At some point in the late 1950s (or maybe it was the beginning of the 60s) I went to the birthday party of a classmate named Janet Fechner who lived on McDonald Avenue in Brooklyn, not far from my grandfather’s pizzeria. Janet was visually memorable for her long blonde hair, which she wore pulled tightly back from her forehead and plaited into a single and substantial braid; it was thick and heavy, a braid with heft. At the party, I met Janet’s grandmother, who seemed an aged and shrunken replica of Janet herself, right down to the braid, now silver-gray. In my memory, we are standing outdoors by a sunlit walkway, and I am talking to the grandmother, who is originally from Norway, and she is telling me that as a young girl she used to waltz among the fjords, and I picture her in a white summer dress, dancing, and all around her is Norway, a mythical blue-green land that I decide then and there I will one day visit.
This may or may not have happened. That’s the problem with memory, especially in a case such as this, where a time lapse of fifty years allows for a great deal of metamorphosis and invention, and a child’s original perspective, still dewy and dream-like, is suspect from the start. Then again, that very perspective is what shapes the child’s experience of the world, and that experience is the child’s reality. Naturally, countless new layers of interpretation, alteration, and forgetting over the course of time cumulatively distort or bury the experience and its facts, and what we are left with is a sundry collection of stories, fragments, and impressions. My head is teeming with these, and whether or not they actually happened, they have become my truth.
I have been thinking about this a lot lately because, oddly enough, the advent of Facebook has suddenly deposited a handful of people onto my computer screen who were present in the long ago time and place of my childhood. These people are not family members, and thus are not tangled up in that peculiar and particular universe. They are former classmates -- some of whom actually knew Janet-with-the-yellow-braid -- from P.S. 179, which by the way was also called the Kensington School, an inadvertently Peter Pan-ish name.
It’s quite interesting to be in contact with folks who can recall tangible things I thought I alone remembered or validate details that had begun to seem dubious, including my own existence in this context. Like characters in some murky version of Rashomon, they bring observations I somehow missed, and viewpoints different from my own, and collectively we can, if not quite reconstruct a history (and what would be the point?), at least browse through it, and it’s fascinating to do so. Our generation did not have adults with video cameras documenting every element of our lives; even photographs from ordinary days are scarce enough to elicit the surprise of recognition and a certain sense of wonder that some random moment was preserved. We peer into these pictures when they are posted, looking for clues to who we were and the textures of our lives, noticing the façade of a once-familiar building, cardboard cut-outs of autumn leaves on classroom walls, cursive script on a chalkboard, the expressions on the faces of motley children now scraping sixty, some of whose names we can still summon up.
Teachers were strict in those days, and I was shy anyway, so I didn’t often compare notes with others about the whole weird epic of grammar school while it was happening to us. We sat in rows of wooden desks that still had inkwells, dressed up for Friday assemblies in boy and girl versions of white shirts and little red ties, were labeled early and conspicuously as smart or dumb, good or trouble. Steve, one of my newfound cohorts from Mrs. Olinger’s fourth grade class, remembers wearing a bright yellow badge in sixth grade that proclaimed him a monitor. “I served my school during lunch as the monitor of the north gate facing East 3rd Street,” he wrote. “Ah, the great feeling of power, bullying the younger kids and being closest to the ice cream truck! As the year ended, I got busted for selling firecrackers and was demoted. So much for the entrepreneurial spirit.”
As for me, I never attained such heights of authority or nerve. Mostly I kept my head down and tried to please, although I did once get into an all-out fist fight in the schoolyard with another girl (whose name I dare not mention, now that I realize so many of these people are real and still out there). I remember a frenzy of scratching, punching, pinching, and notebook throwing, with both of us down on the ground while a circle of kids excitedly gathered around us, and I guess I won, because the girl picked up her books and ran away. Then a boy named Michael, who had never before noticed me at all, came up and said, “Hurray to the victor!” I felt sick.
Fran, who was also in Mrs. Olinger’s fourth grade class and now lives in Calabasas, recently went back to the old neighborhood, Brooklyn’s zip code 11218, and posted new pictures of the school and other landmarks. “What a flashback!” wrote Carol of the brooding old brick building. “I could close my eyes and envision it. I passed it a million times. I lived right down the block.”
A photograph of the basement area that was used for indoor recess and hot lunch yielded a flurry of recollections about the smells of tomato soup and rain and radiator steam, about the games we played on that green tiled floor, and getting in line to trudge up the stairs to our classrooms. We remembered Hurricane Donna, and crouching under our desks in anticipation of nuclear attacks, and Mitchell-who-died, (though as Fran pointed out, there was not a counselor in sight to help us through our various traumas), and a space shuttle launch viewed on a tiny black and white television screen set up on the stage in the auditorium. Mostly, we remembered Brooklyn as it was, and we remembered with fondness: candy stores, pickles in barrels, subway rides, lives lived in apartments on Ocean Parkway or Coney Island Avenue.
“A blast from the past,” said Barry, yet another of my classmates, in an email, “...or is it just a long dream that never ends?” It does feel like a dream, and that's what makes it so startling: one doesn't expect to run across people who dreamed the same strange dream or were right there with you in yours. It injects a bit of otherness into what has been for so long a personal and individualized possession. And although I barely knew most of these folks even in the old days and have very little concept of who they are today, it seems to me we went through something big and formative together, and are thus forever linked, and I feel a certain kinship with them.
There was even some talk among us about finding Janet Fechner, although we didn’t think she was the type to be on Facebook. But what if we did? And what if I then learned that I had never been to any birthday party at her house? What if it turned out that her grandmother had died long before Janet was born and wasn’t Norwegian at all? Would I have to revise the little vignette I have owned for all these years?
It brings to mind the work of Patricia Hampl, who has written extensively on memoir. “Memory,” she says, “is not a warehouse of finished stories, not a gallery of framed pictures.” She goes on to explain that writing out the narrative of memory is very different from transcription because so much invention inevitably occurs. Moreover, we may set out to write down what we think we know, but it is through the process of writing that we discover what we know. Intentionality, she reminds us, does not run the show; intuition does, and heart.
Something Janet’s grandmother told me at that long ago party, whatever the words she used, gave to me the fjords of Norway, a waltz in a white dress, and some implicit sense that everything was both poignant and possible. It's a private space in the co-op dream, and it's unconfirmed, but I've kept it all this time, and regardless of the facts, it still rings true.