The Memory Keeper

Little girls stand in the corner, eager in our impossibly tiny ballet slippers, waiting our turn to scamper-skip-leap! over the cheap paper pumpkin sitting in the middle of the smooth brown floor. I do not yet have my black leotard and pink tights. This is a trial to see if I like it, and I am jealous of the girls who already have a leotard and tights and already know first and second and third position. It is my first ballet class and my earliest memory.

I didn’t know, then, how many hours I would come to spend in that studio, how I would always remember the cold metal bar beneath my hand or the very taste of the water. I still unconsciously tap out pickups in line at the grocery store, brush-heel-shuffle-heel-stepping my way toward the cash register, and I’ve caught myself with rounded fingers, middle one slightly dropped, in so many photos that I have to tell myself to stop. I could, even now, show you a time step or an arabesque or a slightly wobbly pirouette.

I am in first grade, but I go to a second grade classroom for reading each day. I don’t know what the second graders think of me, but I find them loud and big and a bit scary. I do well reading aloud, though, and hate when it’s not my turn and I have to train myself not to turn the pages of my textbook when I have read the page to myself before they have finished. I love reading; it is my favorite subject. (Years later I am rather chagrined when I get to high school and it is no longer a class of its own.)

In fourth grade I accidentally stabbed myself with a pencil, reaching into my desk without looking. I still carry the grey-blue mark in my skin, a small tattoo at the base of my left pointer finger. It has a twin on my right hand, between the knuckles of my second and third fingers, received from another Number 2 while digging through my locker in seventh grade. These marks are visual reminders of the past, but they’re scarcely needed. I remember too much already.

Sometimes I wish I could scour away the hard memories or at least sand them down a bit, take off the edges, blunt the sharpness of the pain and the salt taste of tears. I can’t write about some of those memories, can’t even speak them aloud, but I also cannot forget. I find it unfair that I continue to remember against my will.

It’s not always the important, traumatic, or scary, though, so when other memories come, I let them. Sometimes it’s just small details, and sometimes from only one sense at a time: a taste, a smell, a sound. My mother singing “You Are My Sunshine.” The way my friend’s mother had a bit of a Southern accent and pronounced “crayon” like “crown.” The scent of air-popped popcorn, a special treat before we had a microwave.

My friends have commented that I am the one who remembers, the one who can tell them the color of their dress from sophomore year Homecoming (So much crushed velvet; what were we thinking?!) or can still sing a bit from choir songs long past. I am a bit embarrassed by it sometimes, and even downplay the specificity with which I can recall insignificant details because I somehow feel like I should have retained more important data.

I realize now, though, that while I wish I could forget painful things, the vibrancy of my happiest memories has gotten me through some really hard times. I’ve said it’s like conjuring a Patronus. You need to really concentrate on your happiest memories in order for the spell to work. For me, my “Expecto Patronum” is my friends’ laughter and strength, my mother’s voice, my father’s embrace, and that is worth the pain.

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