Spider in My Mouth by Chris Jericho’s band Fozzy is on my Spotify playlist. “My life goes by in the photographs/The images that we hide/My ghosts that were once invisible/Now buried down deep inside.” These lyrics have haunted me from the first time that I heard them. It makes me think of how, when we recall memories, they are often incomplete, or like a silent film in black and white with no dialog. We don’t always remember the color of something or what was said, especially with older memories. At worst we have a single vague snapshot, at worst a crappy silent home movie playing in our head. At best we remember everything. That rarely happens … at least for me.
There was this particularly unique incident involving my stepfather when I was growing up. I was painting with water colors at the kitchen table and left my brush cleaning water on the table and he drank it, thinking I left Kool Aid on the table. Later I was yelled at for trying to poison him. I have no memory of my age, what I was painting, or even why I was painting. I am no artist. I don’t remember the color of the glass, if I left my painting and paints on the table or any other detail. I don’t even remember what was going through my mind as I was being accused of attempted murder. I can guess with some amount of accuracy based on my feelings for the man, his dramatic reaction, and the amount of sass and sarcasm I have always been capable of. The incident is just a snapshot memory, and not one that I often revisit because I have no need.
In fact, I don’t remember much about my stepfather, which is odd since he was in my life up until I was 15. I doubt that I could pick him out of a police line up these days. He is a faceless presence that was a part of my life that brought unending chaos. If wasn’t him, it was his family.
I have a knot of scar tissue in my bottom lip that accompanies a faded scar. I have a black and white silent home movie that plays through my head of the day of the incident. It plays randomly and never from my point of view/ It is the point of view of someone observing as an outsider. My stepfather’s sister and her husband would get into knock down drag out fights that would erupt in violence. It didn’t happen often, but when it did it was ugly. It explains why they were married and divorced 5 times to each other. The last divorce finally stuck.
I was probably three, four tops and hanging out with my cousins, one the same age, one a year older. An argument escalated in the dining room. They started yelling and throwing things at each other. As the fight moved into the adjoining living room my cousins and I were retreating to hide in a bedroom closet. My aunt and uncle were unaware of their surroundings and I was kicked in the face resulting in an emergency room trip and stitches. I don’t remember anything about the emergency room trip, but I remember afterward, my cousins and I huddled in that closet discussing the events that happened, as much as small children could, to help process things.
That is how I remember a lot of things, as a neutral party watching a scene play out, with no feelings attached, even when there should be. Something will trigger a sense of melancholy, but as I reach out to grab the memory associated with it, that memory becomes a slow pan movie scene with an audience of one trying to figure out why they need to be invested in the characters.
I was 14 and sitting on a dock overlooking a small lake at a private campground in Small Town, Pennsylvania. When I say small town, I mean, small town. This was the kind of small town where secrets were impossible to keep. Everyone knew everyone else’s business. No one knew this town even existed until an interview where Trent Reznor mentioned he was from there, following up that statement talking about how he wanted to leave the town because he was never going to have sex taking piano lessons from a nun, or something like that. I would have to find the interview.
Anyway, I was 14 and sitting on this dock, my feet dangling into the water. My lifeguard friend, a few years older, sat next to me in a lawn chair that was to serve as his lifeguard vigil in case someone fell out of a paddle boat and needed rescued. The lake was barely a lake, closer to pond, and there wasn’t anywhere you could really go, so people didn’t use the paddleboats much. We just sat there talking about everything and nothing. We were told later that we looked content just sitting there like that talking that no one wanted to bother us. This memory snapshot is at least in color, or most of it is, the green of the grass and trees, the muddy blue of the water, the white of the paddleboats. It goes by as a slow movie pan, as if the camera caught the footage from behind us. It reminds me of a different place and time, much like a silent movie reminds us that there was a time before the world was captured in color. I think that was the day he told me about his dad’s obsession with toast and stories about his Italian grandmother who couldn’t speak English. I could be wrong, and those stories could have been from other days. In my mind they are stand alone stories with nothing attached to them, just that they were told by my lifeguard friend.
I even remember the big moments of my life this way, the moments that people don’t usually forget. I hated my kindergarten teacher with every ounce of my being. She would crack me across the knuckles with a ruler every time she caught me using my left hand. I was one of those children who were forced to be right-handed. I blame her and this forced handedness for a lot of my coordination problems, but it can’t be proven. Science is just now starting to look at how converts brains are affected by the change.
So, I was sent off with two weeks of kindergarten schoolwork to do on my vacation to visit family in Florida. My memories of this vacation include coloring inside circles in my workbook. Later I was yelled at by this teacher for not coloring consistently between all the shapes. I remember a fight about being hungry and not liking cantaloupe. I remember a crab escaping the cooking pot and getting lost in the kitchen. I remember going out with my older cousin to catch those crabs. In every instance I see myself as if I were standing outside my body watching. I also remember one of the most terrifying moments of my young life happening on this vacation. That memory as well plays out like a black and white film, this time a horror movie, only I am not the star of the film, I am the audience looking at someone that looks like me playing that part.
We were staying in my maternal grandparents “vacation home”. It was a double wide trailer on a piece of property they owned. The trailer on the small plot reminded me camping. Maybe this trailer on this property was the precursor to glamping. I woke up in the middle of the night, not being able to sleep in a strange bed. I walked across the trailer looking for my parents. They weren’t there. I walked outside. The car wasn’t there. Five-year-old me left the trailer and ran to my aunt’s house. I have no idea how I found my way there in the dark. I entered the yard despite the dogs being out, dogs I had been told over and over weren’t friendly, that they were guard dogs and mean. I banged on the door and hard as a I could, and no one answered. I probably couldn’t knock hard enough to wake anyone up and they were probably used to sleeping through barking dogs. I found went back to the trailer and my parents were still gone. My five-year-old brain decided it would be a good idea to take a bath and pass time until someone came back. I can easily pull up a black and white picture of me from that night from someone standing in the bathroom doorway watching a frightened child trying to figure out how to get water to stay in the tub and adjust it where it was neither too hot nor too cold. I see myself running to my aunt’s house and back from the point of view of a camera filming as if filming a silent movie in the style of The Blair Witch Project.
Do other people experience their memories the same way? Do all memories turn into silent films or black and white photographs or as ghosts buried deep inside?