Wednesday, November 01, 2006


Standing in front of the disturbingly complete display of stuffed birds in Harvard’s Natural History Museum, there was the smell. That smell of formaldehyde. Of musty museum. I was four years old when my Aunt Vera died, and somehow this smell had lingered in my memories until this moment fourteen years later.

It wasn’t just the smell. I can picture the apartment. Curling up in bed with my sisters the night after she died. Turns out the rest of the family wasn’t so happy with us staying in the home of the deceased, so I remember the hotel room. I remember that we stayed on the seventh floor. The hallway in front of our room overlooked the lobby. I remember my sister telling me that if we dropped a penny from up there it would kill someone. Her theory was tested to some degree when my younger sister’s sippy cup accidentally tumbled onto the lobby floor, barely missing a man in a suit. The cup was yellow. It had ducks on it.

My aunt Shelley gave each of us huge teddy bears. Mine was purple with a thin purple ribbon tied around its neck. I named him Muffin. Another Aunt, Aunt Jessica, gave us Christmas ornaments. Vera must have died near Christmas. I can see the miniature train puffing its way across the wooden rainbow of the ornament, with my name spelled out on the cloud beneath it. I had grilled cheese for dinner at the restaurant that night. It came with the traditional parsley and orange curl garnish. I ate both the orange and the parsley. In the morning, we ate breakfast in the marble floored lobby. I had a cherry danish. It’s not surprising that I remember this bit; my mom guarded our palates from sugar with unparalleled fervor. My question is, why the rest?

Why does this event contain the sharpest memories of my childhood? It’s not grief. I don’t remember ever meeting Aunt Vera. I don’t know what she looked like. Yet I remember the plane ride to San Francisco. I remember the circumstances of her death (stroke in Nordstrom’s, they sent flowers). I distinctly remember picking out my inheritance, a roll of paper towels with blue geese printed on them. My mother also guarded us from the evils of paper products, wasteful, she said. We used cloth. So why? Why do I remember the color of the carpet (green)? Or the fact that her will was nowhere to be found until someone finally uncovered it in the back of a dresser drawer.

I love the randomness of it. That my clearest set of memories doesn’t come from a beloved Christmas celebration. That the memories of milestones, first tooth lost, first two-wheel bike ride, first day of kindergarten, come in flashes. It’s there, then it’s gone, each time slightly altered, colored maybe, by the rose-tinted lens of hindsight. Maybe in those memories I relive the childhood I wish I had. I can feel myself feeling in the gaps. Just like my Psych professor would remind us, memory isn’t a videotape; it’s constructive, pieced together from scraps of life. But in the Aunt Vera memories it’s these random chunks, like my four year old self just drank in the experience through slow, life altering gulps.

Was it the instability of it? My dad had driven ahead. My mom made the flight with the three of us by herself. When we got there family tension was approaching boiling point. There were feelings being hurt and a funeral to plan and a lost life to grieve. Maybe my developing unconscious sensed this churning, emotional situation and clung to the concrete world around me. Or maybe that’s the Psych 101 student in me.

Maybe it’s these random chunks that make the world as we experience it real. Something solid that exists in the ethereal world of the past. Time starts to go faster and faster as I get older. Everyone says it, and everyone is right. Sometimes it seems like time slips by, taking with it any permanence of experience. It’s just gone. So I love the fact that I can remember the pink fake nails my mom carried with her in the round white Tupperware to keep us entertained. Pink fake nails at a funeral, how reverent. “Why don’t you try to simultaneously entertain a one year old, a four year old, and a six year old,” I’m sure my mother would say.

See, because mostly my four year old self belongs more to my mother than to me. She carries the breadth and depth of the childhood that I mostly can’t recall. My dad, too, carries his own perspective on my developing life. They remember their world as parents to a small child. They can look at pictures and relive moments. They can recall how they felt cuddling in bed with me and a pile of books. But they can’t remember how I felt. I can almost grasp the memory, the coziness of my fuzzy pink pajamas with the feet, the words of Liza Lou performed with all the voice talent a father can muster. Still, it’s mostly the content smile on my face and the simple warmth that the candid snapshot captures that signals to me now what that moment felt like. I can know how it felt by the look on my face, but I can’t recall the actual emotion.

The Aunt Vera memories are different. It’s with this specific group of memories that I can prove to myself that I existed as an individual at the age of four. Just the fact that I remember things I’m sure my mother never bothered to tell me, or capture on film for that matter—people don’t tend to take a lot of pictures at funerals. The mundane things, the carpet, the cup, the questions over who gets which painting (Aunt Vera was an artist—oils), these things tell me that I remember. Even at this pupa-like stage I formed a distinct set of memories and all the feelings that go with them. My own film reel of memory that inexplicably captured the events surrounding the death of a great great aunt I barely knew, and still helps to solidify the life I live today.


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