Memory, Revisited

Last October, I participated in what I thought would be an impossible challenge: to write a memoir piece for each of the first 25 years of my life. Jane Ann McLachlan has launched the 2013 October Memoir and Backstory Challenge, and I’m having a go at it. This year, each week has a theme, and because October is such a busy month, there may only be a post or two a week. But I hope you’ll join me here and read whatever surfaces—because that’s exactly how it happens for me: the stories “surface,” they rise out of deep memory and time.

The first week’s theme: a childhood memory

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Second grade scrapbook

I was surprised, reading through last year’s posts, that I’d neglected to write about one of the more traumatic events of my childhood.

I was a sickly child. I won’t go into the details, but by the time I was six, the doctors recommended that my chronically infected tonsils be removed. That would solve all my problems, they said.

October. I was already into my second grade year, but the surgery couldn’t wait. So we were off to the big hospital twenty miles away. I don’t remember being afraid. I remember the operating room lights, the smell of ether. I remember waking up with a terrible sore throat, sucking on ice chips, not crying because crying made it hurt even more.

The evening after the surgery, something went terribly wrong. There was blood, lots of it. A flurry of nurses, another trip down the long hall, rushing this time, the lights, the mask closing over my face, and darkness. Waking again in a dim room.  I was one sick, weak little girl.

I stayed in the hospital for a long time. After I went home, I was confined to bed for weeks. I remember spending the days in my parents’ bed, so big, light, and comfy compared to mine. I was out of school for two months that fall. I ate basically the same things every day, a diet designed to cure my anemia: poached eggs mixed with cubed, buttered toast and lots of salt and pepper (the only way I would tolerate the soft eggs); a ground beef patty (made with bread softened in a little milk and another egg) at least once, maybe twice a day, with mashed potatoes (not for building the blood but because I loved them).

A pipe-cleaner butterfly and my own cursive handwriting
A pipe-cleaner butterfly and my own cursive handwriting

I passed the time listening to the radio, playing with my dolls, and eventually, catching up on schoolwork. My mother bought a scrapbook where I pasted all the cards I’d received, even the ones attached to flowers. My own little handwritten notes are on some of the pages—in cursive; I think I wrote in cursive before I learned to print.

My grandmother, a no-nonsense woman who loved me deeply, was the magical finder of treasures. Every day, she brought me something I’d never seen before: a china doll that had belonged to her sister; an old story book, a beetle in  a jar, a collection of pine cones or flowers out of her garden. “Surprises,” she called them.

I don’t remember gradually getting better. I don’t remember getting out of bed or going outside to play for the first time. The entire fall is a blur except for one image, as though I’d stepped outside my body: a wan little princess propped up in bed, the bright windows with their organdy curtains, the food brought on trays, the grandmother’s footsteps down the hall, bringing something—anything—to relieve the monotony of the days.

Eventually, I got well. I went back to school and finished the second grade with the rest of my class. And here I am.

Back to the present

My book group just finished a book I highly recommend: Life After Life by Kate Atkinson. In the book, Ms. Atkinson tells one story in various ways: what if this happened? Or no—what if this instead? Fascinating. Genius.

But isn’t life like that? At any given moment, with every potential choice, with everything that happens to us along the way, aren’t we shaped? Might things have gone differently? If we had gotten to the intersection two minutes earlier, would we have been the ones involved in a fatal accident? If the surgeon had been more careful; if my mother had not discovered the bleeding when she did; if I had not discovered music at my elderly neighbor’s upright piano; if I had not met a blue-eyed boy at a college dance–how different would my life have been?

What are your turning points? Do you ever play “what if” with the circumstances of your life and stand in awe of where you are and why? 

Thanks, Jane Ann, for the challenge.

28 thoughts on “Memory, Revisited

  1. I’ve missed reading you; life has been excessively busy, and now and then I slip on metaphorical bananas; hugs and kisses and wishes for wellbeing and keep writing; will keep reading!
    how do I find out about the memoir class; price, schedule? not sure I have time; but want to do something in the near future; feel the call. blessings on your day, e

    1. Esther, I’ve missed you, too! My blog posts were erratic over the summer. This memoir was written in response to Jane Ann McLachlan’s October challenge. I don’t know if you’re referring to that or to a class I mention on the blog. I’ve never done one online, but that’s a thought! Thanks for reading. I’ll try to do this more often!

  2. Might-have-beens are such a bittersweet thing to think about. Sometimes I think about all the things I may have missed, but then there are all the wonderful things in my life I might have missed out on otherwise.

  3. wow, what a trauma. I still have my tonsils. I remember my brother getting his out. It was also october. He was so upset that he couldn’t go trick or treating that year.

    1. Fall seems to have been the season for getting sick! I wonder now how much my sickness had to do with allergies, and we didn’t know much about all that. Thanks for reading/commenting.

  4. I remember everyone getting their tonsils out when I was a kid. I remember being jealous that they could have all the popsicles they wanted! I still have my tonsils – and still love popsicles. It seemed like such a casual surgery at the time, obviously, from your experiences, it wasn’t the case. Thanks for writing.

  5. I’ve just been researching to write a piece about my mother when she was sick at age 6 with rheumatic fever for a long time. She mentions some of the same things you did — endless boredom treated with dolls, radio, and a scrapbook.

    1. Childhood illnesses (and, no doubt, surgeries) carried much more risk when we were young. Thanks for reading, Joy. Maybe this will spur you on with the piece about your mother.

  6. Wow. What an ordeal. I couldn’t help thinking about what the adults in your family were going through watching you be so sick. I love how your grandmother helped you through; what memorable and special visits. I enjoyed reading.

  7. Gerry, the more I read the more alike we are. I had a really sick year as a child, which also culminated in a tonsillectomy, and I remember it vividly. When I woke up there was a kid crying in the recovery room and I thought, how can he bear to cry? I remember the long days in bed, and yes, I was in my mother’s bed. I was seven, in grade two, and I missed more days of school than I attended that year, but they passed me, figuring I’d catch up the next year, which I did.

    1. The similarities are amazing, aren’t they? I’m not sure how long I was out of school. I think it was most of that first semester. I “worked” at home to keep up. I think we were both smart girls, and I bet we caught up pretty easily!

  8. I have been looking forward to Jane Ann’s challenge all year! I thought I would be well enough to give it a go. Like you, I had her put me down for the occasional post. I’m still recovering from “My Year of Living Injuriously.” And of course the “what if” there is meeting and connecting with all if you. Gerry, your tales of childhood always leave a bit of faerie dust in my imagination.

    1. Lori, so glad to see you here! I only wrote one post the first week, and that may be the way this October goes. More than a little “faerie dust” may be required! Thanks for the read and comment.

  9. I haven’t played the “what if” game in awhile, but it’s an essential skill for a good writer. I also liked the idea that surprises and gifts can be small. We often think that bigger is better, but sometimes a pipecleaner butterfly is just the right thing.

  10. Oh Gerry, I can so relate to this memory, I, too, was a sickly kid and anemic frequently. They gave me iron to take, it was a brown, bitter, thin liquid that made me gag. Ugh, horrid stuff. when I was in second grade everything seemed to hit me at once, I had every childhood ailment known to man… mumps, all the different measles, chicken pox, even whooping cough which almost took me away. My mother walked to school every few days and brought home my work so I could keep up with class. So you could say I was home schooled that year, lol. Somehow I did pass – I think today I would have been held back simply because of the number of days I had missed.
    As to What If… that’s my theme song 🙂 As a writer, what better tool could you possibly have? 🙂

    1. Susan, I took that awful iron supplement, too! The tonsillectomy, which should have been routine and turned out not to be, was the culmination of three or four years of almost chronic infections. I think you’re right; today, we would have been held back! You’re so right about the What If theme song, too; it’s the way I get myself out of writing jams all the time. Thanks for the lovely comment, even the “iron” reminder!

  11. I remember being sick as a child and how long the day could seem. No television in a bedroom. I don’t know if it happened more than once but I remember someone bringing me the chalky wafer candies that came in a long roll called Necco. I liked the brown ones and didn’t like the strong-flavored pink ones. Orange was my second favorite color. Since then, I’ve always associated them with being ill.

    1. What a strong memory for you, Deb. Interesting how our associations become twisted, turning what should be positive into a negative. Thanks so much for stopping by here! I appreciate it.

  12. Occasionally I’ve played “what if.” Glad you are taking Jane Ann’s challenge again. I enjoy your stories, Gerry. You had a wise, caring grandmother. I love the purple lonely butterfly for a lonely little girl.

    1. That butterfly came attached to a bouquet of flowers from my second grade class. I love the aged Scotch tape that’s held it in place all these years. It’s nice to be writing memoir again. I probably wouldn’t do it without this little push from Jane Ann. Thanks for reading, Sabra.

  13. What a wonderful journey you are once more embarking on.. I love your childhood stories and thank you for the book recommendation, i am almost finished a pathetic excuse for a book and am dying for a good read.. have a lovely weekend. c

    1. Atkinson’s is a truly unusual book; you really have to suspend disbelief and be willing to go along with what she’s doing. Thanks so much for reading and commenting here, Celi–as if you don’t have enough to do! : )

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