On Misremembering

BonnetHere is how I remember the scene. My nine-year old daughter has fashioned a muslin prairie bonnet, the kind Laura Ingalls Wilder would have worn. She will dress as a pioneer for the school Thanksgiving program, where teachers will showcase costumed students for adoring parents and extended family. “Look mom!” she says, modeling the bonnet. The headpiece resembles a handkerchief with earflaps.“That’s lovely,” I say, ” but wouldn’t you like to ask the nice dress-up clothes lady to make one of those for you?” She refuses politely. She likes her bonnet. I praise her for her ingenuity. That’s the kind of mother I am.

Seventeen years later, I am in New York City, with my two adult daughters, on a mission to buy lace and tulle for a wedding dress. The girl who made the pioneer bonnet is planning a wedding. Her younger sister—in fashion design school— has designed the dress. “We’ve got to go to New York City to the fashion district to get the best material,” the younger daughter says. And, of course, I agree. That’s the kind of mother I am.

The morning of our NYC fashion district quest, we have breakfast at a diner. “I want to eat where the locals eat,” I tell the hotel concierge. I remind the girls that I like to “absorb the flavors” of the places we visit. That’s the kind of traveler I am.

At the greasy spoon diner, the hostess greets each guest by name. We seem to be the only tourists. I order Eggs Benedict, with lox. Between the final pour of coffee and paying the check, my younger daughter excuses herself from the table. This leaves the bride-to-be alone with me. There is tension between us. Most likely, I have annoyed her, thanks to a few annoying habits. I have an opinion about everything, tend to micro-manage each family activity, and talk to strangers indiscriminately. In spite of my bad habits, I have tried to let both daughters pursue their passions. I endorsed their desires to become artists and helped finance their art degree educations. I have only argued briefly with their artistic pursuits, making diplomatic remarks such as, “You’d be an excellent lawyer. Have you ever thought about accounting?” I’m the kind of mother who lets her children make their own mistakes.

For some reasons, while sitting in a New York City diner with my the annoyed bride, a memory emerges.  “Remember the pioneer bonnet for the Thanksgiving program?” I say. “I let you make it yourself. I could have had a bonnet made for you.” I lean back in my chair and wait for my daughter’s epiphany. I am the kind of mother who trusts my children to make the right decisions.  Susanna grimaces and directs her eyes toward her near-empty plate. In that moment, I realize I have misremembered, a wonderful term coined by President George W. Bush. Misremembering which is not the same as forgetting. Misremembering is a our psyche’s effort to reconstruct events to match our desires.

Fact is, I had betrayed my daughter’s desire to make her own pioneer bonnet. I had not let her risk making a mistake. Yes, I had ordered the headpiece handmade from the dress-up clothes lady. What must my nine-year old daughter have felt when she tucked her handmade creation in a corner of a drawer, or—worse— tossed it in the trash bin.

Most moments of our life, including the one we’re in, are lost forever, says memory expert and psychologist, Daniel Kahneman. He describes two types of remembering selves: “The experiencing self lives in the present,” he says, while “the remembering self is a storyteller.” The “remembering self,” preserves certain events, though few memories emerge exactly as they happened. According to psychologist, James McGaugh, memory is evolutionary—a neuropsychological process created during moments of intense emotion or danger. The intense emotion can be either good or bad.

In my childhood memoir, I write a scene in which I am sitting on my father’s shoulders at the Macy’s Day Parade in New York City. It is 1960. I am five years old. The next day, our family will board a ship, The United States, to move to Germany. The ship, the dates and the place can all be verified. The actual memory—sitting on my father’s shoulders— cannot. There are no photos; no father or mother. My brother does not remember. The image has become part of my life narrative, if only because I have written it.

The two anecdotes I’ve described here are most likely inaccurate, though one tells a truth. Indeed, Dad was the kind of man who wanted his children to feel happy on a difficult day, even if he wasn’t the type to carry his kids on his shoulders. And the day before our move to Germany was  memorable because of its emotional intensity—even for a five-year old.

On the other hand, the memory of my daughter’s pioneer bonnet was neither true nor accurate. It is a story constructed by a narrator who wants to preserve an image of herself— the kind of mother willing to risk personal humiliation to let her children explore and create.

In the greasy spoon diner, when I realized I had misremembered, I wanted to say, “I’m sorry. I should’ve let you wear your handmade bonnet.” I wanted to say, “I thought you might be embarrassed or teased.” I should have told the truth: “I was worried what the other mothers would say about the kind of mother who lets her daughter wear a silly homemade bonnet in a school program.” Instead of saying any of these things to my daughter, I changed the subject, paid the bill, and ushered the girls out the revolving door toward the fashion district. Actually, I did not know where the fashion district was; my younger daughter knew the way. But I am the kind of woman who wants to navigate New York City like a native.

Dear reader: I teach memoir. In workshops, we discuss the unique challenges that memoir writing poses. Can you write accurate dialogue after many years have passed? What if your memory differs from your sister’s memory? Can a story be factually inaccurate, but true? Why do we remember certain events?

This essay began as “The Stories We Tell Ourselves About Ourselves,”—an excellent title I will use for another essay, someday. As a working title, it did not capture the precise meaning that emerged as I wrote. As with most personal essays, the writer begins the hike at the metaphorical trail head, with an idea, but does not know what lies ahead. Such is the joy of the writing process.

The best an essayist can do is to take the reader on his or her journey. To do that successfully, the writer must travel on the journey too!

I often begin my essays with an anecdote that seems to reoccur. Sometimes, all I want to do is find out why the memory boomerangs. The key memory here is the realization of the lie I had told myself for 17 years. Oddly, I had rarely thought of the original pioneer bonnet episode, until the day I misremembered it in that New York City diner.

Readers prefer complex characters—a difficult task for a creative nonfiction narrator who is also the protagonist in the story. I’ve enjoyed making myself a complex character—writing about my idiosyncrasies. And I thank my family for helping me to see myself as I truly am!

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