It turns out that when you retread your memories over and over again, they become less “your memory” and more “the memory of your memory.”
After 9/11, some researchers went out and recorded people’s memories of the event, three thousand people’s worth. Eleven months later, they asked the same questions, and thirty-five months later. The memories were sixty percent accurate after a year; fifty percent accurate after three years. You’d think you’d remember 9/11 accurately, but you only feel that you do.
By now my earliest memories are rotten, mostly.
I was born in Cheyenne, Wyoming, while my dad was stationed at Fort Cheyenne, or Warren AFB, as it’s actually known outside my family. We call it Fort Cheyenne because otherwise there’s a story about my father that won’t work: On his initial flight out there, he was sitting next to a guy from New York who was terrified that they would be attacked by Indians, hatchets and war paint and all. Dad confirmed that this would be the case and let the guy stew all the way out there.
My father sneaks up on you. He drove me to tears once trying to convince me that one equals two. He could “prove” it all he liked (he took a lot of math in college) and I couldn’t find the error, but he couldn’t make me say that he was right, and he wouldn’t let go of it, so I wept all the rest of the way home. I remember that it was pitch dark out, and the dashboard lights of the Phoenix, and the silhouette of Dad’s face, looking twisted and evil, as we hit the rutted gravel road between Lee’s Corner (our mail drop) and the farm. The cratered blacktop had been replaced by then; he must have been driving me back from playing pep band at a basketball game, which would have made me around fourteen. I still think it was a nasty trick.
I want to say that I remember Dad in a flight suit with a beard, grinning at me. Mom has a picture of him in uniform, which may or may not be in a flight suit (he didn’t train as a pilot), and which may or may not show him sporting a beard, or which may be two different pictures entirely. I could ask her, but the point is that I don’t actually remember. I have a living memory of my father in a flight suit, grinning (and often rubbing my face with his beard), but I don’t know if it’s real. It feels right, but then my husband has a beard, so I can easily insert the relevant details.
He worked in the missile silos. I always imagine him as the guy who’d have to push the red button (which, in my imagination, looks like it belongs on a game show) and send the missiles off to Russia, although he was just some random newbie at the time, and, given his sense of humor, I certainly wouldn’t have trusted him with it.
I don’t actually remember anything from Cheyenne. I have personal stories that I’ve been told, the kind that revolve around my quirks of personality back then. The day that I wept because Dad cut his beard off, and I refused to recognize him (a lot of my early childhood memories involved my weeping uncontrollably; I get the pudding giggles, too). The way I would get up early in the morning and pull out all the records – carefully, without damaging them – and play with them until my parents woke up. (Did I put them on the record player? No idea.) My love for the Donnie and Marie Osmond show was apparently legendary.
If I actually remember anything, it’s a golden color of light, sometimes with floating flecks of dust, sometimes without. The carpet was shag rug. I remember whicking my hands over the rug to stir up the dust in the sunlight. A TV set on short legs squatted on the floor, but it was off. A kind of low half-wall divided one room from the other, although I can’t remember whether it was topped with wood or with plaster. I can imagine feeling both. I don’t remember toys, or the Osmonds, or my parents.
The light felt like happiness, not a momentary kind of emotion, but a pervading satisfaction with the universe itself. The light that shines down on ET before he gets taken home often reminds me of that light, although it’s much colder, both in temperature. This was the light that seduces cats, comforts saints, and presides over summer vacation.
It’s probably not important whether it’s a real memory or not; I still treasure it. We moved to South Dakota when I was two.