by LR Hudgins
Memory is a fickle thing
|Mendacium vivit. I awoke this morning to the realization that many of the memories I have of my childhood are fabrications. I was not the victim of some nefarious gaslighting scheme, nor did I stumble upon a box of incriminating letters that had been secreted away. Instead, I was the willing captive of my own mind. All of the things I had ever believed are now in question, thanks to the bizarre chemistry locked inside my brain.
The dysthymic mind is a toxic cocktail of chemicals that ebb and flow, causing emotional waves and troughs. It can drown you in depression, or have you surfing the curl of mania. The fluctuating moods can also manifest as a small voice - alternately devil and angel - that whispers lies and half-truths in your ear. That voice creates the filter through which you view your life, past and present. After a while, you can no longer distinguish fact from fiction.
This morning, when my cat tore into me at 4 am trying to play, I called him a little tiger. Flashback to my childhood and the pet names my father had given us as children: Pigeon for my sister, Tiger for me. I was quite the little hellion in my youth, and Dad had found it worthy of a fierce nickname - one that I used to cherish. Many years later, he called me a warrior - high praise from a man who had spent his entire life in some sort of war.
Despite these terms of endearment, for the past few years all I have been able to remember were the slights, the whippings, the cruel things he said. Those were not the reality of my youth, just the part that my sick mind wanted to remember to justify using my father as a scapegoat: my excuse for not succeeding; my own Achilles’ heel.
I used to think that my father was this tyrannical, cruel, and unstable fellow who beat me mercilessly and called me cruel names. Perhaps he was at times, but I never gave him any credit for being kind or loving. The reality is that Dad was also sick, and had his own issues. He did pretty well under the circumstances. He kept a job and supported a family of four. He taught my sister and me to do the things he knew how to do: play football, throw a baseball, play golf. He showed me how to plow and plant a garden, how to be creative in the kitchen - very creative at times, with recipes such as gravy cakes, lemon cornbread, and ice cream cake. Not all of Dad’s experiments were successful, as you could imagine, but they got full marks for imagination.
My father was good at so many things. He taught me chess, and gave me the gift of music. He was a prolific photographer, and had a keen legal mind. He made sure I could change a tire and change the oil and parallel park before I got the keys to the car for the first time. All of this from the man who I once thought never loved me.
I won't deny that there were hard times. Dad suffered from some sort of imbalance, and he chose to self-medicate with pain pills and alcohol. But that was not the whole of his existence, and I would do well to remember all of him. It might help me be kinder to myself at times. He could be a good and generous man. His friends spoke well of him. His enemies feared him. He was tenacious when he thought something needed to be fixed, whether it was an old car, or a failing government. He was himself a warrior, often choosing quixotic causes and rearing up at windmills, but fierce and unfailing in his quest. The cool thing was that in his battles, he very often made a difference in the greater world. That is part of his legacy.
The memory of my childhood is certainly wrapped up in half-truths, but I have equal difficulty separating the facts from the beliefs about my adulthood. I have books of letters and affidavits lauding the contributions I made while I was in the Navy. I did well in college, and made a difference in the lives of people I worked with. But I only remember the failures; the days spent weeping in some bathroom stall or wandering in a gray fog due to depression. I have forgotten that I, too, was a fierce contender, tilting at my own windmills. On my best days, I shone bright as a copper penny. Those days, too, deserve a place on my mental shelf, along with the trophies and disappointments that come with living.