I awoke to a memory this morning, one that was neither repressed nor unpleasant. The episode it recalls is no more than a vignette, like a small reel of 8mm film capturing a few minutes of a long forgotten and mostly unimportant family barbecue. This memory is no Zapruder film bearing witness to some historical moment, and yet it has persisted so long–nearly 50 years–that I’m willing to bet that should I be dealt the unlucky Alzheimer’s card this will be one of the last memories to flicker before my mind’s eye before my mental projector permanently dims.
Anyway, I woke up this morning and the half century-old movie played again. The setting is late morning and I am home alone with my mother, so I can’t be of school age yet. That marks me as no older than four. The world outside is Technicolor bright: deep blue sky, thick green leaves budding on our front yard catalpa tree’s heavy limbs, tulips and snap dragons exploding in deep reds and glowing yellows. Bees fly drunkenly around the clover and mint invades the small ribbon of lawn that borders our driveway.
My aunt’s red Ford pulls into the driveway. I only know the make of her car because she has named it “Redford,” like the actor. Her family owns another car, Blueford: a two car family, and passenger cars at that. My aunt looks like a movie star behind the wheel of the shiny red car, but it’s not just the car that makes her look like a movie star. She is tall and slim, with a perfectly sculpted pile of black hair that renders her taller and slimmer. She wears makeup daily that my mother only wears on the very rare occasions when my parents head out in our ugly green station wagon without their children strapped into its back seat: bright red lipstick, blue eye shadow, a little rouge on the cheeks. Throw in the fashionable wardrobe and in my child mind there’s very little difference between my aunt and Cher, the funny lady on TV who makes jokes at her husband’s expense. My aunt does that, too.
We pile into Redford, but rather than strapping me into the car’s gigantic back seat my mother sits me on her lap. Family legend holds that just a couple of years earlier, she wrapped herself around my infant body in the split second before the car crash that broke her nose and left a red scar across its bridge. One would think that riding on her lap would be strictly forbidden after that, but it’s happening today. Maybe my permissive aunt goaded her into it.
Redford’s big V-8 roars to life, and my aunt backs it out of the driveway after putting it into “R” using the shifter that juts from the console dividing the car’s bucket seats. A floor shifter! This is undoubtedly the classiest car I’ve ever ridden in. She pushes on a narrow plastic box sticking out of the car’s radio and music begins to play. “What’s that?” I ask.
“What’s what, honey?” my aunt says.
“That,” I say, and I point to the little box sticking out of the radio.
“That’s an 8-track tape.” She removes the cartridge and holds it up for me to see. “You just stick it in here like this and music plays.” I can’t remember our car radio ever even being turned on, much less this modern miracle of portable music. “Do you want to pick out some music? There’s more tapes in the glove compartment,” my aunt says.
She reaches over and opens the trap door directly in front of me. A rainbow of cartridges packs the glove box: red, blue, yellow, orange, white, black. They look like toys, which adds to the excitement. I remove each one and study their labels, which would be a much more meaningful exercise if I could read. I recognize Andy Williams’s face from his television show. He is a nice man, like Mr. Rogers. “This one,” I say.
“That’s a Christmas album,” my mother says. “Why don’t you pick a different one?”
My aunt grabs the 8-track from me. “I like Christmas music. Let’s have Christmas in April,” she says. And so we cruise Denver’s streets while the sun shines and Andy croons about white Christmases, our destination lunch and a visit to the Cinderella City shopping mall, where my fancy aunt works at the even fancier J.C. Penney.
This memory is so vivid and pops into my head so frequently that sometimes I wonder if it’s a fiction. Our memories are unreliable machines, after all, and once we’ve convinced ourselves that something happened that mental image is nearly impossible to alter. Other times I wonder if it’s just a partial memory, one that emphasizes the perfect day, bright colors, and happy music because it ended in tragedy. Maybe the last 50 years never happened. Maybe I’m not even conscious. Perhaps right now my mother is wrapped around my crumpled body in the even more crumpled passenger seat of Redford, the car’s vital fluids draining onto the pavement while its horn blares beneath its twisted red hood. Perhaps this is the horrific car crash of family legend.
I think I’d be okay with that. At least I went out on a perfect day with two women I loved, listening to Christmas music.