Memory is a funny thing. People like to compare notes, as if there is a prize for being able to remember stuff. Yet, then, they spend their whole life paying for alcohol, drugs and junk to forget what they so proudly were able to remember.
A favorite kids game is based on a quick memory. A tray of assorted snippets of one's family life is arranged by a well-meaning relative, usually at a birthday party, and a cloth tea towel draped over the items. With much fanfare everybody hunches forward in anticipation of the unveiling. Auntie pulls back the cover and all gathered frantically glance at the strange display.
Ah...an old rattle, that's easy to remember, thinks one child.
What's that? A baby tooth! Ugh, gross. Wait forget that, an uncle mentally declares.
So the timer chimes and the towel descends to hide all. Now time to write what was there. An audible moan as all slump back to list the things they think they saw. Much scribbling and scratching heard as puzzlement can be noted on the assembled faces. Another tick of the clock and pencils are dropped papers passed to neighbor or family on the right. The tray is ceremoniously revealed a final time.
Darn, I missed that, declares an aunt.
Fiddlesticks! Grandma intones, I thought I saw a Christmas bell.
Laughter and hoots fill the air as the crowd sees how little they really saw. A prize is given to the solemn faced child who gazed quietly through thick glasses. Here is someone who has learned to see carefully.
An unkind cousin lashes out that the game was unfair and the child only won because of "four-eyes" which are better than "two". Cuffed half-heartedly by his father the cousin responds, Just kidding. Sorry. But the game has been ruined. Time for gifts.
These and other crystallized images float through my mind as I recall some of my childhood. Festivities which brought family and tears together. Walls filled with faded old pictures of long dead souls lined my family home. People gaily tossing back semi-witty bonmots while numbing themselves rather thoroughly with a good stiff drink. From the corners of the house I would watch and catalogue. Perceiving the veins beneath the skin of friends and family I would wonder at the strangeness of choices and genetic bonds. Looking at one face reflected in so many others by birth and blood.
So carefully I would place myself within the room. Best spot was in plain sight -- I couldn't be accused of spying that way. Though I knew that was what I truly was... a spy. Time taught me to interact with the assorted folks gathered at the bar or fireside. Just listening was considered strange and dealt with harshly. So working the crowd, like a seasoned politician, I would position myself to exchange smart, snappy repartee while fully capable of overhearing two other conversations easily.
With time, still considered the odd one, I craftily camouflaged my true self and savored the action. Stories unfolded?the conflicts, the dramas, the high adventure tales -- they were always the high point of any clan gathering. Whether the tales be the ones of past or just having taken place the day before -- all grew with time. After whatever ceremony or event took place, basically the reason for the party, then the real stories would be told. No matter if all had come to celebrate a birth, the joining of a couple or the tragedy of death, they all ended with staring into a fire burning and the tales. The food had been eaten, much drinking to accompany the feast, some nattering women did the clean up and then the pipes and cigars were lit. The smoke drifted through the crowd, lingering in the corners and over certain people's heads like halos of a sort.
Darkness had come, the babies put down to sleep, tumbled together in make-shift bedding like a toy box full of dolls, soft whispers in the far reaches of the house from the lovers and used-to-be-lovers. Sighs of full bellies and some of heavy hearts flavored the air. A rumbling voice would enter the casual circle. Tones to listen to -- not be ignored -- as a master of the tale spoke.
Years blur the exact occasions for each story heard. Christenings, weddings, anniversaries and funerals were all to be attended. Excuses rarely allowed or tolerated. No matter, all dissolved to a similar pattern. The cycle that made up my childhood. As the years tolled, my adolescence gave way eventually to my adulthood. After time, the older voices were stilled, some to death, while others to indifference or loss of memory. New voices came and went, some years a large influx of brides and grooms changed the dimension of the group. But with more time the new ones became either part of the group or had been silenced. Traditions stay such by clearly defined rules. Irregardless of other family ways, an almost uniform sameness to these memories prevail.
Clarity of a childhood memory would include such a family festival. The vast number of people in the house, flowing out the doors, front and back, booming laughter mixed with shriller tones of those rendered uncomfortable for whatever reason. I never knew people grew up in solitude. That was an unheard of commodity in my life. When friends would be invited to such a party, they seemed overwhelmed at first by the sheer volume of sights, sounds and souls. All too soon, the same friends would themselves be pulled into nearly all the gatherings. Some intermarried with family members while others came and went over the years. One or two would linger and live within the family as semi-actual members. Still to this day old friends and past family members just stop by the home -- no invitation was ever needed.
After all the years of living with my family and the years that passed when I was just the visitor to such gatherings -- one thing never changed -- a constant to me, I guess. I was always in the role of scribe to chronicle the stories told in my mind. Over passage of years I listened and learned. How to make the best ever casserole, who my cousin's wife was really sleeping with, that unfortunate incident a few years back with you-know-who. All the assorted tales and gossip imprinted on my mind. Some was fluff while other stories and memories were of a changing world. Maybe it was due to my feeling like an interloper as a small child, whatever the reason, I clung to the words and images. I kept those stories as proof of my lineage -- or in darker times -- perhaps proof/prayer that I was adopted. A fond wish for a small child living in a largely chaotic family.
Tell me, I must know -- I can take it -- I am adopted, right? ? Denying the prima facie evidence of my very own looks and the rather large family my parents had. Never does the logic of -- why would I be adopted when there was already one child and two more followed??? The childhood desire to be different from the rest. Time and maturity dashed the adoption wish but still I chronicled the family. By then it had become automatic to recall the stories.