In my early years, I used to think that it would be the big, predictable days and milestones of my life that would have the most tenacity in my memory banks. The big days–First Days of School, Prom, High School and college graduations, the day I met my husband, our wedding, the births of my children–naturally leave tread marks on my memory terrain. Some painful and mud-caked (college graduation) and some exquisitely beautiful (husband and children).
As I started to take note of my memories, and to that which propelled me forward in my life, I was surprised to find smaller, less impressive moments, from absolutely ordinary days, milling around with those Big Memories. The quotidian ones also wave with their golden shimmer.
One place holds many shimmering memories: the swimming club where I spent my childhood summers. This pool holds so much nostalgia for me:
the Booooiiiiiiinnnnnnggggggg of the diving board that I could hear from my bedroom (we lived, at one point, across the street from the pool)
The very tanned feet of the life guards: they all wore their wide-banded flip flops when they were on duty; when they took their flip flips off to swim, their feet looked as if they wore super-white flip flops
The Moms sitting on their lounge chairs, tanned limbs resting and heads tilted in conspiratorial conversation (definitely not gossiping) or lodged in a book
The combined, intoxicating aroma of chlorine, Ban de Soil gelee (SPF 4 please and thank you) and Hawaiian Tropic Coconut Deep Tanning Oil (no SPF)
Speaking of life guards, I even remember most of their names: Katie, Jimmy, Gwil, Gwen, Matt and Jenny. (An aside: Jenny and Matt dated each other; even at the tender age of 9, I could feel the electricity travel between them. They seemed as cool and sexy as the Bee Gees or John Travolta.)
My friends and I grew up and matured in this space. I can even track the migration of my relationship with boys within its chlorinated walls. At first the boys were play mates. Then they morphed into adversaries with cooties. Then, suddenly, they were intriguing. I held a boy’s hand for the first time at this pool; my friend and I both had a crush on Kyle. He knew this. Being the generous fellow he was, he agreed to take turns holding our hands.
One evening when I was exactly 14 years and 2 months old, my family was at the pool. Bikinis had replaced Speedos and fledgling muscles and bravado replaced little boys’ bodies. About 14 tanned teenagers swam and tried desperately to act as if their bold, loud actions were for the benefit of their friends and not the swimmers of the opposite sex.
Across the royal blue pool, I saw my mom packing her bag which meant it was time for us to go. I swam over to the shallow end and climbed out of the chlorinated water. I calmly asked (read: implored and begged) my mother to let me stay with my friends. And by friends I meant Benjamin. She summed the situation up and said Yes.
Later that evening, Benjamin actually walked me home. I spent most of the walk with my eyes focused on the very interesting sidewalk below our feet. I remember conversation littered with long pockets of awkward, teenaged silence. The silence held our anticipation and nerves. After we arrived at my house, we stood at the end of my parent’s driveway under a thick canopy of late July trees. The cicadas sang their song with September on their wings. My skin was scorched from 10 hours in the searing Midwest sun. I closed my eyes and felt the electric shock of my first kiss.
These memories shimmer. These quotidian moments are seared into my mind, forever and indelibly etched; I love pulling them out and turning them over.
When I became a mother nine years ago, I naively thought (once again) that I would remember the Big Memories of my children’s lives. Their textbook Firsts: First words, First steps, First solid foods, Firsts. But, (no surprise here), what I really remember are the moments where the ordinary living occurs. Tantrums. Alarm clocks illuminating round cheeks and long eyelashes. Days when I’m ready for everyone to go to bed. Mornings when I anticipate their awaking.
Recently, Henry and I were in the kitchen. I stood at the sink, washing something as there is perpetually something to wash. Henry sat on a backless bar stool, propping his chin in his hands and resting his elbows on the dark gray granite counter. He spoke to my back and my busy, washing arms and asked,
Mommy, what was my first word?
Hmmmmm, I stalled, plumbing my memory bank.
Well….. Mommy? What was my first word?
Well, H, I think it was more of a sound. You’d say, “Mmmmmmm”. I think it felt good to you.
Oh, he replied. Mommy?
What word did I say after that?
Well, and Hmmmmm I stalled again. I think it was Mammmmmmmma.
Henry continued to inquire about his third, fourth and fifth, etc, words were. With each question, I felt increasingly awful. I couldn’t remember. How could I have possibly forgotten this sweet boy’s first words? What kind of mother doesn’t remember these things?
I don’t remember explicit details of their Firsts, if at all. If I rummage through the piles that will some day become their baby books, I may find a loose-leaf sheet of paper with a scrawled date and a notation, Henry said his first word today and it was Mamma.
I don’t, however, need a scrap-book to recount those commonplace memories that shimmer–the ones that radiate, vibrate and cast a warm, golden hue. One afternoon, four years ago, Henry called to me after his afternoon nap. He was one and a half and we still lived in Arkansas. I ascended the cream, carpeted stairs just as Pandora started to serenade me with The Dixie Chicks’ God Speed.
I entered Henry’s darkened room and blinked, adjusting my eyes to the lack of light. I swooped him into my arms. He wore a pale blue cotton onesie and his heavy body was drunk with late afternoon sleep. His deliciously round arms encircled my neck.
…God speed, little man. Sweet dreams, little man… drifted up the staircase.
I carried him back down the carpeted stairs.
My palms smoothed the pure, silky skin of his legs. My fingers traced each crevice and dimple of his rolls and rolls of chunk. I inhaled the damp scent of Baby Magic on his sweaty head.
…Superman’s in pajamas on the couch…
The words of the lullaby simultaneously traveled up through my feet and in through my ears. My heart thumped in a symphonic crescendo of awesomeness. Sunlight dappled our edges, streaming in through the big picture windows. Our bodies swayed in a unified rocking; Henry’s head stayed nestled in that perfect curve of my neck, just below my jaw. This I remember.
I remember a hill-side field full of yellow and white-tipped daffodils in early March. The pungent, Spring air carried the scent of damp, fertile earth. The sun warmed my head, my back and arms. Abby was two and I carried Henry within. I brought my camera to capture memories–for remembering later. Thankfully I recall more than the photo. Just before I took my favorite photo of the day, Abby joyfully skipped into the late-morning expanse of daffodils. I called to her,
Abby, come on back!
She turned and shone her contagious smile at me. Dressed in a fuschia-checked smocked dress, she stood in perfect contrast to the green backdrop of the forest’s edge. The nodding sea of daffodils pulsed at her knees. Abby’s tight, blond curls caught the warm, golden sun and it danced in the coils, twists and turns of each blond ringlet. She began running back to me with her solid, chunky arms pumping and checks flushed with exertion. I snapped the photo.
Thursday evening, Hubby and I sat in deep conversation around our kitchen table. Hubby sat with the black and dark wood kitchen chair pushed out at an angle from the table, his long, muscular legs crossed. His still wore his work clothes: his starched, white button down was unbuttoned one-more button than usual. I wore the sweater and t-shirt I’d worn all day and on the bottom, yellow pajama pants, comfy socks and grey wool slippers. As we discussed the day’s events and our correlating reflections and emotions, my eyes traversed the table top. The last hoorah of the day’s sun streamed in through our back windows, illuminating our kitchen table. I noted the black nail polish globbed here, a remnant from when Abby and Henry transformed a red monster truck to black. I noted the places where the table’s finish had given up, asking for mercy from the creative forces of my children. Henry walked into the kitchen and said,
Excuse, me, Mommy?
Just a moment we told him.
Hubby finished his thought and I turned my attention to sweet Henry. He’d been gone for about 10 minutes. One never could guess what Henry would say at any given moment and I wondered what he’d reveal.
Mommy? (I believe each of his fledgling thoughts must converge with this prefix, Mommy? He cannot begin a sentence without it. Some day, he will stop. For now, I try to smile each time he begins…)
Mommy, come here I want to show you the longest car twack in histowy.
His hand, still streaked with mud from Abby’s Lacrosse game, reached out for mine and confidently took mine in his grasp. He led me from the kitchen to the family room and, while making exquisite car driving noises (VRRRRRRRR **shift** RRrrrrrrrrr), steered me along the convoluted car track. He’d made it out of a deck of Uno cards and when he ran out of those, he used a miniature poker deck. Each card carefully touched its predecessor. As my tour continued, I turned my eyes away from the track and toward my tour guide. I noted the soft turn of his eye lashes which gave way to the roundness of his cheek. I watched his pride of his creation rise from his belly and dance in his soft, blue eyes. I inhaled and smelled the air, which had finally turned from constant musky dampness to bright crispness. I noticed that Henry’s hair had already begun its summer migration from dishwater blond to golden blond. My heart ached to breaking.
Henry?, I asked, my words infiltrating his bubble of car twack concentration.
What?, he queried.
I love you.
I know, Mommy. His tired voice answered. I wuv you, too.
These things, I remember. My belly fills with the incandescence of these everyday, ordinary, not-Big moments. The warmth spreads, through my limbs, my heart and into my memory bank. Shimmering, waving, glowing.
I was fortunate to recently study with Dani Shapiro; if you ever get the chance, please give yourself the gift of her talented, tender and spot-on teaching. This post is a result of two different tidbits I gained from Dani. She introduced me to Joe Brainard’s I Remember (which several of my friends and I used as a writing prompt about a year ago). She also introduced me to Joan Didion’s December, 5 1976, essay in The New York Times Book Review, Why I Write. In this piece, Didion writes of the things that “shimmer”; the first time I heard Dani read it, my mind said Yes, Yes, YES! Leaves shimmer. Dark branches against a charcoal sky shimmer. The vibraddo in a nervous voice shimmers. A shy smile shimmers. I drew (and continue to draw) inspiration from this piece again and again. I included several excerpts below. Here’s to the Shimmer.
… My attention veered inexorably back to the specific, to the tangible, to what was generally considered, by everyone I knew then and for that matter have known since, the peripheral.
I knew that I was no legitimate resident in any world of ideas. I knew I couldn’t think. All I knew then was what I couldn’t do. All I knew then was what I wasn’t, and it took me some years to discover what I was.
Which was a writer.
By which I mean not a “good” writer or a “bad” writer but simply a writer, a person whose most absorbed and passionate hours are spent arranging words on pieces of paper. Had my credentials been in order I would never have become a writer. Had I been blessed with even limited access to my own mind there would have been no reason to write. I write entirely to find out what I’m thinking, what I’m looking at, what I see and what it means. What I want and what I fear. Why did the oil refineries around Carquinez Straits seem sinister to me in the summer of 1956? Why have the night lights in the bevatron burned in my mind for twenty years? What is going on in these pictures in my mind?
When I talk about pictures in my mind I am talking, quite specifically, about images that shimmer around the edges.
…Look hard enough, and you can’t miss the shimmer. It’s there. You can’t think too much about these pictures that shimmer. You just lie low and let them develop.