A Ride with Memory

When I first started this blog, near the end of 2012, I posted this blog post. Something Colleen Chesebro wrote reminded me of it, and I thought I would share it again. It’s about memory and how the line can be blurred between fact and fiction in memory.

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 honey-colored 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.

With my mother and the two younger sisters from next door

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?


Filed under Creative Nonfiction, Memoir, Memoir writing theory, Nonfiction, Writing, Writing Talk

38 responses to “A Ride with Memory

  1. Amy

    Wow, that’s a terrible story! You never asked Donna about it in later years? I’d search for her and see what she says. The only thing that makes it seem unreal is that the horse knew how to go around the block and return.

    I have a memory from the summer I was turning three. I won’t write it all here, but I did on my blog—https://brotmanblog.com/2018/04/27/earliest-memories/

    I remember most of it very clearly except, as I wrote, I have no memory of what happened after I fell. How did my parents find me? How did I get to the doctor? And so on…

    • Just went and read your blog post and found where I had commented and read our comment thread haha. I had forgotten this happened to you until I reread the post. Gosh, how much do I read that I don’t remember? I am guessing at this stage of my life MOST of it!
      I agree with you about the horse knowing where to go. I’ve turned that over and over in my mind my whole life. I suppose it’s possible that the horse was so trained to follow the road and to make right turns that it would always return in a circle pattern. Horses that are trained to give little children rides, for instance, might be taught to do that. And what felt like the wind whipping through my hair was not a horse going fast. Even now, reliving that memory, I know that the horse only felt scary (high up and out of control for me), not fast. I have two recurring dreams from my childhood, but those I remember the aftermath of the dreams (from some dream events). Both of the dreams were more vivid and imaginative than real life. This seems more set apart, but then I was SO young.
      Years ago my mom ran into one of the sisters, but they had all married, at least once, and I have no idea how to find any of them. And would they even remember anyway? If it happened, to them it wouldn’t have been a big deal.

      • Amy

        Well, they might remember if there was a horse in the neighborhood. And I can find most anyone after almost 13 years of doing genealogy, so if you want to send their names as you remember them, I’ll see what I can do.

      • I think it’s very possible the horse was trained to do that, so this could have happened. It seems much too real to be a dream, but then my dreams tend to be very bizarre, even when I was young.

        • See, that is what I keep thinking. It was not only so real seeming it all made sense. My dreams were more fantastic. One of my recurring childhood dreams was being in a Snow White type forest and finding a basket of golf-ball sized jewels. It was clearly a fairy tale world.

    • By the way, as I read your post I had this intense desire to see your scar!

  2. I had a much more recent incident. I was in a car accident. After a month, we went back to the scene and it was totally different than I remembered. The pole set backs were different, the curve in the road was different. It made me realized that perhaps eye witnesses weren’t all that reliable.

  3. VJ

    Whether it was real or not, it is a powerful metaphor for how that child felt.

  4. An absolutely “gripping” account – whether true or imagined. Can we trust those early memories? I’ve buried my musings on years one through five. (Foster care, in my case, not something to dwell on.) I love that you ended your post with the family photo.

    • Elaine, I can so imagine that you would want to bury memories from foster care. Such tender years. I am glad your memories don’t really begin until age five! XO

  5. Memory certainly is tricky and unreliable. Nonetheless, I was totally caught up in your story—all those details! I’d like seeing how other CNF writers deal with this dilemma.

  6. Wow–Luanne! It sounds traumatic. Perhaps you’ve conflated a few experiences. It is strange how the brain works. Cool though to have those photos.

    I have a few memories from when I was a toddler in the house we lived in in Germantown (outside of center city Philadelphia). My mom confirmed they were accurate.

    But I have this memory of being in one of those old-fashioned elevator where you pull the metal door closed and you can see the floors and walls. I thought it was at one of my grandparents’ apartments, but my mother and brother said it wasn’t. So, I’m not sure if it was real or not.

  7. Most of my memories are pretty much based on fact. I don’t think I ever had a question on whether they took place or not. I would love to have the photos

  8. Whether factual memory or a dream, the terror would have been just the same. An early memory I have is the ability to float down the stairs. Obviously that never happened, but I don’t think I dreamt it. Very strange.

  9. Scary, scary, scary.
    Have I read this before? I can’t remember. Hah.
    I believe if you think it’s real, it’s real to you.
    Now it’s real to me, too.

    • I feel like you haven’t read it because I posted it so long ago and barely remember the people who commented. It was over ten years ago! I hope you don’t have a nightmare over it, Sheila!

  10. Those old photographs are such treasures. And what memories they trigger!

  11. I have to tell you this story. I remember fishing with my grandfather in a small lake in front of the Capitol building in Little Rock, Arkansas, when I was about 5. I know it really happened, but looking through photos online and Google Earth, even old photos, no lake. Today I was looking through one of my mom’s album’s and there it was! The Capitol and the lake. It felt good to find confirmation of my memory.

    • Oh wow. That is fabulous. Yes, I think some people’s early childhood memories are better than others. In my family I can say that my grandfather had a fabulous memory, as did my grandmother. But their daughter, my mother, has always had a terrible memory.

  12. As you know, in my book I recounted some early memories, and for the ones that involved others, the feedback generally was they were astounded I could remember or was even taking in the situation (my brother and cousins were so much older than me). I’ve formed the opinion that some form of trauma cements memories – in your case, fear and loss of control. Maybe the horse didn’t go as far as you remember, or whatever, but the memory is real to you, and seems too formed, complete and vivid to be “only” a dream.
    I also remember certain dreams I used to have as a young person and knew them both then and now to be dreams. They were repetitive. I still have some repetitive dreams.
    However, a new trend is emerging, in that with some RECENT events, let’s say the last five years, I’m having trouble with separating if they happened or I dreamt them. It’s getting puzzling, and I hope there is nothing sinister in that 🙂 No use asking my husband. For all we have mutual recall of past things we did together, we may as well have been on separate holidays, LOL.

    • That is how I’ve been leaning my whole life about the horse incident. I have very specific recurrent memories as a kid and they were definitely dreams. I remember them as dreams. The falling dream I used to cry and run to my mother. The giant jewels in the basket dream I would cry when I woke up because the basket was missing hahaha. But I also remember secrecy around the horse incident, and that also rings very true. Now, your new trend. Could it be things that you wrote about on your blog or elsewhere? Or do you have too much on your mind? I know that I do lately and this morning I was sure it was three days ago–this past Monday!!!

    • And I laughed about your husband’s view of your holidays hahaha. I know what you mean!

  13. I think this really happened — and you spun this straw into gold.

  14. I would like to think this was a dream…you were so very little and could have been badly hurt. Horses do often return home on their own. They might take off, but then, they come back. You have such a detailed account of events. Dreams are not usually like that.

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