Thursday, September 15, 2005

Personal Legends

When I was six years old, my dad asked me as we passed in the hallway of our tiny rambler, "What do you want for Christmas?" And I said, "A puppy." He snorted and said, "Fat chance." (Or maybe it was something more gentle, but it recorded itself as "fat chance" in my brain.)

At Christmas, a wiggly box was placed upon my lap and I lifted the green-wrapping papered lid to find a black poodle. I named her "Midnight" and she was the star of many of my crayon drawings.

The following October (1972), my mother gave birth to my sister (at home, with no midwife--now, that is quite a story which has nothing to do with this post). Shortly thereafter, I returned home from second grade to find every trace of my puppy gone. No water bowl. No food bowl. No puppy. My parents thought a sudden disappearance would be best.

Recently, I mentioned Midnight to my mother and she has no recollection of that dog whatsoever. None. I began to wonder if I made up that story in my head, if I created some kind of personal myth that became more real the more times I told it.

I know a picture exists of me and that puppy. I know it.

The other day, I passed a television showing coverage of Hurricane Ophelia. The caption said, "Nag's Head," and I remembered the time I slept through a hurricane in Nag's Head, North Carolina in 1986.

Then I started to wonder if this were another legend I made up in my head. So, I stayed up way too late, googling around, searching for evidence that Nag's Head, North Carolina, was, indeed, hit by a hurricane in 1986.

And it was. Hurricane Charley hit in August 1986, but the winds of 90 miles per hour did little damage.

It's true, then. I slept through that hurricane. Evacuations were not mandatory, so our drama troupe of college kids hunkered down at the church where we were staying. It was shaped like an ark, that church. I crawled into a bed and collapsed and later discovered I was sharing it with a curly-haired bass-player who was suffering from jock-itch. His name was Dana. Probably still is.

I slept while the storm raged because I had an undiagnosed case of mononucleosis. When the storm passed, my then-boyfriend (now-husband) drove me to a clinic where a doctor asked me to remove my shirt so he could diagnose my sore throat. I still remember the nurse's raised eyebrows, but I was too sick to object.

When my dad married my stepmother in 1977, she brought into our family her own cache of personal legends. I heard over and over about her handsome, tall, English boyfriend named John and about her job working at Orcas Island during the summers. She'd talk about college and her degree in political science and about orchestras and symphonies and marching bands and how she lost twenty pounds in college by shunning potatoes and bread.

And eventually, all the stories started to repeat, as if they were on a loop. I suppose that happens to all of us. At some point, we run out of stories and pretty soon, we start to accessorieze the stories we tell. How much is truth and how much is embellishment? Will people we love stop us if we tell the same story too many times? Or will they politely listen, much as I listen to the stories my mother and my stepmother tell?

And can I find a picture of the black puppy I am sure I had when I was 6? If I do (when I do), you'll be the first to know.


Blogger WordsRock said...

The memory exists even if a picture of your puppy does not, yes?


4:33 AM  
Blogger Elizabeth said...

I have a friend Beth whose family has a signal for often told stories. If you've heard the story once before you silently and without fanfare raise one finger. If you've heard it twice, two fingers and so on. If you've heard it a gazillion times you flash both hands.

This, of course, does not preclude the storyteller from telling the story again.

Perhaps the moral to the story is to strive to make new stories so you never run out and no one has to give you the finger.

6:34 AM  
Blogger barbara curtis said...

Mel -

I for one love your stories! and I want you to know that when my mother came to visit me in San Francisco in 1972 and I was heavily involved with starting a group called San Francisco Women Against Rape, I mentioned that it had probably been a natural result of having been molested and raped as a little girl in a foster home. She completely blanked - did not remember at all, even though I had told her so she wouldn't send us back (my brothers were also abused).
Not only that, but when the subject came up again six months later, she had blanked out the last conversation as well. All I could think was that her feelings of guilt must have been so great that she just couldn't handle them.

7:04 AM  
Anonymous mopsy said...

"no one has to give you the finger..." LOL, Elizabeth.

I hope you find the picture of Midnight. Thanks for this post. Countless readers are now scanning their memories...

7:58 AM  
Blogger Gina said...

I am sure that you were not imagining that dog, Mel. If you specifically remember when you first got her, there is a very good chance you are not making her up.

Aren't family legends the best, though? I rarely tire of hearing the stories of my grandparents, even though I have heard most of them before. And who could ever shush the person who retells the story of how my uncle and his fellow boy scouts pitched their tent in a park right on top of a sprinkler that went off at 2am?

8:24 AM  
Blogger Desiree said...


I have learned from experience this past 2 years that parents have a way of forgetting things.
I believe it all has to do with them being able to live with the decisions that they made when we were growing up.
I honestly believe that they have told the lies so much that they now even believe them.
I am sure that beautiful black poodle exist, but the pictures are long gone!
Hang in there!


10:58 AM  
Blogger Jared Kirk said...

I know for a fact that I don't remember some of the meanest things that I have done to people. They bring it up later, and I'm like, "What!?" I know that my parents do the same thing too.

Long live the Black Poodle!!

11:56 AM  
Blogger Tina said...

I am familiar with the disappearing dog trick. I was actually told, "A man came and took him away." What does that inspire in a child? Not good. Now I am dying to talk to my mom about that dog. I am guessing she doesn't recall.

5:03 PM  
Blogger Reloaded said...

i know that ark church. it was still there a few years ago when we were vacationing at hatteras

8:06 AM  
Blogger Paul said...

I had a cat named Spanky when I was around 13. Spanky was one of my best friends and I played with him daily. One night, while enjoying supper with my mom and dad, their came a knock at the door. A man from my dad's work came to "pick-up" the cat. Yup. Packed up Spanky right in front of me and gave him away. I had no idea this was coming (as a result of my mom's sudden made-up allergy to cats). I remember running into my room (in shock and anger)to cry myself to sleep.

At least I think I did.

Yeah, I'm sure that's what I did. After all, I DO have a picture of Spanky.

9:18 AM  
Anonymous Laura said...

There was a dog like that for me too . . . but mom remembers, dad doesn't. Of course, it was dad's decision to do away with the dog. I really have missed that dog ever since. One of those might-have-beens.

7:14 PM  

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