Thursday, November 11, 2010

Mosaic Memories

Donnie said some funny things. One time he told his mom, "I hate fall. All that orange and red in the trees gives me a headache."
Judi thought that was an eccentric observation but grinned and said, "I'm glad I'm not the only weird one in this family."
Another time he said, "Whenever I think about something that happened in the past, I can only picture it in black and white."

This time Judi stopped and thought for a moment. Her blond-haired, fourteen-year-old son stood challenging her to disagree. He smiled triumphantly when she said, "I never thought of that before but you're absolutely right. I think of memories in black and white too!"
Donnie went off with his skateboard. Left standing before the warmth of her big kitchen window, Judi faced the sun but her gaze turned inwards. Smiling, she watched memories march by like history on parade – little black and white vignettes, floating one-by-one past her mind's eye: monopoly games on the floor with her brothers and sisters, grandma shaping bread loaves to pop into the oven of her wood-burning stove and, of course, those epic ten-mile walks to school through three feet of snow during a howling snow storm. It was a delightful outing – her little trek through time.
Then suddenly, like a marauding cloud that spreads purple darkness over a distant mountain, an unbidden image slapped the bemused smile from her face and left on it an anxious scowl. Not all memories were gentle. Not all vignettes were neutral, monochrome postcards. Some were shocking, vivid posters – and very, colourful; like little Gina's first day of school. That was 37 years ago. Gina was Judi's youngest sister; at that time Gina was 5 and Judi was 15.
In those olden, black-and-white days, the Garel women in Judi's household were devoted to their daily rituals; so on this first day of school, they did not change their routines. When Judi walked in the house after school, her mother, Anita, cried, "Come quick and see this! Tricia's going to tell Jill about her affair with Evan!" Judi rushed into the living room and sank, hypnotized, into the space reserved for her by her grandmother in front of the TV on the couch and waited with her mouth open. The three women watched as Tricia archly raised a perfectly shaped brow, pouted her full, seductive lips and launched lethal daggers from her smouldering dark eyes at Jill.
It was Y & R hour in the Garel household; the last stand of estrogen dominance in the 3-bedroom bungalow before the five male Garels came home. Only young Gina was absent. She was playing on her swing set in the back yard, convinced that no mere TV show could ever approach the drama and excitement of her own real life. When Judi arrived to pick her up at the Kindergarten gate after school, Gina launched into an excited babble delivered with skips, twirls and shrieks that did not stop for the duration of their five block walk home. By the time they reached their doorstep Judi knew that Gina and "Kimmie-up-the-street" were in the same class with Mrs. Den-e-mee, but "Kimmie-down-the-street" was in Miss Clark's class, Gina's new friend, Stacy, took ballet lessons and Robert who sat beside her, shared his red grapes with her that day, and she was going to marry him next year. Judi grinned at that one. She'd had a few "grape boys" in her past too but their mutual passions had always either dried up or turned sour.
"What's for dinner mom?" Judi whispered during the electric pause on the TV. Grandma hushed her with a frown. She didn't want to miss what Jill's reaction would be to Tricia's confession. This show amused her so much. Young people were so stupid about passion, she thought; what they needed was a good old-fashioned war to sort out their problems. When young life has to reckon with mortality there's no time to dither and agonize. If you're lucky there's just enough time to straighten your seams, put on your hat and grab your prayer book in a feeble attempt at subterfuge. Then, on a musty Hudson's Bay blanket behind the Methodist meeting hall, consummate your unblessed pledge of eternal love for your soldier before he's sent away to fight. She gasped as she heard the explosion of a bomb close by. Only it wasn't a bomb...
Suddenly the TV screen turned to snowy static and the house became thick with the massive shattering din of a hundred broken chandeliers and more terrible still; the piercing scream of a small child. In an instant, under magnetic - not kinetic energy Anita was out the side door and in the back yard to find Gina. With the shattering sound still filling Judi's head and instant terror robbing everything but shear reflex, she followed. Coming around the corner she was hit by a second volley of shock. Gina was being scooped up by her mother. Her head and features were hidden in a crimson ocean of blood and lying against the swing set was the fallen TV antenna.
It was a violent and random image that Judi collided with as she rounded that corner. Her mouth went dry and her pupils shrank and she saw nothing but black dots around her head and heard only distant ringing for a moment. When her sight returned, her mother and Gina had vanished. With a short cry and pounding heart, she suppressed her tears and ran back into the house to find her grandmother.
"What happened dear?" her grandmother sobbed, trembling and shaken when Judi came in wide-eyed and breathing heavily.
"Don't worry grandma," Judi lied, "Gina is ok, she just got cut on her arm by the TV antenna and it scared her; that's all," she said hugging her grandmother and trying to prevent her from panicking.
Grandma said, "Anita and Gina just went off with Mrs. Brethour in her car. It looked like there was a lot of blood..."
"She'll be OK grandma," Judi persisted. "Some cuts bleed an awful lot. Gina was crying and she didn't pass out or anything. She'll be OK." Judi felt ill and exhausted and sat on the couch leaning on her grandma's shoulder for some time. Her memory could never supply the details of the ensuing several hours. Thinking returned later that night. In bed, the only additional memory she had was of her father coming home from the hospital to assure everyone that Gina's head injury was going to be OK and that there would be no brain damage. Luckily, a plastic surgeon had been on hand to sew back the large flap of scalp that had been turned back by the wisp of contact it had made with the TV antenna. Under her blankets in the dark quiet of her bedroom, Judi came back to stinging consciousness in a violent shuddering from head to toe. In a convulsion of tears and terror she experienced again what had left her numb for so many hours.
The techni-colour memory of Gina's accident stood out in stark contrast to what were mainly sepia-tinted recollections of Judi's childhood. While reflecting upon Donnie's black and white impression of past experiences, she could only agree with her son to a very specific point – the point that divides life's mere pleasantries and exasperations from its ecstasies and desolations. She crossed that point for the first time at 15 – one year older than Donnie was now. Since that first traumatic splay of colour on her life's canvass there had been many more. And that's not necessarily a bad thing she reasoned. We would be pretty drab compositions without the events that punch up the background of our lives with colourful scenery. They are the reveille call that brings us to attention, for good or bad, and awakens us from our floating black and white dreams to vibrant earthly engagement. They mark our journey through life and tell us through our pain or joy or trauma that we have lived or, more importantly, that we have survived – and triumphed.
Judi's fair-haired son had yet to come to this realization. In the fullness of time, he would embellish his own canvass with a heart-rending mosaic of original virtuosity and in deference to Life that brooks no interference, she would stand back admiringly and watch him paint.

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