My parents told me many stories about myself, about things I couldn’t remember. I was young, and the world was larger than anything. My small child’s body was not equipped to handle the volume of emotions crackling through it like an electric current at any given moment. Every experience was the most that ever happened. Feelings flooded me in waves powerful enough to knock me flat on my back. Every cherished thing sent pure joy thrumming through my veins like liquid light.
My mother was always laughing at my out-sized personality. Closing her eyes and telling me how much I reminded her of herself. In one story she told me, I was four or five and she took me to see my first movie—the first I had ever seen in theatres. I have no memory of this occasion, but she has told the story so many times, I hold it like a living thing trapped under glass in my mind, sharp with the detail of something lived.
The theatre is completely black. Bodies rustle and crunch and breathe quietly in the dark. On the screen, a beautiful red-haired woman waves goodbye to her father. She is wearing a gown of sparkling white and her father, King of the Sea, is wearing a crown and carrying a trident. She is arm-in-arm with her husband, a prince with dark hair and bright blue eyes. The images pull something out of me—I want so much to her, red hair shining in the sun, arm-in-arm with the dark-haired man.
The picture fades, words begin their slow crawl up the enormous screen and the lights come up. The rustling of bodies is suddenly attached to people with faces and hair and noses and eyes, and they’re sitting all around me. I stand up, appalled and also entranced.
“Hello!” I say. I am just shy of three feet tall standing on her theatre chair, a four-year-old smiling and waving like the conductor of a train. “Hi! Nice to meet you! Oh, hi there!” My tone is magnanimous, like a latter day Lady Di out among the common folk.
Adults are laughing. I take this as a sign of encouragement. I look at each person in turn before my mother takes my hand and—
I cannot imagine what my mother did next. Her expression is unfathomable, even in my reinvented memory. Over the years, she had evolved, different versions of herself taking each other’s places when I recall the scene, the place, the time in my childhood.
In my younger memories, she was always smiling. In this particular instance she would have been beaming, accepting the compliments showered on her like roses strewn at her feet. Yes, my child is inexpressibly adorable, why thank you so, so much. I’m older now, and she is a more complicated woman than I could ever have imagined.
I wonder what she was really like with my when I was 4. Did she hoist me up, defensively turning from the people whose stares I’d invited with my grandstanding? Maybe she was proud of me for being so cute, but also a little annoyed by how much attention I was attracting. I was holding her up from wherever she was going next. At this tender age, I take up all of her time, and for what? I’m always underfoot, demanding something. Spending Saturday afternoon at the theatre alone with her daughter, watching a children’s movie—is that what she wanted for herself? Wasn’t there anything else she’d rather be doing?
When I was four years old, my mother was younger than I am now, barely 28. I’m just 30 now, with no children to drag me to a matinee, or enchant the public with their curiosity, every day I struggle against my obligations to myself and to others. I am yearning to make my mark on the world, and with no kids to carry the legacy forward, that task is up to me. The amount I give to indulging my selfish need for recognition comes at a price: less time for those I love means more time for what I love to do.
My father told me a story the other day, from around the same time in my life. He’s sick now and he loves talking about when his kids were young. Maybe it takes him back to his own youth, when his body was strong and compliant and he wasn’t trapped inside a withered husk. I don’t remember much about the memories he likes best, but I have a foggy recollection of something like them, which, I suppose, is the mind’s way of understanding a story someone tells you about yourself when you were too young or too preoccupied to remember. The memory might exist somewhere, sure, but it’s buried back in the smallest, dustiest parts of my mind.
Dad tells me: I’m five years old. He’s wearing his work shoes and carrying his beat up red toolbox. My face is wet with tears, and I’m still crying. He’s going into the backyard to build his dog a pen. Sobs come fast and hard: I’m overwhelmed by the number of feelings jockeying for space in my tiny body.
Why isn’t our dog an indoor dog, like the ones in TV shows about families? I cry. It could sleep at the foot of my bed!
My dad laughs at me. That’s for soft, pampered dogs, dogs who are basically casts, not dog who smells like outside and wet and who wades into brackish water to retrieve fallen ducks and bring them back to my dad and his hunting partners.
The day is stiflingly hot—ambient warmth from the time the sun spent warming it and the wet, sticky humidity of the nearby marshes and creeks. I’m crying because I am stuck inside in the stinging, cold air of the AC unit. I am crying because I want desperately, oh so much, to help my father build this pen.
My mother is frazzled from the heat and my incessant crying. Wrenching the sliding glass door open, she calls out to my father in the backyard—and now I am standing in the balmy, sticky warmth of the outside air, in the yard with my dad, holding a nail. I squint against the brightness of the sun in spite of the hat my mother has insisted I wear, but I’m quiet, oh so quiet. Tears dry on my cheeks and I hand a nail to my father every time he asks for one. My small hands grip the metal so tightly it leaves an impression in my fingertip ever time I hand one over. I am careful, oh so careful, not to drop even one.
My father’s story—the story of his memory—is tinted by time. It is coloured by his illness, by the distance that now separates our text conversations, our phone calls: a distance of years and many miles.
My memory is tainted by a sad, clawing thing, a wanting. At that age I wanted so much to for Dad to notice me. I wanted to be included in his important tasks. I wanted to show him how valuable I could be. I wanted it so much and yet I was afraid, so afraid, of letting him down. My father’s anger was sharp and his disappointment sour, like a bitter cocktail of vinegar and lemon that held nothing but the promise of shame.
I’ve made myself a balm from patience; a promise to be kind to that hypothetical child I don’t have. I vow to understand her desire to be underfoot; to be useful and entertaining and involved. I will be the biggest thing in her life, like my parents were to me. The promise is also a gift to my child self, who never expected her parents to pull down everything they had built in order to raise her up; she just wanted to know she was a part of it—a part that belonged.