Raymond Bechard has a confrontation with his 87-year old mother, which reminds him of how much memories — even 42-year-old memories — can shape us.
I was pounding on the wall in the hallway between the den and the kitchen. I was crying. I was melting down.
While I sobbed in desperation, my mother stood a few away working at three, maybe four, or maybe a hundred, tasks at the kitchen counter. She was able to do more things in the 30 minutes it took Walter Cronkite to tell us the news than other people could do over a three-day weekend. She was the absolute ruler of the household. Nothing escaped her eyes or went without her consent. Her strength and will were the stuff of legend. She was the lawmaker and the giver of ultimatums. That’s the word she used when we were children, “ultimatum.” We didn’t really know it meant, except that when she used it, you would shrink down and the fight would go out of you.
Except this time the ultimatum put me over the edge, causing my Big Shit Fit. That’s what my brother called it. For years he would say, “I really thought there was something wrong with you. That was a Big Shit Fit.”
That was 42 years ago. Most little moments from early life are forgotten. That’s what we like to tell ourselves. The truth we don’t want to admit is that we forget nothing. Memories remain. Good. Bad. Joyous. Deadly. It’s all still there.
This little gem was sitting in the sub-basement of my gray matter for over four decades. The Big Shit Fit never went away. It’s been there since that summer when men first walked on the moon – hiding, whispering, chaining me to a cowardice I could never shake.
The greatest power our memories have over us is fooling us into thinking they don’t matter. They do. It’s important to know that. Your memories matter more than you know. A man thinks he is smarter than himself. He thinks the bad stuff gets stuck in the improvised charcoal and nylon screening system he makes inside his brain, catching the crap and keeping it from flowing into every moment of his existence. We spend most of our lives figuring out ways to ignore the magic little filter and how filled up it gets year after crap filtering year. And then, when you least need or want them, what gets stuck in there start to play their little tricks.
That’s the moment we have to grow up and admit that we are all slaves to our recollections of life’s most careless whims.
After the life-draining “ultimatum,” the words, “I have spoken” were my mother’s final say on any topic she would no longer discuss. I don’t know how she trained my brother, sister and me to put our tails in and shut ourselves down whenever she spoke those words. But she did and we would.
“Maybe next year,” she said walking away, ignoring my tantrum. Being an eight-year-old can really suck. But then again, so can being 14, 25, 38, 50 or 87. But being eight-years old and told I wasn’t going camping with my older brother and our friends because “you’re not big enough” was nothing short of torment. These are not the words to tell a boy, simply because the man he will become will never forget them. Woe to man who believes he isn’t enough. Being told you’re not anything “enough” as a boy never leaves you. It sinks right down into where that fire in your belly is supposed to be and snuffs it out. And a man will do almost anything to try to relight the flame. Women. Money. War. Whatever. But, nothing works until you pass the test you didn’t choose.
My choice was to go camping when I was eight-years old. My mother’s choice was to tell me I wasn’t big enough. The Big Shit Fit started because that kindling fire in me died right there in the hallway between the den and the kitchen.
Right now, today, the lights are out. The cable TV isn’t working. The refrigerator is warm. The phone, the furnace, the internet . . . all dead. The snow started yesterday afternoon. Its weight and winds wiped out thousands of trees and power lines across southern New England in a matter of hours. Instantly, the area’s bewildered population was alone in the dark, isolated.
My mother, now 87 years-old and still living on her own in the house I grew up in, refuses to leave her favorite chair in the den. Her memory is mostly faded. From one minute to the next she can’t recall why we’re holding flashlights. “Why is it so cold in here?” “Is the TV broken?” “Who do I call?” “Can’t you fix this?” Fear is pulling her in one direction. Anger in the other. Confusion is right in the middle.
Then, just as the last light of the day fades in the backyard she makes the declaration. “Well, I’m NOT leaving my house.”
The power won’t be fixed for days. No way she can stay here. It’s going to be 28 degrees tonight. She just made it through kidney failure, and gout, and shingles, and colon cancer, and heart surgery, and pneumonia . . . and now she puts down a lot of pills every day. It takes me about ten to twenty minutes every day to coax the little tablets into her mouth and get her to choke them all down. We both hate the daily ritual, but the things keep her alive. It’s hard for her to understand that.
It’s even harder to make her understand that it’s not safe for her to stay in her home now. My brother’s house is a few miles away, yet completely unaffected by the storm. It’s a clean, comfortable, warm home near the shoreline. He just left to spend the winter in Florida. The place is just waiting for us.
“Mom, it’s time to go. I’ll go pack your things.”
That’s the wrong thing to say. Not that there could be a right thing, but that has to be the worst. “Packing your things” is what I do whenever she goes to the hospital. Nightgown, robe, her favorite socks, make-up, make-up remover, toothbrush, toothpaste, slacks, underwear, blouses. That’s it. Nothing else or it’s “too much.” Her insistence on traveling light goes along with her insistence that she’ll “be home tomorrow, right?”
“Packing your things” sets her off down a road – an outburst – I’m not ready for. She starts to cry. I walk to her chair, crouch down and say, as gently as I can, “I’m sorry this is happening. But we’ll both be safer there. You’ll be back here as soon as they fix the power.”
Fear turns to terror. Anger to rage. Confusion to panic. I can’t reach her. Her tears are beyond my control. I start walking to the kitchen to grab the little overnight bag with her “things.”
“I can’t go! I can’t leave my home!” she screams, sobbing like I’ve never heard before. I stop and turn to look at her. She’s bent over in her chair completely given over to her emotional collapse.
Of course, now I’m standing in the hallway between the den and kitchen, the exact spot of my Big Shit Fit 42 years ago. The little critters from my poor excuse for a brain filter slither out. It all comes back. Everything. In IMAX 3-fucking-D. And it doesn’t come slowly. The memory explode like a coiled up snake jumping to strike. It’s harsh and heartless. It sits there in front of me like the worst bully you ever came across in high school. Taunting. Intimidating. Just being there. Reminding me that I don’t have what it takes to handle this. I’m still not enough.
My feet are frozen to the floor. One foot in 2011. The other in 1969.
She is melting down. A scared young girl is there in front of me. My mother. For a moment the children we were are together. We are meeting for the first time, both facing the things we fear the most. Our worst memories aligning in shared agony. I want to pound the wall with my fist and collapse in tears.
But one of us has to return and save us both. The days of her doing that for me are long gone. Whether or not I have enough – am enough – I’m the one who’s got to crawl back up and pull us out of this old well.
The bag. I have to get her little bag. That’s the right now thing, the one, first thing that has to be done. So I push. My feet start to move and I walk to the kitchen, back to the 21st century.
After the bag I drape her coat around her. Then shoes. Her purse. Help her into the car.
She’s crying softly into a wad of tissue as we drive away from her home, putting the storm damage behind us. For now, that’s enough.
photo: docsearls / flickr