and getting dressed and eating breakfast were false, and I panic because I’m going to be late.
    Even though those were realistic dreams, there’s no way they would ever be confused with real memories, because the panic on really waking up accurately tags them as dreams.

  4. The other aspect was a memory of one of the 4 or 5 incidents that gave me a fullblown spider phobia. One of those incidents, in fact the most scary one, which I remembered as happening to me as a girl of 8, had i reality happened to my mom’s best friend. When she told the story to my mom and us girls, I must have pictured it very clearly in my mind. Maybe I also dreamed about it – scary stuff tends to come back in my dreams to frighten me.
    When talking with my mom several decades later about what sort of things turned an ordinary dislike of spiders into a phobia, and I mentioned this incident, she explained what really happened. It maybe helps a bit with the distancing of the visceral clenching fear when I think of that incident, being trapped in a bathroom with a big, hairy, deadly poisonous spider on the wall over the door – I can distance it a bit better. But the phobia hasn’t gone away,the fear of spiders is still as big; and if I think too long or hard about tgat situation I still feel it just as much.

    Maybe that is a result of being very good at becoming absorbed in a story, and people who keep more distance don’t internalise the experiences they read or hear that way. If that is so, I think it’s worth the occasional nightmare to be able to enjoy books this much (though I am careful about what I read, no horror, thrillers or dystopias).