The power of triggering old memories

One of my current regular writing exercises is to get onto paper every childhood memory that I can think of. Eventually, I hope to put together an actual book that flows well so that I can share it with my children. My first goal is to have a version of this to share with my oldest son when he turns 18. He is 16 now, so I feel as though I have plenty of time to accomplish this goal of mine. I got the idea for this from Anne Lamott’s book, Bird by Bird, during the Faculty Narrative Writing Program that I took at Boston University last year. I’ve been thinking of starting this writing exercise for awhile now, and I’ve finally begun.

My earliest memories are from Oregon. While I was born in West Covina, California (in Southern California), my parents said that we moved up to Portland, Oregon shortly after my birth, so that we could be near my Dad’s family. If I recall correctly, he had been estranged from his family for a while and was hoping to reconnect. We only lived there until I was three, so I know that all my Oregon memories are from when I was three years old or younger.

I know that my parents bought a house there, and I do remember snapshots of the house. But only fragments from my memory. I remember a living room with some rather ugly (to my current taste) couches next to a kitchen. I remember the dining room with a cuckoo clock off the kitchen.

And I remember a bathroom off a hallway that was in between the living area and the bedrooms. When I walked from the living room to the bedrooms, I would pass the bathroom on my right. I remember this clearly, because two traumatic incidents happened in that bathroom. One was that I recall burning my arm on a hot curling iron of my mom’s. But the second incident was much scarier.

The strongest memory that I have in Oregon is when I was outside on the back deck, and my father was building me a sand box back there. I was 3, which I know because my mother was pregnant with my younger brother, Jason. And I was watching as my father slipped on some sand and fell and hit the front of his face on the ground. I don’t remember all the details, but I have a strong yet vague recollection. I must have cried and run away and hid on the living room couch or something, I’m not sure. Because the next memory I have is of walking by that bathroom with my Dad in there and blood streaming out of his mouth. He had knocked out a tooth. It was super scary. Obviously.

In fact, ALL my memories of Oregon are scary ones. We lived in a home that was rather rural, with lots of woods in the backyard. I remember being in the backyard once and seeing a snake on the ground slivering away. I’m sure it was a small garter snake, but to a toddler, it was terrifying.

I also have a false memory that I am not sure if I made up completely or if it was a twisted version of a real memory. For many years, maybe almost two decades, I had a story in my head that my dog, Patty Cake, had run away when I was a child. I remembered this clearly, and I even remembered my dad in the backyard (which did not have a fence) calling her name out loud, trying to call her back home to us. I remember being very sad that Patty Cake was gone, and I also was confused. Why did she run away? Why would she leave me? My parents had told me that the two of us were extremely close. That Patty Cake was very maternal and saw me as her puppy that she wanted to take care of. My dad would put me on a blanket in the front yard, next to the garage/driveway where he would be working, and Patty Cake would be there right next to me and never leave my side. Once, another dog came by (maybe being walked by its owner?), and Patty Cake got all defensive and positioned herself between us and made sure that dog didn’t come too close to me. To be honest, I do not remember spending any time with Patty Cake. She doesn’t exist tangibly in my memories. But I have seen the many photos. There are photos of me laying on top of her, of straddling her like she is my horse. There are photos of the two of us together and her looking at me with devotion. We clearly had a strong bond.

And yet, my only memory of her is when my dad was calling her name out, which I associated with her running away. And I was so sad for her, for us, for two decades. How could she run away? Why? If she loved me so much, why would she do that? Or maybe, maybe she got hurt somewhere and was in pain? It would make me so sad, thinking this, as if she was in perpetual pain for two decades. 

Until…I finally learned when I was in college, Patty Cake hadn’t run away. Patty Cake had been put to sleep. Because she was old and sick and it was time. But I didn’t know that. My parents had not told a three year old about death. So I thought she ran away. I wish that I had been told sooner than in my 20s. Because I still get sad when I remember how many times I wondered about Patty Cake, wondered what ever happened to her, why she would run away.

What is rather fascinating to me is that even as I typed up this story, when I wrote the sentences “How could she run away? Why would she leave me?” and when I would read them aloud, I would start crying. I couldn’t help it. Even though I am not sad at all about what happened right now. But by accessing those memories, it’s like I’m triggering them, triggering that part of the brain where those memories exist and that are integrally wrapped up with sadness and loss and abandonment and confusion, and that part of me starts crying and I can’t stop it. Even though I don’t feel sad in the moment. It’s fascinating, how the brain works. I mean, here is a very discrete example of a powerful past memory being triggered and still leading to a visceral nervous system reaction in me, that I can observe and be partially dissociated from. It makes me wonder how many other memories sometimes get triggered by something in the present and lead me to have reactions that are not actually in line with the current situation and yet I am unaware at the time, and so I connect the present and the reaction together in my head. Something to think about.

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