My younger brother didn’t want to go to kindergarten. He didn’t want to go anywhere, really. He was content to dig in the dirt or play pioneers with me in the backyard.
Years later he’d become fascinated with space travel, but he’d regard it the same way I do lion taming — amazing but nothing I’d ever want to try.
I, on the other hand, loved going to school and couldn’t wait to get on the big yellow bus the first day each fall. But because my brother was sobbing and carrying on as if he were being shipped to a hard labor camp, my mother and I had to take him in the car.
We walked him to his classroom door, where he howled like a baby wolf. In my memory, the teacher beamed a gentle but firm smile, took his hand and shut the door behind them. My poor mother exhaled and leaned against the wall.
Moments later when we peeked through the window in the door, my little brother was sitting in the corner building with blocks. Perfectly happy.
He tells a somewhat different version of the story.
When I recently teased him about how quickly he adjusted, he surprised me by saying, “That’s because the teacher smacked me one.” On the back of the head, he insisted. It sobered him right up.
Setting aside the fact of a kindergarten teacher gone rogue — it was, after all, 50 years ago, when the paddle was as common as chalk in the classroom — this is very interesting.
For decades I’ve carried a memory of that day, certain of its truth, only to find out from the one who should know best that I was wrong.
But maybe not. Couldn’t it be that my brother was so distraught that, in his memory, a small encouraging pat to the back of his head became a body blow?
How weird is memory? He remembers things I don’t.
For example, the time I was baby-sitting and became convinced a prowler was lurking in the shrubs outside the door. My brother claims he and our father sped over armed with baseball bats to find nothing in the bushes but the night wind.
If you ask me, this never happened. What I remember about baby-sitting at that house is the father owned a set of bongo drums, thrillingly bohemian, and they always had Mallomars and real grape juice.
Whenever my three daughters, now grown, get together, they sit around sharing childhood memories.
I listen in, warily. Sometimes I come off as a tender, if somewhat fey Madonna lifted from a Renaissance painting.
But other times … well. I’m here to testify I never yelled like that or threatened to give them away to strangers. Nor did I ever feed them frozen fish sticks and grapefruit juice for supper, rather than go to the store. (I do hate grocery stores — I admit that much.)
According to many neuroscientists, if the brain were a computer, memory would be the hard drive. Our nimble minds take in, encode and find a place to store the information.
Long-term memories — a first kiss, going to a Beatles concert (George!), losing a big game — have an actual physical presence inside our skulls. As each new long-term memory is formed, our neurons manufacture new connections and synapses. These grow stronger or weaker, depending on how often we revisit the memory.
The brain, it seems, runs its own updates.
I like imagining that we carry around internal museums, crammed with objects of various value and meaning. Some combination of heart and mind acts as the curator, choosing what’s on display in the galleries and what goes in the storage rooms.
Some exhibits I never get tired of visiting but others only cause pain or embarrassment. A rejected novel. A child’s terrifying illness. The time I RSVP’d yes to a big party, only to discover I hadn’t been invited. Why can’t I just forget about it?
Actually, according to the neuro guys, we never forget anything, even when we think we do. Every memory is still stored up there. It may have wandered from view but then, when we least expect it, it can turn up on our doorstep like a lost cat.
The older we get, the more we rue our faltering brains, the more comforting this idea becomes.
How weird is memory? Once our family climbed a mountain in New England together. This is one of my happiest memories: doing it together, feeling so proud of my strong girls getting far ahead of me on the steep trail.
My daughters remember reaching the summit, being attacked by vicious swarms of black flies, screaming and running back down.
We all remember the delicious dinner we ate afterward, though. We sat on the shore of a dusky lake, where we may — or may not — have heard loons.