Not all memories are stories with a beginning, a middle, and an end. Many are mere fragments, little bits of visions or experiences that seem like complete stories because of the tricks the mind can play. Like other memories, these frozen moments have enough form and substance to arouse the senses and the emotions. They can come upon us when we least expect it, and leave impressions that are lasting and deep.
I have one fragment of a memory in which I am eight years and ten months old. I am sitting in the living room of a house just outside the city of Salem, Oregon. I have never been in the house before and, since I will be heading for my home in Detroit, Michigan the following day, I will probably never be there again. I am aware of the presence of my grandmother and another woman, the resident of the house across the street from my aunt and uncle’s tiny farm, where I have spent the summer. I am looking toward a big picture window. That’s it.
It would be easy to suffuse this scrap with some narrative. Beyond the window I might have been seeing my aunt and uncle’s place and thinking what a great time I’d had. My mother and my younger brother and I had made the trip west by train and spent almost the entire summer living in the old farmhouse with my aunt and uncle, my three teen-aged cousins, and my grandmother. Being just outside the city limits, the area was a mixture of rural and urban and thus was both strange and familiar to me, a city kid.
My aunt and uncle had a barn and a chicken coop, rows and rows of vegetables, and a small grove of hazelnut trees. My relatives got up early and although none of them had regular jobs to go to they often went out before daybreak to work on local farms, picking whatever crop was reaching peak. That’s the way things got done in agricultural communities, I learned on the day I was allowed to go with them and earn my first real money picking boysenberries.
Missing from this bucolic picture was my father, who had a job and couldn’t get away, or so I understood at the time. My mother had not seen her mother and her older sister for years. Not since my uncle had retired from his factory job in Detroit and returned to his native Oregon. My grandmother, who had been living with them at the time, went along. Years later I learned that my parents were having problems and that our “vacation” was more of a trial separation.
I have lots of memories of those weeks in Oregon. I recall long walks and drives through the countryside. On Mount Angel there was a museum that featured a two-headed calf among other wonders and horrors. On Mount Hood we watched people skiing in July and one of my cousins ran up to the snowline and dashed back to bring us a snowball. We hiked through the Silver Creek park along a trail that led us under a waterfall. We traveled to the Pacific coast and played in the surf.
This was the first vacation I’d ever taken and anyone would think that the memories that would stick would be of the remarkable things. The feel of the spray from the waterfall. The high-altitude giddiness of our mountain walks. The sight of my younger brother running from an ocean wave and emerging from the surf, laughing as only a child can. And I do remember all this and more. But more often, I remember the stranger’s living room.
I don’t know if I was happy or sad on that day. I was leaving a place I had come to love, but I was looking forward to the cross-country train trip home and a return to my friends, my own bed, and the teddy bear I had forgotten to pack. My grandmother may have been having similar feelings because she would be traveling back to Detroit with us. I’m sure she was looking forward to living among her other four children again. But she would no doubt regret leaving the Oregon branch of her family and the friends she had made, including, perhaps, the woman we had gone to visit.
More than half a century has passed since that summer day, and I’ve probably recalled that sliver of a moment a thousand times. Sometimes I’ll be in a room with picture window and discover that I am once again eight years and ten months old, having an experience that is apparently unremarkable but will be replayed over and over again as I pass from youth to adolescence to adulthood to mature adulthood.
There is, of course, a story that surrounds this memory. It is a story of places visited and places left behind. It is a story of people who have passed into and out of my life and the lives of others. It is a story made up of words and images, thoughts and feelings. But the memory itself seems to stand alone and apart, saying nothing, meaning nothing. It is not a recollection of adventure or anticipation, of sadness or happiness. It is just a room and a window, viewed from one perspective.