Three Memories in Red and White

In mid-March of 1993, snow whitewashed the east coast, and in the mountains of Western North Carolina we were without power for a week. Locals old enough to remember still talk about “the blizzard of ‘93” and those who are too young talk of it as though they held the memories themselves. I was 11 years old, and I remember.

In our log home, built by my grandfather, our fireplace became the only source of heat, so my parents nailed sheets to entryways, and our bedrooms were off-limits. We were centralized to the living room and kitchen, where we slept in sleeping bags and on a shared sofa-bed, and meals were cooked on our gas stove and shared with the neighbors. For water, my father would carefully hike down our riverbank and scoop bucketfuls just a degree shy of ice. We’d boil it or use it to flush our toilets, which we did as little as possible.

We played Go Fish and Solitaire. I wish I remembered reading or having stories told to me at the fireside, but I don’t remember them. There must have been stories, though, because now I can’t imagine going without during such a time (perhaps I can modify this memory). My youngest brother, who was three or four, passed the time by bouncing on the shared bed and singing a song of his own making–”If You Like It, If You Do, If You Don’t.” Those lyrics repeated and repeated. And I was certain I didn’t like it, but I was wrong about that. I’ve been certain and wrong before.

At the end of that week we saw a truck from Duke Energy appear at the other end of the bridge. We had been watching without any idea or notice of their arrival. My brothers and I, along with the neighbors’ children, ran to the top of our driveway. We cheered for them.

_______________

I nearly lost my right eye when I was a child. I can’t remember how old I was, but I must have been anywhere from ten to twelve. My oldest brother, who is two years younger, and I were staying the night at a shared friend’s home. It was a slumber party, but as boys we never referred to it in those terms; it was just simply “staying the night.” It wasn’t even dark yet when I nearly lost half my sight.

Parents are supposed to tell their children that playing with sticks will put an eye out, and my parents had told me many times. But some kids can’t pass through childhood without taking up the sword, and with no swords available my brother, friend and I made do with fallen branches of comparable size. I was facing off against this friend, and we were deep into our imagined battle and personae. But he was deeper. I fought with reserve, but he brought down his white-barked weapon in forceful, two-handed swings, arcing through the air to crack against my two-handed blocks. I missed one. My hands went to my face, and my face went to the ground. I cried and wailed that I couldn’t see, certain I never would again.

His mother brought me into her room, and called my parents and prepared to take me to the emergency room. I lay on the bed, in pain, but calming. I remember the shaming of her son. She brought him in and made him look, and I felt like a spectacle and tragedy.

“Look at him,” she said. “Look what you’ve done. He may never see again–look what you’ve done.”

The poor boy, just a child, cried as hard as I had. He still feels guilty.

I don’t remember how long I was at her home and in her room before I was rushed to the hospital, but I do remember the moment when she allowed me to look at myself in the mirror. A horror stared back. My eye was a deep and swollen red, black with blood, and the stain stretched and streaked down my right cheek. I began to cry again, and the crying hurt.

I did not lose my sight, but I was blinded by a white eyepatch for weeks, and when it was removed the pupil of that eye had warped into an oval that looked to be in the act of tipping. The doctors promised it would return to normal and they were right. You can find this memory in the soft whiteness of my eyelid, where a subtle scar leaves a dimpled shadow against the bridge of my nose.

_______________

My grandmother, whom I called “Nana,” once sent me out to the fence-line to pick the wild strawberries that grew there; they still grow there. They are bright red and smaller than the berries you know–about the size of the tip of your pinky finger. Nana took the scant handful I’d gathered and cleaned them, put them in a porcelain white bowl, and covered them with sweet cream. I thought the berries were bitter, but the cream was true to its name.

Nana also once taught me how to stir Kool-Aid through a narrow opening. Just turn the spoon upside down and use the handle as you grip the bowl of the spoon. I’ve never done this since, opting to just remove the pitcher lid, but she told me at the time that when she was gone I would remember she had taught me this. She was always saying things like that: “When I’m gone you’ll remember…” She was right.

I remember when she left, as she’d always threatened and reminded us. I was seventeen years old and in class at the school where I teach now. My brother and I were both called out and we hiked together up the paved hill to my truck.

“You think Nana’s okay?” he asked.

“No. They wouldn’t send us home if she was,” I said. I don’t remember saying anything else after that.

We had expected it. She had had dementia brought on by strokes. She was cared for in a nursing home until the large and final stroke had rendered her permanently unconscious. But it didn’t look like a peaceful rest. Her legs would pull up and then push against the white linens of the bedding, and her thinned, liver-spotted fingers would curl for something to grasp. Nana’s face stretched and her teeth bared as though she were pained by memory or aches or both. My mother had made the difficult decision to remove life support, and my Nana had made it less difficult by passing quickly.

At her funeral I cried in great heaving sobs. A friend of the family remarked to me, in admiration and comfort, “You’re a good man, Ben.” I’m thirty-two now, and I’m still not sure he was right. But I do remember red bitter berries in sweet cream and holding the white and wooden bowl of a spoon in my hand. Perhaps there is a goodness in remembering such things.

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