The persistence of memory.

abuse, memories, ptsd

The atmosphere at my job is refreshingly relaxed—they don’t care what we wear as long as we’re presentable, I have ample downtime (for writing and working on my latest Stupid Human Trick, which is teaching myself Russian), and we listen to the radio all day.

A few days ago, “Tequila” by The Champs came on and I was hit by a massive wave of nostalgia. I’ve heard the song dozens, if not hundreds, of times since this memory was formed, but what sprang to mind with the opening notes was vivid and visceral. It’s one of the few memories I have of the period between ages four and seven that’s genuinely pleasant, untainted by the constant conflict that lived with us in my grandmother’s house. Given how many of its contemporaries have been emerging lately, I’m glad it decided to come back when it did.

I first heard the song when I was five years old. My mother and I were driving from my hometown of Dubuque, Iowa to Oshkosh, Wisconsin with her rich boyfriend (who possibly sexually abused me as a child and certainly dealt out some heavy-handed emotional and physical abuse, pun most definitely intended) to visit the Public Museum—specifically, to see the Apostle Clock.

We had taken his red Corvette—he had a thing for classic cars, along with drinking too much and throwing his girlfriends down flights of stairs—and stopped at a gas station. “Tequila” was playing softly in the background as we rolled up to the pump. I was sleepy and tilted my head back against the silky cream-colored leather of the seat to stare up at the sky. It was dark; few stars were out, and I remember feeling carefree as I let the muggy night air, cut with a cool breeze, fill my smoke-worn lungs.

We stayed in an apartment in the city. I’m not sure whose it was, but I remember marveling at the deep-pile white carpet; at home, we had slightly worn oak floors, polished and neglected enough times in the house’s thirty-odd-year history to have accumulated a thin, uneven coat of dark residue. The next day, we arrived at the museum. It must have been June or July, because we visited shortly after a fire destroyed most of the third floor. I was charmed by the clock, of course, but what really drew my attention was the small collection of charred, water-damaged items that had been rescued from the fire.

“Come on, you don’t want to look at that,” said my mother’s boyfriend, placing a large and hairy hand on my shoulder in an attempt to draw me away. But I was transfixed by the blackened head of a baby doll, one eye burned away, one eye still open in an eerie nod to the horror movies my mother and I loved to watch. This penchant for the macabre has only intensified as I’ve gotten older, and I enjoy puzzling over what these things mean in relation to who I am today and whether everything really is connected. As a nihilist, I’m inclined to believe that nothing has any inherent meaning, which adds another dimension—if all significance is unique to each person, it should make relating to one another more difficult. I’ve found that to be true more often than not, but I’m not surprised, given my…unusual set of memories and experiences.

It’s strange, isn’t it? Certain memories—in my experience, the ones that seem the least-significant at the time—become indelible, while other, larger ones—being present the night my mother was arrested and having only fringe sensory memories of it is a good example—fade into the background. They slip away so easily that at times, it seems that they were never there at all. Was it a memory or a dream? And in the end, does it make much of a difference?

Nietzsche famously said that ‘The existence of forgetting has never been proved: we only know that some things do not come to our mind when we want them to.”

Readers, what has your experience with memory been like? What’s your earliest memory? Are they sensory and blurred around the edges, or is every aspect perfectly crisp? Have you ever thought about what your memories say about you? 

As always, I’m eager to hear from you!

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