I have a box of old photographs my grandfather gave me before he died. They are family portraits and snapshots dating from about 1890 to 1920. We sat in his living room and wrote names on the ones he could identify. Dozens of other photographs bear family resemblances, but they remain nameless and can’t assume their positions on the family tree.
My own mind houses memories in the same way. Many of my memories bear a resemblance to my life and my relationships, and while minute details might be clear, the facts are hazy or forgotten, perhaps unrecoverable. A memory illustrated by vivid details and accompanied by still-present emotion began on Trimble Street, in front of the next door neighbor’s house. I was two, almost three.
Mrs. Becker babysat me for my parents that day; she let her girls watch me outside. The day felt sun-warmed, with a slight cooling breeze rustling through my play clothes. The oldest girl, Donna, and a teenage boy were the ringleaders of the group. She wasn’t yet in high school and didn’t have her later characteristic beehive hairdo.
Her younger sisters, Susie and Denise were with us. All the children ringed a brown horse standing in the street looking very out-of-place. From my perspective down near the sidewalk, the horse looked like a city square equestrian statue—massive, gigantic, forbidding. Perhaps the boy had ridden the horse to our street. Donna turned to me, kneeled down to my level, and said, “How would you like to go for a ride?”
I shivered, though the sun shone down on my clover honey hair. “No,” I said.
“Oh, come on,” said Susie.
“No!” I backed away.
“Honey, there’s no need to be afraid,” Donna said. She scooped me up and plunked me down on the saddle positioned across the back of the horse. From this height I looked down at the tall teenagers, feeling dizzyingly and irrevocably beyond their reach.
“Put me down,” I said.
The teens giggled and chattered. Suddenly I heard a loud SMACK, and the horse bolted forward. I swayed backwards for a moment and then righted myself by grabbing hold of the saddle horn sitting in front of me. The horse trotted up Trimble Street. We left the teens behind, just the determined horse and me. The breeze flew through my flimsy hair. I held onto the horn with every muscle I could harness to the aid of my hands. Both my hands and feet tingled and turned numb. My thoughts condensed into one little pinhole: stop stop stop! I couldn’t tell the horse to stop because the pinhole only allowed that one thought; I was beyond the power of speech.
The horse trotted up to busy Gull Road, a main artery without sidewalks, where he turned right. I expected to fall off his back into the path of an uncaring automobile. I clung on. He carried me swiftly to Henson Street where he took another right, and then onto Junction and back to Trimble Street. My powerful hands, drained of blood, were my only compensation for the utter loss of control I felt.
When he trotted to the front of the Becker house, the horse stopped short. I rocked again and almost tumbled. The teens laughed, and Donna’s friend tried to lift me off the horse, but my hands would not unclamp from the saddle horn. I realized then I had been crying; my cheeks, soaked with tears, seem to burn as if the saltwater seared the tender skin.
I couldn’t speak, not even that night when I saw my parents. All these years later, the details vibrate within me, but I’m missing one fact: I can’t be certain if the horse existed or came to me in a dream.
The names have been changed to protect people who may or may not have participated in this act of baby abuse.
Are you sure of your memories? Do you have any like this one, where you aren’t sure if it really happened or if you dreamed it? How do you handle a hitch like that in writing creative nonfiction?
18 responses to “A Ride with Memory”
For some reason, you remember this horse. The rule I always use is from Michael Steinberg’s essay “The Inner Story” (and I’m about to put it far less eloquently than he probably did): As long as the intent is not to decieve the reader, than it is honest nonfiction. Isn’t that all we can hope for? To be true to our experiences includes our own perceptions: imaginative, speculative, interpretive goodness! If you wake up tomorrow and realize you had only imagined the horse, I would still want to read this essay, with the horse in it, again and again.
Sarah, I don’t think I’ve read Steinberg’s essay, but will look for it now! That sounds like a more generous description than any I’ve heard. Yes, true to our experience, but if it’s imaginative do we need to clue the reader in to that? Or in a book, does it belong in a note? What you are saying is that would not be necessary, right? And thank you, by the way!
I think the actual context of the memory would clue the reader in. I think the way you have it written now is perfect. Words can be cues to the reader–what if, maybe, could–all signal the questions regarding memory. If you google the Steinberg essay, it should come up. It was in a textbook “Fourth Genre,” based off the literary magazine. I think you’re right on with the “clueing-in” but I don’t think it has be “noted,” just part of the language of the essay. When you’re writing from your memory as a child, I automatically (as a reader) allow for these imaginative digressions, understanding that memory is “stretchy.” I love these pieces from your childhood. They’re magical, just as they should be!
I think Sarah is correct. There’s no way you’re going to remember the EXACT words of EVERY conversation you had as a child, but as long as the conversation and the circumstances around are true you’re ok. One of the things I learned was the power of corroboration: reach out to someone who was present. Was it a rainy day, what was the temperature… check it out on the web…there are sites that can give you the weather report for that day. Newspaper archives can help. See what I mean?
Dennis, you are so right. I love to do a limited version of that kind of research and know people who think it unnecessary, but to me it helps me remember more and more. I love what you say about “the power of corroboration.” That is such a great way to put it!
What a long and frightening horseback trip! I, too, was right there with you.
And I agree with your other readers that if you try your best to tell the truth and corroborate what you can, you have done enough.
Ah, thank you, Wilma. This is really eye-opening to hear other creative nonfiction writers give the same sort of advice. Wonderful to hear, really.
I do find myself adding details that I know weren’t part of the memory. I fudge those things that I don’t remember if they really happened or were just a dream by saying just that. But I think that’s what creative memoir is.
That makes sense. What I have done is take details from a memory with more clarity and add them to another memory for the sake of the writing. So they are my details from the same place, etc., but I’ve sort of combined two memories into one. Thank you so much for adding to this conversation. It’s so nice to know that CNF writers haven’t been scared into paralysis by all the talk about lying in memoir.
I have the same problem. So many memories in my head but memories change over the years as do family stories. Everyone hears their own version and retells it in their own way. I like what Sarah said about not deceptive non fiction… that just makes sense. I love your style.
You are so right about how they change over the years. I find I bring new experiences to them and it changes what details are important and what I begin to forget. Or I suddenly remember something I had completely forgotten. Plus, once I write something down I no longer remember it in its pure state, but in the way I’ve written in. Thank you so much for sharing your thoughts. I love the name of your blog!
I think it really happened. Your memory of the incident is so vivid, the details so precise.
Lisa, what’s so funny about you saying that is that for years and years I believed it was true. It was only after I started actually writing creative nonfiction that I started to question the story. It seems so implausible. And yet I always did think it happened.
What a lovely story:) I am assuming you have no one to ask if it happened? No contact with the neighbours you once had? I do much of what others said above. I put memories together to tell the story that I want to tell. I do my best to keep it as organic as possible. There is something about your story, how intense it is, how I am right there with you and then at the end you wonder if it is true – was there ever a horse? Well, I love that ending. It is intriguing and real.
Marlene, thank you so much for your kind comments. You are right–I have no one to ask. We moved away when I was only 8 and I lost track of them. And would they admit it?! I really did think it was true until I started writing my memories and I wondered if it could be true. It sounds so ridiculous!
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