Secret Surprise

Combine the need to keep a secret with a growing forgetfulness in the secret-keeper, and you have a potential major problem. That was my situation most of last week. I’ve already posted some comments about my worsening memory, so you know what’s coming. Or maybe you just think you do.

I got a call from Daughter No. 1 early last week. She, her husband, and their nine-month-old daughter Ryleigh recently moved from Wisconsin’s frozen wastelands to the sunny, hot, and humid South. We were planning to go see them as soon as they got a house of their own, but life has intervened–school, work, etc. Daughter No. 1 decided to surprise us and come to visit this past weekend. As busy as things are for my wife and me, however, Daughter No. 2 warned her that she’d better tell one of us to ensure that someone was home when they got here. I was the one she chose to tell. “And don’t let her know we’re coming, Dad!” Daughter No. 1 admonished me. “It’s supposed to be a surprise.”

I knew I was in trouble. But I surprised myself. Despite my several near slips of the tongue, my wife never heard my slips–or at least never caught on to what was happening. Much to my daughter’s surprise (as well as my own), I kept my end of the bargain and never let the word escape. But it wasn’t easy. My wife wanted to go shopping as soon as she got home from school on Friday, and my daughter and her family were hoping to arrive by 4:30, but it all depended on down-to-the-minute timing and traffic and a host of other factors. Would I be able to delay Connie enough for the rest of the family to arrive? Or would I have to do something drastic, like pull off a fraudulent sudden “illness” or “accident” to slow things down?

Circumstances, however, helped me out a bit. Connie left school a few minutes later than she had planned. Traffic was a little heavier than normal for her. She still would have to change clothes and put away her school paraphernalia. I could drag my feet getting ready too. And then I had planned a scheme for delaying her beyond that, if necessary. I had earlier in the day received a long-awaited foreword for a book, and (with the author’s permission) I had edited it for length and organization. When Connie arrived home and I had depleted all of my other delaying tactics, I pulled the “hey-could-you-listen-to-these-two-versions-and-tell-me-which-one-is-better” routine. I read slowly, enunciating carefully and dragging it out as long as I could without making her suspicious.

Just as I was finishing my reading of the second version, I glanced out the front window just in time to see my son-in-law’s car come pulling into the driveway. I proceeded to ask my wife an endless stream of questions about the two versions of the foreword and her opinion of them, stalling long enough for the kids to get our newest grandchild out of the car and make their way to the door. Finally, just when I was running out of questions to ask Connie about the manuscript, the doorbell rang.

I answered the door while Connie got her shopping list ready.

“Connie, it’s for you!” I called from the front door. She came from the kitchen with a wondering look on her face.

“Who could that be at this time of day?” she asked under her breath.

When she opened the door, she was duly surprised. And then she basked in her glory as a grandmother the rest of the weekend. And I breathed a sigh of relief that I hadn’t spilled the beans. And, knowing my memory, that’s no small accomplishment! (Oh, and I enjoyed the surprise too–especially Ryleigh!)

 

Image may contain: 4 people, people smiling, baby and closeup

Copyright (c) 2017, Dennis L. Peterson

 

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Memories, Memories

It’s happening with greater frequency nowadays. At least it seems to me to be more frequent.

I’m downstairs and need something (say the stapler) that is upstairs. I fly to the stairs and climb them as fast as my arthritic knees will allow. I reach the landing, step a few feet to the right, and enter my office. And then I stand there wondering what it was that I came up to get.

Failing to dredge that fact from my memory, I turn and trudge back down the steps. About three steps from the bottom, I suddenly remember. I turn in mid-step and retrace my steps back to the office. As I pass through the door, I spy a book that I had meant to reshelf yesterday when I finished looking up a bit of information but, sidetracked by something else, had placed on my wife’s school supplies cabinet. I grab the book and return it to its proper spot on the bookcase shelf. Then I walk over to my oak roll-top desk, shuffle a few papers, and stare into space wondering why I came upstairs.

Again failing to recall the purpose of my ascent, I begin the trek back down. Entering the kitchen, I again remember, and I make a third trip up the stairs, muttering under my breath, “Stapler! Stapler!” I repeat the word over and over until I put my hands on the stapler sitting on my desk. I then take it back downstairs and staple whatever it is that needs stapling.

That happens several times a day, it seems. It happens so often that it has long since ceased to be the topic of humorous, self-deprecating conversation.

Memory–or the lack of it–can mess with one’s mind, especially if he or she is a writer. Even moreso if one writes memoir or history.

Two or more people can experience or witness the same event, and yet each will have a slightly (or maybe even a vastly) different memory of it.

I first became aware of this phenomenon when my nieces and nephews came to visit us and asked, “Uncle Dennis, Dad told us that when you two were kids such and such happened. Is that really the way it was?”

Then I felt obliged to set them straight on what really had happened in the anecdote my brother had told them. Somehow, in his accounts, he was always the innocent victim, and I was the guilty party. In my account, it was the reverse; he was the instigator, and I was the gullible victim. Each of us remembered the same incident in dramatically different ways. And each of us is adamant that our rendition is the true and only reliable account.

The truth is that each of us tends to remember only certain details in a decidedly individualized way. We don’t remember some details at all. And we often misremember the details we do retain. That’s why it’s so important that we writers, especially those of us who are attempting to write memoir or history, study multiple perspectives before we write. Even then, we must recognize the fact that our flawed and failing memories and our biases or prejudices can mislead or deceive us as to the truth of our subjects.

Too often, historians (especially those whose writings are motivated or driven by a political or philosophical agenda) present a complex event or issue in an oversimplified way that ignores certain facts that do not fit into their scheme and present their myopic view as the only right view.

Take, for example, the issue of slavery in America. Too often, that issue is simplistically presented as a uniquely Southern institution for whom only Southerners bear blame and responsibility. In reality, it was a national issue. Had it not been for Northern shipbuilders, shipowners, and ship captains and Northern textile manufacturers who profited from the transportation and sale of slaves and used the cotton produced in the South as raw material for their goods, there would have been no demand for cotton and therefore no demand for slaves in the South. Besides, in the colonial period, there were slaves in every American colony, including those in the North. And not only black slaves but also Native American slaves. And little Rhode Island was a big supplier of slaves for the trade. The same problem is evident in the recounting of the treatment of slaves. Many slave owners and overseers were indeed Simon Legrees, but many others were not.

Too many historians also present slavery as the only cause of the war that soon engulfed the nation. They conveniently forget–or ignore–the many other issues that contributed to the eruption: the tariff, state sovereignty, the debate over federally financed internal improvements, regional disparity in representation in Congress, etc. In reality, there was no one cause of the war but many. To present it otherwise is sloppy history at best and intentional deceit at worst.

In memoir writing, memory can put one in a nostalgic mood and win the plaudits of relatives, or it can cause life-long rifts between family members who remember events differently than the writer presents them. The key is to present memories as clearly as one’s mind will allow but to do so as kindly as possible. As John Leax wrote in his book Grace Is Where I Live, “I take the stories of my people, I give them shape, and hand them down. What I pass on is truth made new–half-truth spun through kind invention.”

Now let’s see. I had one other point I wanted to make about this topic, but I can’t seem to remember what it was. Oh, well. Maybe I’ll have remembered it by the time I sit down to write my next blog post–or not.