What is this thing called memory? Here’s Kate and me yesterday, in the kitchen. She’s making lunch, I’m making beet salad. Her peanut-butter-spreading isn’t going well, because she’s doing it with one hand. The other is pinching her nose shut, so grossed out is she by the smell of the beets I’m dicing.
“Oh, knock it off, DQ,” I tell her. (DQ is, of course, “drama queen.”) “It’s not like I’m making you eat it.”
“You did once,” she says. I protest. I have never, in my life, succeeded in getting her to take more than one bite of anything she doesn’t like. The tears, the gagging and the generalized histrionics all remind me that meals are supposed to be pleasant, and that one of these days she’ll come around, or else she won’t. Every crazy woman I know is crazy on the subject of food. The world doesn’t need another one. Your mileage may vary, but I know my own kid. This is a battle I choose to sidestep.
“And remember that time you wouldn’t let me go to the Halloween party because I wouldn’t finish my spinach?” she said.
“Finish your spinach? You never even started spinach. You ate it when I fed it to you from a baby-food jar, but once you could feed yourself you never ate spinach.”
“No,” she said. “I ate one bite, and you said I had to eat it all, or else I couldn’t go to the party.”
I have no memory of this. None. Kate has a richly detailed one, involving tears and a sad phone call to another kid who was at the party. (“I couldn’t come because I wouldn’t eat my spinach.”) One of us is full of crap, if not spinach. Who?
I asked if she had another other tales of trauma relating to food. She claims I once took her down to the basement, pulled down her undies and spanked her because she wouldn’t eat her peas. This is plainly false. I remember every time I ever spanked her, if you could call a single open-handed swat to the fanny a spanking. I think it was maybe three times. That’s how many times it took me to learn that a) it doesn’t work; and b) it really does hurt you worse than it hurts them. Timeouts and in-room quarantines were far more effective, and entertaining to us as parents, as when she sat by the furnace vent in her room and wailed, “I will not…be locked in my room…like an ANIMAL!” Alan and I were laughing so hard we feared she could hear us.
She also said I sent her to her room because she wouldn’t eat pancakes. It’s possible. I have a vague memory of having nothing suitable for dinner one night and announcing we were having breakfast instead, with bacon, eggs and pancakes at 7 p.m. She probably objected with the usual right-wing conservatism pre-schoolers bring to all arguments, and I may have sent her to her room for being such a pill.
Beyond that, though, we were miles apart. I pointed out the logical inconsistencies in her recollection. Why would I take her to the basement to spank her? Why would I pull down her undies? Clearly she was confusing some pre-K incident of pee-pee comparison with some other trauma. No, she insisted.
“I remember it as though it were yesterday,” she said, totally serioius. Aha. Obviously a line stolen from a Disney Channel movie. But she really was serious. To her, this happened.
So I started thinking, once again, about this mass of Jell-O we all carry around between our ears, and its amazing ability to fool us into, well, any number of things. What is “the truth” when it comes to me, Kate and our disagreements at the dinner table? A video camera recording these scenes would show one thing, but the video recorders in our brains play back another thing entirely. All three constitute some version of “the truth,” but what is it?
Some years ago I read “A Thousand Acres,” Jane Smiley’s masterful retelling of “King Lear” on an Iowa farm. I have to warn you of an impending spoiler, which seems silly, since the story is based on a 400-year-old play, but the novel plows a little new ground, and posits that the estrangement between the father and his two eldest daughters — but not his youngest — was based on sexual abuse, the memory of which one of the daughters suppressed entirely, until it all comes back to her in a terrible rush. This was a popular belief at the time the novel was written, that something so awful could happen to a person that it could be hidden behind a black curtain in one’s mind, perhaps to lurk forever, perhaps to be revealed in a second-act climax.
It never seemed entirely digestible to me. Altering a memory? Sure. Obscuring a memory? Absolutely. But burying it as though it never happened at all? If no alcohol or drugs were involved, it seemed far-fetched. My friends who are clinical psychologists say it happens all the time, but I’m still skeptical. It just sounded like really shaky science, and a recipe for disaster — people jailed for crimes they didn’t commit, based on highly suspect testimony.
The question was never really resolved, but certainly suppressed-memory syndrome has fallen out of favor as a topic for movie plot twists and daytime talk shows (if only this would happen to the paternity-testing gimmick). Smiley herself no longer discusses “A Thousand Acres,” I notice, and I can’t help but wonder if that’s why. How awkward, to win a Pulitzer Prize for an otherwise brilliant novel with a rusty hinge at its center.
I keep telling Kate that if she only takes a bite of my beet salad — roasted beets, toasted walnuts, bleu cheese and balsamic vinegar — she will love it as much as I do. She refuses, of course. In her mind, she already has.
So, bloggage and clarifications:
Mitch Harper picked up on a line in my recollection of the Warsaw Street market the other day, the one about the couple who had been married 60 years and plainly hated one another. He asked if I was referring to the Klines, who anchored the place for years. Of course I wasn’t. Amos and Marce Kline were married at least that long but were giddily in love with one another. One of the saddest things about my Saturday visits was talking to Amos in the years after Marce died; he was simply devastated by her loss. He died last year, and it was one passing that I took note of and told myself, “Wherever he is, I hope he’s with Marce again.” That was a match for eternity.
No, it wasn’t them. I forget the name of the couple I’m thinking of, probably because I always thought of them as the Bickersons.
OK, then: I was purging bookmarks last night and almost cleansed Gregg Sutter’s blog, so infrequently is it updated. But I hit it one last time and I’m glad I did, because otherwise I would have missed this gem, complete with un-PC illustration. Memories of a Catholic boyhood? The setup for another Elmore Leonard novel? Your call.
On that note, I’m outta here for the weekend. Happy egging. I’ll be eating beet salad.