Sunday, September 27, 2015

I found an old Jolly Rancher . . .

 in a pocket yesterday. It’s a hard candy, for those of you who have been in a cave for the past 30 years. When I unwrapped that watermelon-flavored candy and popped it into my mouth I flashed back to a memory that, until that moment, I hadn’t realized I possessed.

Not the memory of my mother doling out Jolly Ranchers from her purse as she walked the endless aisles of the Boston gift show winter after winter between my sister and me. Not farther back to hard candy unwrapped surreptitiously (and hopefully quietly) during the sermon of a Friday night Temple service.

No. When the taste of this Jolly Rancher hits my tongue I am walking down the sidewalk of a tree-lined street with my sisters, heading toward Cameron’s drugstore with money for penny candy. Although I suppose, since I already had the candy I would’ve been heading back from Cameron’s drugstore, back to my maternal grandmother’s house in Rhode Island.

Was there candy within walking distance of my house in Morristown at that point? Had the Plaza shopping center been built yet? And if so, would I have been allowed at whatever age I remember I was to walk up our street, cross through a neighbor’s yard and an empty field to come out just across the street from that shopping center parking lot? At what age was I allowed to cross that street by myself money in hand or pocket and walked to Rose’s department store for Sweet Tarts or Pixie Stix?

I could be wrong but I believe that walk to Cameron’s was the first time I purchased candy on my own. I remember a sidewalk wide enough for the three of us girls to walk abreast, shaded with mature trees. I remember how much longer the walk was to the drugstore than the walk back, and how the sidewalk on the way back had a jungly side, with vines and what felt like a steep slope down into dark trees.

I could be wrong if you compare this memory to memories my sisters might have. I might well be wrong according to any picture taken of that particular section of road at that exact moment in the early 1960s. I could be wrong almost anywhere, except in my memory. In my memory I am never wrong and the taste of a watermelon Jolly Rancher is as bright and sharp today as it was then.

It’s an odd duck, memory. Crystal-clear and sharp edged one moment, a dark deep closet full of muddled shapes the next. 

In our family the closet is deep indeed. Almost no memory of mine matches up with anyone else’s. In fact, my family has very few communal memories that are not vague and ambiguous. Even snapshots are interpreted differently by those of us who are left.

This lack of clarity bothered me for many years as I struggled, usually in vain, to match my memories to those of my parents and my siblings. I’ve spent years trying to decipher these differences in memory, to figure out who was right and who was wrong. Years wondering which of the memories I had were mine and which had been twisted by someone else to fit their definition of the past.

There are very few definitions left in my family. My father has been gone five years. My mother, whose recollections were never that clear to begin with, has end-stage Alzheimer’s and no memories left at all, at least none that anyone but she can decipher. One of my two sisters has distanced herself from me. And with this narrowing of my frame of reference I eventually came to realize something remarkable, or at least remarkable to me. An understanding of the word “definition” that was as sharp as the memories brought forth by that taste of watermelon candy.

I don’t need other people’s interpretations of my past. Sharing memories with other people is lovely and can broaden a remembered experience. But- I have rich images and recollections that belong only to me. And that’s okay. 

Even pictures, though helpful, capture only a split second in time.
What happened before and after that freeze-frame moment tells the rest of the story. And everyone’s story will be different.

That taste of a watermelon Jolly Rancher is on my tongue.