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My father was recently diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease, so I’ve been reading articles about memory loss. Losing your memory seems to be a fearful thing. I read that a person’s memory of a past incident will remain strong if they experienced emotion at the time of the incident. When I consider a very clear memory I have of an incident that happened 40-odd years ago, I am unsure what emotions I experienced at the time. I was six years’ old.  The incident, or perhaps I should call it the accident, was probably most emotional for my mother, since it involved the near-death of three of her seven children.  Recently I asked my mother, now in her late seventies, what she could recall of the event. Interestingly, she could remember various small details vividly- what the children were wearing, for instance, and where each child was seated in the car- but she was unable to remember anything about insurance, or liability, or the extent of the damage. 

I am recording this memory in the spirit of being truthful, so I have thought about this carefully. I think the accident must have happened either in the fall or spring, because a) there was no snow and b) my sister Katherine, dressed for a birthday party, was wearing a new jacket- navy blue with pale blue and red flowers embroidered along the front zipper. My mother also confirmed this detail without any prompting from me.

 “You had the same jacket in red, do you remember?” she mused.

 I did remember. Why this jacket should feature strongly in both our memories is bizarre, considering the subsequent drama that unfolded. In any case, that jacket was too hot for a summer party. So, that spring, or fall, my mother was driving Katherine to her school friend Christina Leslie’s birthday party and, of course, had to take some extras along for the ride: me, my sister Liz and my two-year old brother, Anthony. The Leslies lived in a neighbourhood where the houses on one side of the road were built into the hillside- a subdivision carved into a ravine. This meant that the driveway up to the house was actually very steep. The houses opposite, lining the other side of the road, sat squatting almost in a valley, lower than the road level, as the ravine continued downwards. 

My mother turned into the driveway and the large sedan rumbled obediently up the slope. I remember the car perfectly. It was a large silver Mercedes-Benz sedan. It smelled pleasantly of leather. It always felt very solid and capable.  My father was very proud of this car- he was a bit of a car fanatic and went through phases of enthusiasm for different brands. Unfortunately, he was very bad with money and was always buying cars and they were usually re-possessed. However, there was always a bit of time for him to enjoy them. This must have been a German phase. He was always telling us how safe this car was- how well-manufactured with faultless German engineering. In retrospect I’m surprised he let my mother drive it, because she was a rather nervous driver and it was a large car. 

My mother got out to walk Katherine up to the door. I was sitting in the front. Liz and Anthony were in the back, and we watched them walk to the front door. Everything seemed on a large scale; probably because I was small and young. The driveway seemed enormously steep...the steps up to the front door seemed endless..the front door seemed elongated...in my memory everything was exaggerated perhaps. Whilst they made their way up the steps, my two year old brother, alert to my mother’s departure, slipped nimbly into the drivers’ seat and started playing about with the wheel, making car noises, playing with the indicator. He was definitely a direct descendant of the car fanatic. Of course, what happened next could not happen today. In 1976, children were not restrained in car seats, seatbelts were not mandatory, and cars could engage in gear without requiring a key. My brother, perhaps carried away by the delightful gadgetry of the Mercedes Benz, slipped the car into reverse like a pro, let down the brake, and we sailed backwards down the steep driveway. 

As we sped backwards, I remember wondering what was happening and knowing it was serious from the looks of horror on the faces of the adults gathered at the Leslies’ front door, dropping off their children. But what alarmed me most was watching my mother run. I had never seen her run before. My mother was a person who delegated- when we went for beach holidays she would organize sand-castle competitions, command us to build jumps out of sticks and sand and pretend we were horses in a competition...she made enormous meals and picnics and she had endless diversions to keep us busy, but she was definitely not sporty.  She was very industrious, but I had never seen her run . It filled me with more alarm than anything else did. 

Gathering speed, we crossed the road (luckily nothing coming), straight down the opposite driveway and crashed through the neighbour’s garage door, hitting their car and shoving it firmly into their living room. Luckily, as it turned out, no one was hurt. We sat there, rather stunned. When my mother reached us, breathless, she urged everyone out of the car quickly. Then I don’t remember anything else until the police arrived and then my father, in his green Ford van, big enough to carry the whole family. I worried that he was going to be angry about the car, but I remember him driving up with an expression of interest more than anger on his face. 

“Look at that,” he said, gazing at the scene of chaos before him. “That car is a marvel. No one injured and the car is hardly damaged. Amazing German engineering.”

And that is all I remember. So when I think back on the memory, why is it so clear? I wasn’t terribly worried about being killed because I suppose I didn’t really understand about accidents. I asked my mother if she remembered anything else. And she said something that made me realize, suddenly, what emotion had fixed this in my memory so palpably.

“I asked you afterwards, Penelope, why on earth you didn’t shift the gear back into Park when you were going backwards. I suppose, really, you were too young.” She said this rather carelessly, but I felt, suddenly, very upset. As upset as I must have felt when she had said it to me after the accident. She implied, in some way, that this was my fault. If I had just been a bit smarter, a bit quicker, disaster could have been averted. So was it guilt that had burned this memory deeply into my brain? Of course now, as an adult, I can look at my mother and think: well, that’s a ridiculous thing to expect a child to do. But at the time I would have felt, I’m sure, pretty devastated at letting her down. Perhaps, as memories fade naturally with age, we should just let them go. 

October 12, 2019 04:36

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