Mat Parke is an emeritus blogger with BCC and all-around great guy. We’re glad he dropped in for a guest post.
You cannot step twice into the same river, for other waters are ever flowing on to you. — Heraclitus
Childhood represents an increasingly small piece of our lives but occupies the largest space in memory. A banker’s lamp perched on my father’s desk. Moonlight shining through willow trees. The sun warm on my body as a record plays. My sister sitting in a red-leather upholstered chair looking at pictures in a book.
These things remembered are real. The willow trees are gone and the house long sold, but other artifacts remain. The desk and the lamp, no longer paired, can be found in my parent’s new house. The red-leather chair and possibly the book gather dust in the basement. But even if preserved, almost nothing that saw everyday use some thirty years ago is still part of the daily fray. Instead they sit in the recesses of cupboards and closets where I and my siblings stumble across them when making visits to the unfamiliar house my parents now live in. In their new setting these items act as totems of a family that has also changed into something our childhood eyes would not recognize.
A vinyl record rests on a shelf inside a worn cardboard sleeve. The story embedded in its grooves would not interest me if I was hearing it for the first time today but I begin to wonder if I know anyone with an actual record player. The record reminds me of the hours sitting in the bay window on the south side of the house with my sister Alice listening and retelling the story of Tubby the Tuba. We recite along with the narrator the story of the sad fat little tuba who puffs away and sighs because he is never given a pretty melody. At the crucial moment, after Tubby has found and risked a melody in the orchestra and gained acceptance among his peers, there is a scratch in the record that reminds Alice and me of electrical interference. As the narrator concludes his happy ending of “and they all played!” we respond with our invariable supplement of “including the electrical wire”. This seems to our five- and six-year-old selves the height of sophisticated humor.
There is a wide age range among eight siblings, which further complicates the already fraught remembrance of event or custom. Though we might all recall an activity, it is difficult to agree on the time, the players or any of the thousands of details that went into making it. That it was late summer might be obvious because we were harvesting hay. But was it the Massey-Ferguson or Ford tractor pulling the hay wagon? Where all the kids present or was the youngest missing? Morgan was driving and John was stacking but who else was sitting on the growing cross-hatch of bales? Rachel for sure because when the wagon bumped across a dike in the field and the wagon overturned she broke her arm.
Even when we agree on the general contours of the event, the meaning remains contested. What does it say that the kids were riding on the hay wagon? Were my parents foolish or neglectful for allowing children to be proximate to farm machinery when they were superfluous to the work? Or was my father indulging his children in a bucolic rural moment that he never enjoyed growing up in the city? Why did we switch to one ton bales the following year? A sibling points out the bigger bales could no longer be manually stacked and says my father switched to avoid another accident. Another argues it was related to my oldest brother moving out of the house and the loss of his free labor.
When the siblings gather, usually in twos and threes (only once in the last twenty-five years were we all present), the conversation inevitably turns to our childhood. This is not surprising. We have scattered across the country and around the world and most of us see each other so rarely that we are unfamiliar with the details of one another’s current life. Many of us struggle to be intimate with the others the way we popularly envision siblings, even adult siblings, should be. Eventually we exhaust the touchstones of popular culture, politics and, depending on the sibling, church topics and we talk again about the years on the farm because those were the only years we were all under one roof. By the time we moved to the “city”—as we sincerely thought of Provo in 1985—John was already married and living in Germany and the steady migration of children out of their parent’s household was poised to take off in earnest.
During most conversations the competition to control the contours and meaning of our family history is barely noticeable, like a low hum in the back of the room. A word here, a correction there is barely noticed as social graces and the lubricant of good conversation (my siblings are uniformly excellent conversationalists) ensure things keep moving. By unspoken mutual agreement, certain topics are off limits. But even these agreeable compromises are not always enough to avoid more muscular confrontations. The more siblings present the more likely that cracks along fault lines will appear and the rivalry to hold the narrative pen will burst again into the open. When this happens old alliances revive themselves and new alliances make themselves known. (I was hugely surprised a few years back to find that at some point my five sisters had agreed that we brothers were thoughtless!) Conflagrations flare up as we pore over this or that episode. At those moments we are auguries convinced we can wring meaning for the others out of the bones of events long past.
When the arguments run hottest, I see again that I am the sole repository of moments in time preserved in the medium of my memory. When recall fails, in old age or death, they will disappear entirely and any vestige that remains will depend on my success at transmitting them to others. Some memories have acquired enough meaning that I badly want to save them in something more permanent than my brain’s circuitry. In an effort to preserve them I might transcribe them into a book or onto a tape or into a series of ones and zeros. But if I write in the most pain-staking detail that on the day we were stung by the hornets, Alice and I crossed the back lawn and climbed over the fence and walked through the orchard and squeezed through the barb-wire fence and walked barefoot up the field to pick apples, you will still not have a picture anything like the one I have in my mind. More bitter sweet is the knowledge that a year or two from now I will have a different picture and a different set of associations and a different meaning attached to the same event. After all I can do I will have already lost what I long to hold onto.