You Were on the Porch

I rarely have problems sleeping any more, but when I do, my first tack is to stare dejectedly at the ceiling for a while. After I’ve examined the light fixture for the appropriate amount of time, I may flop from one side to the other like some apathetic, dying fish. Finally I’ll roll over and poke Jurvis repeatedly in the arm.

“Jurvis Jurvis Jurvis Jurvis,” I whisper, as if perhaps allowing him to remain in deep, wonderful slumber. “Tell me a story?”

There are actually two problems with this technique: one, if I actually fall asleep while he’s telling me a story, it means that I’m an asshole. Two, if neglect to fall asleep while he’s telling me a story, it means that we’re committing to stay awake for some time. One memory inspires another, so that one minute he’s telling me about eating sugar cane in St. Martinville with his dad and the next I’m recalling the Nut Goodie bars my sister and I would eat in the backseat of the Mazda after our family chopped down the Christmas tree and the next he’s recalling the stonewashed jeans of the 8th grade girl who sat next to him the first day he rode the school bus.

“Had enough stories?” he asked me last night as I abruptly pushed myself out of bed and headed to the door.

“Nope. Bathroom break.”

Jurvis’ memories go far back. Louisiana, for example. His family left Louisiana when he was four. This guy actually remembers wearing diapers. It blows my mind. Meanwhile — and this is beginning to bother me, what with all this recollectin’ going on around here — I have absolutely no memory of my parents being together. They divorced when I was about six.

It isn’t that I haven’t tried to remember these things.

“Oh, oh!” I nearly said, one oppressive summer evening, our legs dangling miserably off the mattress. “I remember my dad building the tree house!”

No, wait, I realized. That’s not a memory, that’s a home video you’ve seen. Must be, because you’re looking at yourself, and that’s not how memories work.

And this is how it’s been for any vision I reconstruct from that time: it turns out that it was a photograph I saw, a home video, a story my parents have told me, someone else’s memory.

Don’t get me wrong, I don’t think that this time in my life was especially traumatic. I think the main problem is that I didn’t begin writing a journal until I was nine. I realized early on that if I didn’t write something down, I may as well have never experienced it. Since my mom stayed in the house they’d been living in together before the divorce for another few years after the divorce, it’s a little tricky to specifically place a memory on the time line of pre or post separation: I have lots of childhood memories associated with that house in general. My technique has been trying to recall my dad being in the house. If he was in one of those rooms — the living room, with its Blue Horses painting print, the kitchen with its offensive yellow and orange linoleum going up the walls, the upstairs hallway I’d run and slide upon (or is that Jurvis’ memory?), the bathroom with its tiny black and white tiles and blossoming old-fashioned sink — then they hadn’t split yet, and that memory is official sanctioned pre-age-of-6.

But if I can’t even recall basic plot points of books that I’ve read, beyond Wuthering Heights bad Jane Eyre good, how can I expect to remember two people being in the same room twenty years ago?

“Wait, I remember sitting on our old blue couch, watching the news . . . and dad was . . . oh, I was waiting for dad to pick us up, to go to his place.”

“Building forts on the staircase landing with Paige? Could be. I . . . actually, have no idea where either of my parents are in that memory. I do remember the cat, though.”

Last night I had at last given up trying to remember these things. What did it matter if I couldn’t remember the first six years of my life? A lot of them were probably undignified and toothy anyway. Who wants to remember wearing diapers? I thought to myself amiably. Not me.

And so, of course, it was on my way back from the bathroom last night, my mind a soft, floating blank, ready for sleep, that I suddenly remembered it.

A rainstorm in Minneapolis. The bass rumble of distant thunder, the smell of wet soil. Our house is always huge in my memory, a million tiny footsteps from one room to another, and there is a door ajar to the screened porch — where my dad is sitting on a folding chair, watching it all come down.

“What are you doing?” I ask him.

“I’m watching the rain,” he replies.

Dad’s not afraid of thunder, I realize. I’m not going to be afraid of thunder, either. And sock-footed, I pad out onto the porch and sit next to him to watch the rain. Somewhere, my sister is busy being little, small-handed, big-brown-eyed; our splotchy cream-golden cat is stretching his massive belly on the white carpet, and my mom is moving about in the house — maybe she joins us on the porch, too. It is startlingly vivid and tangible, suspiciously perfect, before I am six.

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  1. I remember that day well. The rain fell hard and vertical, so none blew in through the screens. I loved sitting on the porch during rain storms, protected, yet vulnerable. My memory is you were about 4 years old. Do you have memories in B&W, reconstructed from Tri-X on Ilford paper, displacing reality, the unintended consequence of a photographer/father?

  2. It’s an interesting idea you’re getting at: that with the “personal” media ubiquity of our times, even our earliest, most formative memories are really maybe only early memories of the snapshot, or video grab — the souvenir — of the act itself.

    Now, where’s that Susan Sontag when you need her?

    (Oh, yeah.) Now, I remember. And thanks for nothing, on that account, Annie Leibowitz!

  3. My photographer friends and I used to joke, if you didn’t have a photograph of it, it didn’t really happen.
    Perhaps a photograph isn’t proof.
    It is reality itself.

  4. It is reality, in its way. But then, that’s what proof is.

    This post is fantastic. The earliest I’d been able to muster, in years past, was walking down the stairs in the early years of elementary school (these stairs are probably about 3′ tall, but they’re a substantial descent in the memory). I’ve never had anything to push me to remember like this, though.

  5. It is definitely fascinating to think about the way one’s memories are constructed! Nicely done.

    I have one memory of wearing diapers, and it was from the day I decided I didn’t want to wear them anymore. I remember walking toward my mom, with a diaper pantload, and thinking, essentially, “This sucks. I think I’m done with this.” And after that I think I was.

    Yes, tenth grade was a big year for me. Just kidding! Ew.

  6. Those forts were AWESOME!!! Minus the funky orange/gold carpeting that was scratchy…. Remember when we got too big to sleep there? (Either that or Willie got too obese and took all the room…) I was soooooooo mad!! But then we upgraded and made them in our bunkbeds in our bedroom in SLP… which was cool until the heat came on and made it 1000 degrees in the lower bunk… best memory tho? When we would have carnivals “for two”!!! We would buy and sell each others crap!!! Heh heh- good times.

    I have a small number of memories while in diapers. You’re right: you really just don’t want to remember that era, for a number of reasons….

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