When I was four, I spent the seven-month Michigan winter playing in our basement. Dad had built walls in opposite corners, one to create a laundry for Mom and the other for his workshop. The open area just outside the workshop had become my playroom. Nothing special designated it as mine. The floor was concrete, which Dad had painted with gray industrial paint. Scotch tape didn’t hold up my drawings on the cinder block wall, and when I tried to nail a finger-painting to the gritty cement, I wasn’t strong enough and Dad’s hammer was too heavy. The nail slipped to the floor, my painting torn.
What my playroom contained were wooden crates of costumes and dolls and books. These served as portals to my imagination. With the single light bulbs shining from overhead, and these possessions spread out before me, the room felt cozy and cheerful, no matter that the window up near the board-studded ceiling was blocked by a snow drift.
One day, as I sat cross-legged, engrossed in Little Red Riding Hood, my mother came out of the laundry room and sang me part of an old song:
School days, school days,
Dear old golden rule days.
‘Readin’ and ‘ritin’ and ‘rithmetic,
Taught to the tune of a hick’ry stick.
She laughed and said, “I’m glad to see you’re so good at your 3Rs.”
I didn’t understand what she meant, so she explained to me that the basics of a good education were reading, writing, and arithmetic. I could read and write and liked to add small sums on the notepads Dad brought me home from work.
She was right. I loved all three subjects. I couldn’t get enough of my Little Golden Books and each time we went to National grocery store, I begged for one of the 25-cent books with the foil spines.
The power of writing a sentence was already apparent to me. There was a symmetry to subject-verb-direct object which thrilled me.
And who wouldn’t love to create beautiful numbers out of lines and curves and then find out that 2 + 2 always equals 4? How serene I felt once I understood that certainty.
Upon starting school, I continued to relish all the subjects we studied. Science, the partner of math, captivated me in all its forms—meteorology (keeping a temperature log), astrology (creating a scrapbook of the nine planets), biology (growing mold on potatoes). I was complete, a whole person, half reading/writing and half math/science.
During arithmetic, we were presented with both numerical problems and story problems. The latter were akin to reading mysteries. It stands to reason that I would have loved story problems, but herein lies a problem. A problem related to writing memoir. No matter how much I think about it, I can’t remember whether I preferred numerical or story problems. It seems that I ought to know the answer to that, but the experience is long forgotten or disremembered.
Along with the absence of that memory is another mystery. I don’t know where I lost the math side of me and became identified with only one side, the reading/writing side. How did something that seemed so fresh and interesting to me as a child become a burden by junior high? If I could remember how I felt about story problems could I find the answer?
Tristine Rainer, in her book Your Life as Story, gives a variety of tricks to retrieve memories. Her tricks include:
- study photos as “memory sparkers”
- listen to music from the time period
- re-visit the floor plan of your old home
- let your body remember through an action or movement
As I work on my memoir, sometimes I can’t remember important parts of my story, and I use Rainer’s ideas. For me, internet research into a time period sometimes helps. So do old television shows, since I am of the first serious TV generation.
If I want to solve the mystery of my dislike of math, maybe I should follow Rainer’s 4th trick and get my hands on an old arithmetic textbook and start solving problems.