“Memory Box”

My fondest childhood memories are of toil and triumph. At that time, our house was always filled with laugher and the smell of freshly brewed coffee. I would sit for hours on hardwood floors and marvel at the colorful tents I engineered out of my Mamma’s vast collection of quilts. These enormous caverns towered above me to become a refuge from the simple pains of school bullies and unfinished math homework. Other times they served as sanctuaries against my mother’s complaints of phone bills, Dad’s late work hours, and the leaky kitchen faucet. On days when the sunlight penetrated the quilts, I pretended the shapes along the nine-patch blocks were friendly faces visiting from fairy worlds, coming to share their fantastic stories. Between the indiscernible patterns, hidden along the stitching, lay the secrets of old maps leading to undiscovered treasures and endless adventure trails. In that place I dreamt of shiny, pink ballet slippers, silver astronaut suits, rusty pirate swords, and of being a mermaid, too. But it wasn’t always a magical journey. Whenever I neglected to secure the corners of the heavy fabrics, my entire fortress would come tumbling down, making gravity my enemy.

The beginning of my life was as wonderful as any kid could dream up; lazy Saturday afternoons spent drifting back to sleep on our lime-green porch swing, after a healthy helping of my dad’s fluffy pancakes and Mamma’s buttery grits and cheese. I couldn’t have been older than six or seven then. I still suffered what Mamma lovingly called “accidents” resulting in embarrassing, cold puddles that mysteriously appeared on my bed in the mornings. My biggest concerns were 1) would I get the Astronaut Barbie or the Ballerina one for Christmas? 2) would Miss Pierce, our science teacher, bring back that disgusting frog into the lab again?  and 3) should I punch Bobby at the cafeteria in front of everyone or kiss him behind the playground in the afternoon, where no one could see? I remember being happy with the world as I perfected the dance of growing up. I was naïve enough to think that my happiness was everlasting.

On my parents’ seventh wedding anniversary Mamma thought celebrating with the same wine she served Dad on their first dinner date would bring them luck and eternal happiness. That hot weekend I was sent away to my Grammy’s. Their evening, after three hours of reminiscing and four bottles of Valley Orchard red, culminated in the conception of a loud, irritating, self-centered crybaby they named Elizabeth. Don’t get me wrong.  I love my sister. Unfortunately I hate most things associated directly or indirectly with her: the way my Mamma suffered when her fingers and feet doubled in size those last five months; the strange way in which her belly grew and grew and grew, like a balloon at a party that stretches, and expands and finally pops because it can’t hold the air any longer; the frantic cries that filled the hospital halls that twenty-ninth of October when her belly finally spilled its contents all over the bleach-scented sheets. But the hijacking of my parents’ attention was the one thing I’ve never been able to forgive her for.

They never had time for me after Lizzie. They fed me endless apologies and unrealized promises. I spent most of my time in tears, but my desperate cries for attention were grossly mistaken for bad behavior. I felt myself disappearing (my existence slowly fading), like a Polaroid picture in reverse, until I was rendered mute and invisible. I still recall with pain the morning of my first grade graduation. I was being presented with the prestigious “Reading Excellence” award. I looked over the sea of parental units wearing cameras around their necks and smiles across their faces. I expected to at least see Grammy (who would always cover for Mamma) but no one went. After spending all day practicing what I would tell them, I was ready to confront the betrayers. Instead I ended up sitting on the cramped backseat of our 1967 puke-green Dodge covering my ears so Lizzie’s screaming would not pop my eardrums, while my parents fought over whose turn it was to change her dirty diaper.

I was very comfortable believing, for a very long time, that my parents never fought until my sister entered our lives. The truth of it is, that the pressures of unwanted jobs, the sharp edges of married life, and an unexpected first child, had ruined their unspoken dreams to “see the world.” Only with endless patience, time and constant maintenance could they repair the rift that had begun tearing through their young love, like asphalt cracking under the pressure of a seven-pointer on the Richter scale.

The summer of my fourteenth birthday I fell in love with Bryan Sanchez. I filled the margins of my diary with his initials. Perfect tiny hearts enclosed the letters BS, colored in bright candy-apple red. On the night of our first date, Lizzie was going to cover for me by making Mamma believe that I was in the bathroom all night battling my period. After a horrible movie and a sad attempt at ignoring our lack of chemistry over strawberry shakes and chili fries I went home. Crying. Deflated. I walk into my room, and adding insult to injury, is Lizzie with her nose in my diary. She looked up at me, laughed and pointed out something (that, though rather obvious, I had not noticed before); Bryan’s initials spelled out bullshit. I charged her. It took both Mamma and Grammy to pry us apart.

During my senior year in high school I found my passion. I was going to be a photographer. Mr. Greene, my Introduction to Film and Photography teacher, assured me I had ‘an eye for life’ as he called it. He explained that the first picture I took captured both the stubbornness and frailty of old age, when I photographed my Grammy napping on the porch in her rocker with a copy of Huckleberry Finn slumped over her lap. For the first time in our tumultuous lives, Lizzie and I were at peace. She was happy that my new pursuit kept me out of the house most of the day (as I only showed up to sleep) and I was happy that she was staying out of my way too. But I dropped photography after Mamma pressed me. For months she said I shouldn’t chase silly dreams. “Figure out how to become something useful,” she prompted on a daily basis. Lizzie makes an effort to remind me of my lack of “balls” as she refers to my inability to stand up to Mamma and follow my calling.

The only family tradition I hang onto is Sunday night dinners (and I still haven’t figured out quite why). The rest: Mamma’s scrapbooks; her quilts; our home movies; the thirty-year-old zoo ticket stubs along with other painful remembrances rest in a dark corner of my attic. If I keep then hidden from myself, like that last cigarette I hid in an empty jewelry box deep in my closet, last summer when I quit smoking, I can resist them. Maybe then the pain and shame can stay hidden away too. My past, like an old photograph, is devoid of nature’s hues, faded by time, lost at the bottom of a dusty memory box, buried within the cobwebs of my brain.

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