Memory and June One
© Copyright 2021 by Roger Barbee
Photo by Christian Bowen on Unsplash
Memory does not remember all of this day or surrounding days, over fifty years ago when a recent college graduate made his way from North Carolina to Jacksonville, Florida.
His trip involved a young girl he had met the previous summer and her pregnancy. His purpose was a last attempt to persuade her to marry him and keep the baby, and truth holds pieces of the days he spent with her while she was in the hospital giving birth to a baby boy on June 1, 1968; he recalls how he asked, but with one more year of college, she wanted to continue her education and life without the burden of a child and husband. In 1968 a biological father had no legal rights and so the young man prepared to make his way back to his hometown and summer job in the cotton mill, but before leaving he went to the hospital to say goodbye and maybe to try one more time to persuade her. She was adamant, however, and had signed the necessary papers the night before, so the baby boy had been adopted by the couple who had paid the medical expenses of his 19 year old mother. The young man left her room and while riding down on the elevator he made room for an older man and woman as they entered. The woman held a baby wrapped in a blue blanket that matched her blue dress, and the young man nodded to the older couple, but he knew, and so does truth.
All memory forms us whether it is individual, family, or community. As Faulkner showed so well, all memory affects who we are. Tim O'Brien's view in "The Things They Carried," his novel of his experiences in Vietnam, is that “...the act of writing had led me through a swirl of memories that might otherwise have ended in paralysis or worse. By telling stories, you objectify your own experience. You separate it from yourself. You pin down certain truths. You make up others. You start sometimes with an incident that truly happened, …, and you carry it forward by inventing incidents that did not in fact occur but that nonetheless help to clarify and explain.” But can we trust something that may not be totally true while allowing it to help shape who we are, or is all memory so suspect it should be discarded?
In his fine memoir, "All Over But the Shoutin'", Rick Bragg describes memory as, “A dark room full of razor blades.” If you read his account of his formative years living in northeast Alabama with a brother, loving mother, and a mean Southern drunk for a father, you will understand his definition of memory and its danger for him. And it is likely that we all, in parts, have our own dark room. Like Bragg, I spent my younger years sharing space with a mean drunk who, when not beating our mother, was yelling at or beating one of his six children. Fortunately he left before I was six or eight, and my memory of him was of a tall, loud, and lean man with dark hair. Years later, when a father, I found him and went to visit. When he opened the trailer door, I was surprised to see a rather short man, just an inch or two taller than I. My memory of him was my childhood memory and in the space of a small, scared child he had been tall. While not accurate, my memory of him was true.
Being one of six children, I have, on more than one occasion as an adult, encountered a sibling's different memory of an event that I thought I knew intimately. For instance, I have carried and told of a memory about Mothers' Day that, like all memories, has had an influence on who I am. Each Mothers' Day, I held, our mother would send one or two of us with her good scissors to Granny Rowland's, a neighbor. We were instructed to ask permission to cut seven red roses for each of us to wear to church to signify that our mother and hers was living. When I mentioned this yearly event to an older sister she responded, “I remember Granny Rowland, but not her roses on Mothers' Day.” Memories of shared events have clashed with that of a sibling, which causes me to recall the old adage that every story has three sides: your side, my side, and the truth.
In the opening anecdote of the pregnant girl, basic facts feel and have felt over the years truthful. The locations, the girl's answer, the hospital, the baby boy, and the blue dress feel right. But what of the rest? Have I altered the remainder because, as George Santayana observed, “A man's memory may almost become the art of continually varying and misrepresenting his past, according to his interests in the present”? Because of the experience and its influence on me, have I, out of “interests in the present” altered the facts? Have I changed the facts for personal gain or spite or more subtle reasons not apparent to me? I don't think so, but without comparing my memory to that of the other person involved, I shall never know, and she will not be googled out of respect for her decision long ago. But, what if her memory were substantially different from mine? She and I shared an emotionally charged time; we each took that experience and formed our memory of it from our individual selves experiences. Yet, experiences can be powerful and fear can emerge out of any one of them. A person could fear anticipated emotional pain, or the chance of failure, or of being rejected. So, out of need or fear, any memory may be constructed from truth or of truth that never happened but was needed.
Lady Macbeth assures her husband that she will so confuse Duncan's chamberlains with wine and her charms that their memory, “the warden of the mind” will be unreliable. But two people, wined or not, can honestly arrive at similar but different memories of a happening. Or, like Bragg, if something were so horrible the room it resides in is closed tight much like that bedroom in Faulkner's "A Rose for Emily." It is no wonder that Hawthorne's observation, “Every heart has its secret door,” still stands today.
I am not sure how accurate my memory is of those few days in June 1968. How strange then that I am comfortable with it, and it is a part of who I am. But that is me now, a man who has drawn social security for several years. But what of that young man in 1968?
Because he saw no place for his feelings, he did what young men of his era did—he worked at his job in the mill, spent time with the mother of his child each weekend after her summer school classes, and worked hardest at making every minute of his life filled with something. Soon, before he left for his first teaching position in another state, he had managed to put the fact of his having fathered a child in a small box that rested on a shelf somewhere. That way, he reasoned, it would be kept neat and clean, but out of the way. And before too long, less than half a year later, the relationship that had created a life faded into the dust of young lives. But the memory, like that dust, settled into small places and rested, waiting to be shaken.
Eighteen years later the baby boy was grown, and his mother had made contact with his biological parents as she had promised. He wanted to meet them, and both separately acknowledged his wish. The biological father now had a family and career, so there was little room for a young man almost the age he was when he had fathered the boy. But they met for the boy had questions about shaving rash and in what order did he hang shirts in his closet. They shared all that was possible in an hour lunch time. It was all the father of other children could give then, but the last thing shared was a phone number of a sister which led to a relationship with the biological father's siblings. And slowly, over time, the relationship grew between the son and the family and finally the biological father.
Memory holds some truths of June 1, 1968 and the summer that followed. Most truths, though, are blocked by the abyss of time, pain, and present circumstances. The young graduate, now well into his 6th decade, remembers the difficult time that then seemed unjust. But that is okay because he and the now grown baby boy share life in a comfortable relationship of common interests, family, and love.
But each June 1, the old man allows himself to return there for his private reasons and, in some way, it is harder now than it was then.