“Lady!!! Lady … time to go home,” my five-year-old voice floated over the stream and above the crevasses searching for our dog. We’d been on a two-day family trip, sleeping in the great outdoors and eating the fish we caught. It was a fun two days, except for my fall. That morning, Dad invited any who wanted to go with him on a hike over the San Diego mountain area. I joined my two brothers and bid Mom and my sisters good-bye. It was a chilly February morning and I was lagging behind the guys, catching sight of early wildflowers battling the cold in order to bloom. All at once I went from admiring a spot of purple to screaming as the ground beneath me receded. A crevasse. I’d fallen into a crevasse that could have easily been avoided if I’d been watching my steps instead of the flora. I heard the fear in my dad’s voice as he cautioned the boys to step back. I was stuck. My California-winter coat was just thick enough to stop me from falling hundreds of feet between rocks. One arm raised straight in the air as if reaching, the other folded like a wing at my side, created just the right amount of material to wedge me precariously between two protrusions. My legs wiggled beneath me and Dad calmly asked me to “hold very still, honey.” I don’t remember Dad extricating me, but I do remember him holding me and whispering how much he loves me.
Back at our campsite Dad told Mom and the girls about my miraculous escape from death. I was the celebrated family member as we packed up camp, offered a prayer of gratitude, and hopped into the station wagon to make our way home.
Our ranch home, surrounded by boulder fields, created the perfect playground for alligator lizards, garter snakes, a cocker spaniel named Lady, and cluster of kids. With five children and another on the way, our parents were wise to purchase a home with the wilderness attached. We spent countless hours sitting on the “elephant rock” guiding safaris, catching little lizards by the tails only to remember just a little too late that the wiggly tails detached, and climbing our olive tree so we could pelt the mailman with unripe olives.
One time, my brothers’ two alligator lizards escaped their cage. We searched and searched, each hoping to win the 25-cent reward offered by Mom. But as it ended up, no one got the reward. Closing the living room drapes that night, Mom emitted a scream, signaling her discovery and bringing the boys running to collect their pets.
The lizards weren’t the only pets to escape inside the house. We never did find the garter snake who covertly liberated himself in the dark, sleepy hours of the night. And one time, my little white mouse that blithely reposed on my shoulder decided she’d had enough human contact. With no warning at all, she ran across my neck, down my arm, and after plopping onto the floor, scuttled away faster than any creature with tiny feet should be able to do.
But by far, my favorite pet during my young life was my dog, Lady. She was my constant companion, accompanying me out to the boulder fields, hiding with me in the cavity between our table rock and the staircase rock, and listening to all the woes a five-year-old heart suffers. She’d snuggle up with me at night, her springy fur softening fantastically horrible monster dreams, and lulling me back into toasty slumber. Lady was my ally, my playmate, my chum. She didn’t really like the other kids, and I couldn’t blame her. They never paid her much attention. But me? Admittedly, I mollycoddled her.
Our family’s move to the Detroit area took us from our California hinterland, leaving behind reptilian pets and granite hideaways. We were on to new adventures, new pals, new ventures. As is often the case, our childhood resilience shelved our tender memories as we filled our lives with the present.
Decades later we siblings gathered at our parents’ home. Sitting around the table, cards shuffled and fanned out in our hands, our voices bounced in playful activity, each memory expounded upon by the next. Reindeer footprints in the mud by the ivy; pretending school above the barn; playing darts-dodgeball in front of the garage … And then Lady. I remembered Lady.
“Whatever happened to Lady?”
Silence. Even the card game came to a halt.
“Lady, our cocker spaniel. I mean, I know she was pretty much my dog, but we all played with her. Did we leave her behind when we moved?”
“Do you mean our boxer? We had a boxer once.”
“No … Lady. Our cocker spaniel.”
“The only Lady cocker spaniel I ever knew was from the Disney movie.”
“Pits open! Who will trade me for two? Two … two?”
The game continued, but I stepped away to grieve my loss. Lady was gone. But my memory was still there.
I don’t remember missing Lady when we moved. Did she “go” with us? I have no memory of bereavement at any point during my childhood. So why was I so sad now? Was I grieving Lady’s “death” or was I grieving the decease of that one, precious memory?
“Mom, I don’t know what’s happening to my memory,” I said over the phone one day when I was seeking advice about one of my children. “It’s because you have to fill your head with doctor appointments, kids’ playdates, PTA meetings and more. Don’t worry about your memory, it’ll come back when you have a little more space.” Pretty good advice, and it appeased me for the time. But this “Lady Incident” occurred after all my children were grown. Surely, I had space now for true memories.
Every time I get together with my family, I am reminded that my memory is lacking. Well, not so much lacking as being inaccurate. In fact, one night while sitting around Mom’s and Dad’s game table and enjoying some reminiscence, I asked them about the time I had a sliver removed by our family friend, Dr. Pfeiffer. He made a house call, lifted me up onto our kitchen table, and removed the giant sliver from my foot. Mom and Dad couldn’t remember the details, so I started to think that either I’d made it up, or it was my sister’s memory that I claimed as my own. I picked up the phone and called Jenni.
“Hey Jen. I have a memory but I’m not sure if it’s mine or if it’s yours. I have Mom and Dad on speaker, maybe you can enlighten us.” Jenni laughed and said, “Hold on a sec. Michael’s visiting and I’m going to put you on speaker.” Then Jenni gave Michael a brief rundown of my faulty memory – how so much of what I remember as mine is really hers. We all laughed then I shared with them the splinter event.
“Wait, wait, wait!” Michael sputtered between laughter. “That memory doesn’t belong to either of you! It’s mine!” We all got our fill of exercise the next few minutes as we laughed until tears flowed.
A Google search of “why do I remember things that never happened” brings up a plethora of suggestions from bloggers’ posts to psychologists’ articles to neuroscientists’ experiments on mice. Why do I still feel sad about Lady existing only in a Disney movie, or recall with distinct feeling my terribly painful splinter? I don’t know. But if I can’t claim Lady as my pet anymore, the least my family can do is let me claim their memories as mine.