Thirty-five years ago, when I was twelve years old, my mother died.
There was a service, of course, people crammed into funeral parlor rooms, embracing one another, sharing sorrow, then filing into the big cold chapel to hear the eulogy. I think I feel those things in my memory more than see them.
Of the funeral I remember only two things specifically. One: through tears exchanging embarrassed uncomfortable grins with a neighborhood friend, Gerry, who’d arrived with his family to pay respects. Two: my oldest cousin, Alan, clutching the edge of the curtain that half-hid my mother’s polished walnut coffin and weeping quietly into his knuckles until someone pulled him away.
That’s all I can retrieve today, and nothing comes to mind from the burial, though I’m sure I accompanied my father to the cemetery.
At the house, afterwards, I recall but a few things: the visitors striding in and out; the torn black ribbons we were made to wear, representing the rending of clothing; and the sturdy cardboard boxes with their tacky faux wood grain that the more observant in the immediate family chose to sit on, another of those ancient Jewish rituals made slightly ridiculous by modernity.
My most specific recollection is of my mother’s mother, Grandma Bella, crying endlessly and beating her thigh so raw with grief that someone had to put a pillow there. Esther, my mother, had been her youngest child.
The fragmentation of these memories seems explicable, there being no telling how a young mind will respond to immediate emotional trauma. But what’s more puzzling is that I have always seemed to possess many fewer childhood memories in general than other people I know. It didn’t help, I’m sure, that I fell out of touch with all of my boyhood friends — no one around to remind me regularly of that time we did this or that. And the age difference with my sister (who was a toddler when my mother died) is so severe that we were practically born in separate generations, didn’t really travel through life together until much later. So some memory aids were absent for me. But, still: not to recall more than a few experiences with a mother who took me nearly to the teenage years? To be unable to recollect more than a couple dozen events from my first decade of life?
Then, three years ago, I picked up Barron’s magazine and saw a profile of a man who had been my best friend growing up. So many years had passed — more than two decades, by my reckoning — that I had to read deep to confirm that it was indeed the same Michael, despite a half-page picture accompanying the article. I called him and we chatted for a long time. The reminiscences were not equally evoked, however. He did most of the talking about our shared past, reminding me of things we’d done and people we’d known, the majority of whom had faded to thin shadows in the recesses of my mind.
When I signed up for Facebook a couple of years later, I tapped Michael as my institutional memory. Someone who sounded vaguely familiar would offer to “friend” me, and I’d email Michael: How did I know this person? Were we ever close?
You don’t remember? — he’d write back sometimes. You played touch football with that kid every week for five years!
I wish I could say that prompts of this nature brought it all forth, but most of my recollections remained barely perceptible ghosts. Then, one day, I received a Facebook email from a guy named Bob who sounded familiar, though I couldn’t locate his story in my memory file. He attached a one-word note to his “friend” request: “Scribbler?”
I thought: I’m not famous. How the hell does he know I’m a writer? I called Michael. He had no idea what “scribbler” referred to, but he reminded me that I’d known Bob in elementary school, before he transferred to a private high school in the next town.
So I accepted Bob’s friendship request, and he immediately sent a follow-up that startled me. It said, “When I think back on my early years, you are foremost in my memories” — yet I could scarcely attach his image, now seen in a photo album or two online, to any of my recollections! He went on to remind me that we’d played a pair of mice on stage in the fourth grade. Bob was Nibbler and I was…Scribbler.
That’s when it flooded back: the little spiral-bound pad I’d held, pretending to jot notes as a mouse reporter; the big pink cardboard ears; the sweatshirt and sweatpants that made me gray; and the tail — the tail! I sat in front of the computer with my eyes closed and saw my mother like it was yesterday, bending the wire hangers that gave the tail body, sitting in our den and meticulously, lovingly wrapping that wire with electrical tape.
Maybe she reached up and tugged on my hood and said, “Let me look at you.” Or was that my brain playing tricks? No matter. I felt the tears welling.
Fourth grade — the two of us, I now conclude, alive in innocence. Not both equally innocent, of course, she being then in her mid thirties, but equally oblivious of what was to come. For scarcely two years later she would depart this world and leave her family behind. And, in so doing, she would create inadvertently not only a sense of loss but a loss of memory in her son, my mind apparently having blocked out the pain with great inefficiency, blotting away whole swaths of my childhood, as if they never happened, though I know that of course they must have.
There is a word, now used mostly academically, for gaps that we know must once have been filled. They call them lacunae, which shares the same Latin root as lake. It’s an association that made little sense to me before, but now it does. Having reeled in Scribbler, perhaps I’ll go fishing in the lake of lost recollections, see what else I can bring to the surface.