This is a story about memory. New evidence indicates that it’s not what you think it is and even photographs don’t tell the whole story.
In the earliest snapshot of a childhood Christmas, I’m nine months old and my parents have placed me in an open gift box under the tree. My two older sisters kneel next to me on the braided rug posing as if I’m a present they’ve just opened. Sharon, the oldest, dutifully holds the wrapped lid of the box with gentle goodwill. My sister Andrea looks stunned with disbelief, so I’ll say it again. I’m sorry I wasn’t a pony.
In a later photo I’m a happy diaper-clad toddler packing a six-shooter in a holster. My western ensemble includes a red neckerchief, a cowgirl hat, and a gigantic emergency-room bandage taped to my forehead. I’d fallen down an entire flight of wooden stairs, hit the landing with unstoppable momentum and tumbled headfirst down the remaining steps where I’d cracked my head open on the coffee table our father had made in his basement workshop.
As I write this it occurs to me that a resigned, pony-less cowgirl may have dressed me up in her Annie Oakley outfit to compensate for having been unable to stop my unsteady approach to the top of the stairs.
I don’t remember the fall, but I do remember being on an exam table where a kindly male doctor with white hair pinched the profusely-bleeding wound closed with butterfly clamps instead of stitches to avoid leaving me with the large scar I now have. I remember being asked how many people were in my family and knowing the answer, five, although of course that is a trick of memory and not possible. But in my mind at least, I identified us on my fingers by name if not number, and the doctor gave me a grape lollipop for each member of my original posse.
And then there’s the photo above of my sisters and me in angelic white choir robes with red bows at our necks, gathered around the piano. I’m nearly three now. Sharon is poised with her hands above the keys playing carols and we all are singing. At least our mouths are open and we’re holding sheet music, but in my memory, we’ve been instructed: “Just act like you’re singing and stop hitting each other.” On the back of that photo my mother has written, “The girls love to make music together!” Did we? Could Sharon play then? I don’t know.
That’s the thing about memory. Neuroscientists have discovered that every time you remember an event from the past you change it. So, the more you recall an experience or relationship, the more you distort it. Researchers did a test with 9-11 survivors. Each time they told their stories the details changed until just one year out from the event their accounts of that morning were significantly altered. Imagine what a lifetime of remembering does to experience. And what is true? The event or the memory you make of it?
I remember my sisters slipping our presents to each other under a tree we’d cut from the woods, while the others hid their eyes on Christmas Eve. I remember the ringing of a strand of red, green, and silver bells, passed one to the other, to signal that it was time for everyone to look, to gasp at the magical transformation, the growing abundance. With each ringing of the bells and moment of revelation, the little heap of presents grew.
I remember a midnight worship service in a white clapboard church where a flame was passed candle to candle to the accompaniment of “Silent Night,” until the countenance of an entire congregation was bathed in light. And I remember three jostling sisters crammed together at the top of the stairs on Christmas morning while my sleepy parents opened the curtains so the river could watch, lit a fire in the fireplace, turned on the tree lights, and poured their coffee before we thundered down the steps.
The December dawn cast its soft rose light over snowy swans in the icy cove as we opened gifts, but were they there? I don’t know.
If memory can’t be trusted, what of our Christmas recollections is true? Maybe this: the unbearable excitement of believing in the unseen, in miracles; in thinking that just for one night the impossible is possible. Reindeer can fly, and if you believe, love will heal the world.
(I’ll see you back here January 1st.) Happy Holidays.
Laura J. Oliver is an award-winning developmental book editor and writing coach, who has taught writing at the University of Maryland and St. John’s College. She is the author of The Story Within (Penguin Random House). Co-creator of The Writing Intensive at St. John’s College, she is the recipient of a Maryland State Arts Council Individual Artist Award in Fiction, an Anne Arundel County Arts Council Literary Arts Award winner, a two-time Glimmer Train Short Fiction finalist, and her work has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize. Her website can be found here.