Tuesday, March 16, 2004

The Hole in my Seventh Year

The theme of injuries in childhood, over at Common Beauty, seems to have stirred this up.

There's a hole in my childhood. Somewhere in my seventh year. I remember a few things (very few) from before it, and quite a few things after it. But surely I should remember it, of all things?

My mother told me (long after) that a neighbor lady told her that when I learned of the divorce I "went white as a sheet."

I don't remember.

I remember my Dad making a room for himself in the garage, and us all pretending that was something neat and new, but knowing it was actually very wrong. I remember my Mom's black eye, the one and only time my Dad (one of the gentlest, kindest, and most patient of men) hit her. Those memories lie on the edge of the hole. No memory has ever come out of that hole, though. "The divorce" is a memory-sink. And it seems to have drawn most of my early childhood memory into itself: I remember remarkably little from before that. My parents were always divorced. As long as I remember I have had the doom and the luxury of playing one authority off against another, of moving from one world to another, of carrying two sets of secrets, and always having to track which set I'm carrying at present. The habits linger on, and die hard. I am such stuff as spies are made of.

I do remember this, out of my seventh year. I was home alone, and wasn't quite sure where everyone was. (This was bizarre. It had never happened before, I think. But I wasn't particularly worried about it; just pensive.) A cool sunny blue-skied day. I went out and stood under the birch trees my father had planted, years before -- a line of young trees between the house and the garage, slender but tall and healthy and aspiring, lifting up into the sky. I looked up. And suddenly I thought, "If I decide to remember this moment, I can remember it. I can stamp it in my memory and carry it for the rest of my life." The sense of power -- the intoxication of having control of my memory -- sways me even now. And I was right. I've never forgotten that day under the birches, and I never will.

I have wondered, since then, if that was the day I found out, the day I went white. If my parents were gone because they were in court, or signing papers; if maybe I was supposed to stay with that neighbor lady across the street (whom I never liked) but had sneaked away home instead. It's the sort of thing I would have done.

It may be that my triumph of memory was not so complete, after all.

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