“Each [memoir] is in its own way an account of detection, a realized effort to assemble the puzzle of what happened in the light of subsequent realization.”
The Art of Time in Memoir by Sven Birkerts
When I was a young teen we had a subscription to Psychology Today. I read about codes and code breaking in one issue and all my Nancy Drew instincts banded together and urged me on to become a code cracker. This desire had probably originated even earlier as I’d ordered a book on codes from the Scholastic Book Fair in 6th grade. The book had seemed beyond my abilities until I read the magazine article; that’s when I appropriated the large blackboard on our basement wall and began studying code breaking in earnest. My mother would shake her head when she came down to sort laundry. The board was riddled with what looked like equations made up of hangman games. It’s likely that I had a distracted absent-minded professor look on my face. Within a year I started dating, which gave me human codes to crack, and I gave up on my CIA code-breaking dream.
A few years ago I began work on a memoir. As I write about my past, I try to find keys to the meanings of my memories. This process is not much different from the code cracking I taught myself as a teen. We have memories, Sven Birkerts explains, which are involuntary. As memoirists, we need to investigate why a particular memory of a seemingly meaningless moment has such power that it still calls to us through decades.
One of those moments for me happened when I was a toddler. I’d been quarantined to my bedroom for days from illness, but was finally well enough to be allowed out of my bed. Mom carried me out to the living room and plopped me onto a chair. I leaned back, angling myself against the chair back, waggling my feet out in front of me. I felt antsy all over–as if I needed to get outside or I’d suffocate.
My parents had finished supper an hour before, and Dad had been at his workbench since then. Now he’d come upstairs and was conferring with Mom in the doorway to the kitchen. “What do you think about going to Lockshore Dairy for some I-C-E-C-R-E-A-M?”
As if the fog in my head parted at that moment, my mind pounced with clarity. “Ice cream?! Mommy! Daddy! Please!”
My parents looked at me in surprise and then exchanged a look with each other. After all, I was not much more than an infant to them. My mother said, “She can read!”
My parents would no longer be able to spell their secrets when I was in the room. Their dismay over my code breaking was overshadowed by their pride in my spelling ability. Their beaming faces glowed together into one big shining focus.
I have no memory of learning to read. I remember my mother making reading cards for my little brother and painstakingly teaching him to read. I asked her the other day if she taught me to read the same way she did my brother, but she couldn’t recall. What I remember is assembling the letters in my head into a readable code and the hidden answer “ice cream” popping into my head and onto my tongue. The reward for reading was that my parents now had no choice but to load me up in the backseat of the car and head downtown. The satisfaction of breaking the code of words was thus reinforced with a vanilla ice cream cone, as well as a taste of Dad’s butter pecan and Mom’s tutti-frutti.
Maybe it was more than the ice cream. It could have been seeing my parents’ smiles glowing together, knowing that at that moment they were united and happy with my achievement. It’s possible I spent years trying to replicate that moment with my report cards.
Looking farther afield from that moment, I’m struck by the timeline. Reading came together for me after I had been sick in bed for a week, imprisoned in my bed within my narrow bedroom. In this way, reading came to represent freedom, something which I spent my childhood longing for. And so I read. First, I read my Little Golden books and in kindergarten I graduated to my mother’s Bobbsey Twin books, which were followed by Nancy Drew and Judy Bolton and then the Louisa May Alcott books. Eventually they led to the code book and Psychology Today and Birkerts’ theories of writing memoir.
Writing Prompt: A voluntary memory is one we actively seek to remember. An involuntary one is a small, mundane memory which appears in the mind without having to search for it by will. Write an involuntary memory down using as much detail as you can remember. Then try to recall, if possible, what came right before and what came right after. Write it all down. When you read over what you have written watch for details which surprise or intrigue you, as well as connections to other memories and connections to who you are today. Write about these connections and what you learn from the details.