In a little essay I wrote years and years ago, I described a spanking (not a beating) inflicted by my mother upon my posterior when I was kid, maybe ten years old. She was convinced her child, her only son, had stolen hay from a graying barn just outside of town. The truth is, no one would have cared; we carried a couple of prickly armfuls home in a gunny sack for the rabbits in a coop out back. And we'd had permission.
No matter. Mother wouldn't hear my story. Not a month before, she'd listened tearfully to her son confess stealing cigarettes from a grocery store. I don't doubt she'd prayed long and hard about the depth of sin she'd never guessed any child of hers would register. The hay was the straw that broke the camel's back. She wailed on me on my way to my room, where I was to commanded to stay for the rest of that long summer afternoon.
The story I wrote went on, memoir-like. An hour later she trekked upstairs alone, bearing a fifty-cent piece, a peace offering, a token of her guilt. That little story--"My Mother's Tears"-- thanked her for that teary gift because it offered me something much more than what fit in my hand or was delivered by hers--it offered me her humanity and, in a way, my own. That she could be wrong meant I wasn't the only one who needed forgiveness as a child of God.
It was a sweet little essay that drew lots of notes from readers.
My mother was shocked. "I never, ever hit you like that," she said.
Back then, thirty years ago, I swear I could still feel the blows.
In "Speak, Memory," a wonderful article in the New York Review of Books, Oliver Sachs describes his amazement when his brother explained to him that an old family story Sachs had written was an event he, as a boy, simply could not have observed. A bomb fell close to their home during the Blitz in London and burned with horrifying white-hot heat. But the Sachs brothers were off somewhere right then, his brother claimed, away from the city, away from the bombing--they were nowhere near the inferno. His brother told him they had received a letter that told that story in mighty detail, but neither of them had actually been there.
Sachs was sure, as a kid, he'd witnessed the heat and the wild fight to keep the fire under control. He hadn't.
"What is clear. . .is that, in the absence of outside confirmation, there is no easy way of distinguishing a genuine memory or inspiration, felt as such, from those that have been borrowed or suggested, between what the psychologist Donald Spence calls 'historical truth' and 'narrative truth,'" Sachs says.
That's as painful as any spanking.
I just finished Wild, Cheryl Strayed's memoir of her desperate hiking on the Pacific Coast Trail, her search for self and forgiveness. Her honesty is as compelling as it is fascinating, and it's a worthy read, I'm sure, although I didn't read it--I listened to it as I walked the trails here along the river. Often however, I grew perfectly green with envy: that woman's years-later recollections were so richly detailed that I couldn't help thinking my lack of memory meant I was well on the road to dementia.
Sachs' article, his own confession, makes me wonder about memoir, about memories, about our own recollection of our own storied pasts, makes me wonder about the thousands of memories that fill the posts of a blog I've kept now for the last five years. How many of those memories--those vivid memories--aren't some kind of weird construct this jaunty memory of mine pieces together from whatever sources it can locate?
As I'm sure my wife of forty years would be happy to say, her husband's penchant for "narrative truth" sometimes sweetly distorts the actual historical record.
Does that make me a liar? Maybe, years later, my mother's memory chose to forget that whacking. But then, maybe that spanking was a phantom witness of my own regret and guilt about those Kents we heisted from behind the counter.
What a mystery we are.
We are fearfully and wonderfully made, all of us.