I don't remember my childhood. At least, not in any contiguous pattern, a fluid arc of cause and effect, with beginnings and middles and ends. There is no cosmic projector whirring and spinning through dusty light, flashing a story line - neither love story nor horror film nor some tender coming of age film - on some interior screen, while I sit on a worn plush seat, a spring pushing against my thigh and the butter from my popcorn making my fingers shiny with grease, while I watch, in rapt attention.
There's not even a vague disinterest, viewing my life as if it were someone else's story I was watching from some distant, disconnected height. There's no boredom, or sadness or wistful hope. There are just huge patches of not much of anything - no dust bowl and tumbleweeds, no darkness and a keening, plaintive wind, none of those common tropes.
No trope, and no memories, although, if you ask my mother, she'd say I just remember the bad stuff. That may be truer, if truth can have a comparative, a greater than or lesser than finality. It's not that I have no memories. It's not that I only remember The Bad Stuff, cataloging all the pains and hurts and disappointments of childhood for later review and recrimination. There was love and joy and frustration and sad and wonder and love and pain, over and over and over again. It was all the warp and weft of our family.
But I don't have those stretches, those seamless and flowing pictures of time and love. Or of pain. What I have, I realized, is picture frames - brief flashes of color and light that surprise me and take me off guard in a disjointed array.
The frames of my father are mostly small. There’s the color of his coffee – a rich caramel that steamed against the unnatural whiteness of a Styrofoam cup. There’s a feathered headdress, worn in the days before political correctness, as he and my big brother who was all of seven or eight, but he was so much bigger than I, and older, and closer to my dad, who came home from the office, tired and spent, but who could muster up just enough energy and attention to do Indian Guides with my brother, and who promised we’d do Indian Princesses when I got older.
There’s the stats book for the Little League teams he managed, first for my older brother, who started young and in the outfield – right field, the home of lost players who hadn’t yet gotten the hang of the game and so were placed there, where they could do little harm – and who got better, year after year, all the way through the Pony Leagues. He coached my younger brother the year of the locusts, whose carapaces littered the ground and made walking noisy and slightly disgusting. I kept the stats every season, even the Year of the Locusts, so that I could sit next to my father on the bench, so that I could tag along into his world of sports and sons and attention. It wasn't Indian Princesses, but it was a place near him and so I hoped that it would be enough.
There’s the frame that holds the picture of my brother, standing between my father’s legs, his hands clutching my father’s and a look of gleeful terror on his face as my father lowered him slowly. “Keep your arms stiff. I won’t drop you!” he would say to my brothers, who both couldn't wait to play this heady and terrible game of Trust, as it was called in our family parlance. A simple game – how low could you go, how close to the floor could you go, with only our father there to hold you, keep you from falling and crashing to the floor? I would watch in envious and eager anticipation for my turn, so sure that this time, please this time, I would have the courage to play, but it was always next time for me.
There is one frame, though, one small picture that is mine alone. Mine and my father’s. It is the picture of us, sitting together in shul, so close that I could feel the wool of his suit against my face and arm, sheltered by his nearness, carried gently by the drone of his voice as he prayed in a language that was at once familiar and strange, and the cadence of his chanting lulled me. He would hold me close, his arm wrapped around my shoulder and his tallit covering me. Sitting there, sheltered, I would play with the fringes of his tallit, wrap them around my fingers, stretch them until they lost their elasticity and shape. His hand would cover mine, to still my fidgeting, and it would linger there, tangled with the fringes, connecting us.
These small picture frames of love and longing come, in flashes of light and heat. When I sit with my son, so close that our shoulders bump, and my arm laces through his – because he is too tall for me to wrap it around his shoulder now – and we pray together, in a language at once ancient and new, and my tallit shelters us both, my son takes the fringes and he stretches them and tangles them and wraps them in his fingers, these fringes of love.
I return, again and again, to that small picture frame, now large enough to hold us all, to shelter my memory with love and grace.