“My first memory of kindergarten,” I say to my older sister, “is sweeping out the playhouse. And the nap. And snack.”
Yawning waitress sets down steamy mugs of tea. “Cookies’ll be right out.”
“I don’t remember kindergarten,” sighs my sister. Nor today’s trip to the Memory Clinic, or the tissue-stuffed purse in her hand. “Would you have a Kleenex?”
Memories of theatre training. Listen to your partner. However many repetitions, create the Illusion of The First Time. Remember your objective.
Which is what?
1. To remember her memories for her?
Pluck a Kleenex from her bag. Hand it to her.
“Here you go.” Her embarrassed laugh.
“I bet you remember other things from childhood.”
Wrinkles of uncertainty. Then,
“Mother played piano to calm us in the war.”
“Really? I never knew she played. What songs?”
Audible thud of doubt.
Buzz of customers. Beeping ditty of the register. Waitress groans under a tray.
2. If I don’t save her memory of Mother at the spinet in apron and updo, diverting her youngsters in ’43, is a nugget of truth gone for good?
Then a fragile smile. Her shyly reedy voice: “Mairzy doats and dozy doats and little lambsy divey. A kiddley divey too, wouldn’t you?”
I laugh, softly join her.
Memory’s longest resident: melody. This I remember, clear as clove, from Mom’s decline.
3. If I collect her memories, do they displace mine cooling on the rack?
Yet like yeast our memories multiply. Already: me remembering her remembering Mom remembering Mairzy Doats. Like the repartee of multiplied reflections in the mirrors in the black-and-peach-tiled eighth floor ladies’ room where Mom took us after tea and shortbread after shopping: us washing us washing us again washing. Infinite usses in infinite spaces.
“Here you go, ladies. Ginger for you—”
“Nope, she gets chocolate chip.”
Is forgetfulness contagious?
“Sorry. Daughters kept me up.” She rotates the plates. “More tea water?”
“We’re good.” Off she shuffles.
“Oh, goody! We never get cookies.”
Except every day at her residence.
“I’ll ask the staff to put them on the menu.”
“I’ll bake you a batch tomorrow when I get back to Los Angeles,” she says. “I’m really looking forward to going home. I’m taking the train since I sold my car.”
4. Is memory truth?
Nutmegs of truth, webbed in mace of fancy.
5. Truth is?
Any body next to us, for one thing. Especially if we grew up with her. If she and her poodle skirt and her despair influenced us. Family is truth’s kindergarten.
“I don’t remember kindergarten.”
I don’t remember my objective. To understand truth?
Yet at the Memory Clinic, she remembered:
“I’ve been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s.”
No hesitation in this truth. No faltering.
Balder than truth. Nonfiction. Nonfiction blasts forth. Gets on with it. Every couple minutes to the social worker: “I’ve been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s. Would you have a Kleenex?”
Truth is a byproduct of nonfiction.
6. Are questions always nonfiction?
7. Are our lives nonfiction because they are one long question?
Nonfiction has no time to speculate.
Fiction we worship from childhood: characters, yearning, sweet plotisfaction. At the end she wakes up. At the end there’s a cure. At the end from the rafters: Kleenex ex Machina.
Fiction receives the tiara. Nonfiction, her mother, is sweeping and swearing and paying the bills. An embarrassed laugh.
Nonfiction is snapping the plastic bag in the bin for the daughters she’ll need to feed and divert tonight. Boyfriends and braces and night class. Divorce, which is always nonfiction. Disease.
Which makes my sister wince at shocking pink, at china mugs chucked in the bus tub. Infuriates her with a toddler’s squeal. “How can they bring children here!” Which shakes her with sobbing delusion. This bright sweet frustration whose life I can’t save, whose past I can’t store. Nonfiction crashes like a tank over students.
Nonfiction is the name of every urgency.
Nonfiction gets drunk sings farts fucks stabs. Bears it all: madness, adultery, tedium, chemo. But it’s the elbow as well as the knife in the rib. The belly laugh. An arm and a stick and a picket fence. A wad of gum and a bucket of rubies. Coffee and sleep and mysterious, sensible dream.
Nonfiction is revolution, when it cannot stand it anymore. Nonfiction lodges every dagger of the human heart, each arrow of the gods. Ninety tornadoes cluster through the south, smashing also mansions. Families are huddling each other even now.
Nonfiction is need.
Fiction is yearning.
Truth is reflection.
She needs none of these.
She’s eaten her cookie. She’d like a Kleenex.