*This one is sans photographs. There just wasn’t an image in my arsenal that fit well enough to include.
Memory is entirely unreliable, I know that. It is malleable and moldable and completely subject to the influence of third-party stimuli. Parts of memory are certainly rooted in the unquestionably accurate recording of sensory input, the way certain smells present at the time a memory is formed and filed away tend to persist and even immediately recall other bits of associated input. The smell of the Atlantic Ocean might bring to mind the feeling of course sand scouring bits of calloused skin from your feet, or the sound of gulls swarming en masse, or the taste of Blue Crabs plucked from the Chesapeake. The first few chords of a song may bring back a surge of emotional memory, transporting the rememberer to a place and time far removed and flush with happiness, or of depression. Everything else tied to these senses, associated with memories of events and people and places, all of the rest of it is made almost entirely of fantastical and imaginary matter.
The debunked practice of regression as a means of recalling forgotten memories is a good place to start. By examining the most relevant counterpoint to the rest of this story, the strongest position to question the validity of the following words, we can just clear the air now and lay it all out there. Memory is flawed. Memories can be made long after the fact, days or weeks or months or years after the supposed event occurred. Simply by virtue of digging deep down into dark folds of grey matter, to recover fragments of times long gone, we open those memories up to renovation, and reconstruct neural pathways from false starts all the way through to fictional endings. I get that. I get all of that. Getting it just isn’t enough to lighten the weight of some memories. I have vivid memories of hearing my mother tell us all that her life would have been so much easier if none of us had been born. I cannot recall how she looked each time she said this, or whether or not she was crying, but I can remember the resolve in her voice. The commanding tones asserting her belief that her life would just be better without the burden of five children.
Shortly after my parents divorced, we fell on pretty hard and lean times. A reasonable person with some sense would think that a family living in near destitution would value and care for the few possessions they had, but you’d be dead wrong in our case. My mother wasn’t one for preventative maintenance, and as such she bought and killed a number of $200 beater cars. One car, a diesel Volkswagen Rabbit, I remember in particular. It had power door locks and windows, and often needed to be push-started so my mother could “pop” the clutch and get it running. Once running, she didn’t turn it off until travel was complete. If we had multiple stops to make one of us kids would man the vehicle, doors and windows locked with the keys in the ignition and engine running, while old mother dearest ran into the store or pumped gas or whatever the hell else she could have done without any money.
I am not 100% certain that this memory occurred in the Rabbit, but I am sure that this car had power door locks and windows. Or maybe it didn’t. Who the hell cares. Point is, we were all jammed into this piece of shit car (which almost undoubtedly smelled like dog piss) on a hot summer afternoon, driving around town to run some “errands.” The one errand we ran was to a run-down strip mall in Manassas, Virginia. In this strip mall was a Woolworth’s, Marvelous Marv’s barber shop, a pizza place, and some other stores that just don’t matter to the telling of this story. There may have even been a $1 movie theater, the one where I must have watched Jurassic Park like, fifteen times the summer it first came out.
So we pulled into the lot, mother muttered something which may have been crystal clear and finely spoken at the time, but to my memory was incoherent and vile, and then she turned off the engine. This, as I just pointed out, was strange. Or maybe it wasn’t. Maybe this car started just fine without any pushing, and turning it off was what normal people with mechanically-sound cars did when they prepared to exit and run their errands. This detail is irrelevant, and I will avoid the temptation to fill in my memory gaps with fallible figments of unquestionable certainty.
What I do, remember, and this is quite clear, was that we were all instructed to wait in the car while mum got her hair cut. Or went to Woolworth’s. Or saw a $1 movie, it really doesn’t matter. Additionally, we were instructed to stay put, not to get out of the vehicle, and not to roll the windows down… but there may have been power windows in this heap, so that last part may have just been implied by the lack of power with which to roll them down, anyway, rather than an outright explicitly stated command not to do so.
Kids, I’m told, don’t pay as much mind to temperatures as us adults do. I think they understand hot and cold, but no one really starts whining about the heat or humidity until their mid-teens. I could not have been much older than 10 or 11, my youngest sister would have been around 2 years-old that summer. There we were, all five of us young burdens packed into a hot car in a strip mall parking lot on a sweltering summer afternoon. Regardless of our ages, I’m pretty sure we were each acutely aware of the heat that day. I’m certain of it. We all wanted to get out of the car. A few years later if this had happened, we wouldn’t have hesitated to bail out and find shade. But this was still soon after the divorce, so there still remained a little of that dad-fearing discipline in us. Instead of bailing, we waited.
She was gone for over two hours that day. Obviously one of us took initiative and opened a car door, or I would not be typing out this little memento today. I honestly don’t know what’s worse; a mother forgetting her kids in a hot car or the passersby that noticed a little mob of drenched-in-sweat children standing alone in a parking lot, but did nothing. But it is what it is, isn’t it?
I never really considered that she had done something like that on purpose, to lighten the burden and make life a little easier. I think we even profusely apologized when she finally returned, blaming it on the baby for not being able to take the heat. This memory only surfaced again a handful of times in the years that followed, probably while waiting in the heat somewhere or when catching a whiff of dog piss and moldy floor mats. I mean, how could a mother intentionally, or even willfully by accident, forget her five children in a hot car for over two hours?
Just a few years ago, something came to light that made me take a second look at what I just assumed to be true and unalienable about a mother’s love for her children. My mother was at her home one night, lying in bed with her beloved Jack Russell Terrier, Jack. She named her animals, and she had a lot of them, pretty typical and simple people names, like Jack, Fred, Mike, Toby, and Randy. I’m not going to pretend to understand the true meaning of this. She could have been filling the need for human interaction with people-named dog surrogates, or she may have just been the least creative person whom I have ever had the misfortune of knowing. In any case and at this point in history, Jack the Jack Russell had been her best pal for about 13 or 14 years, if not longer. She gave him ice cream on his birthday, fed him better than she fed herself, and treated that little fucker like royalty. On this night, Jack the Jack Russell emptied his old bladder on top of her bed.
Old mum took her best friend and carried him upstairs to the bathroom. She turned on the faucet in the tub and let the bottom fill with water. This was an old farm house that pumped its water from a well, and the water pressure was pretty mediocre. There was plenty of time to relax, catch her breath, and just chill the hell out while the water level slowly rose. But she didn’t. She took that pup by the scruff of his neck and held him underwater until he drowned. I don’t know if she looked away. I don’t know what emotions she felt as she did this, but drowning is not something that happens in an instant. I’m sure he struggled, kicking with all four feet and writhing against death until the life just went out of him, but she didn’t let up. At some point in this process she surely reminisced over all of the fond memories of little Jack the Jack Russell, but maybe to her memories aren’t as poignant or palpable. “Life just would have been easier if that dog had never been born,” I can hear her saying. Is it fair to assume that someone capable of killing her own deeply beloved dog might also have it in her to leave her kids in a hot car to boil and bake under the hot sun?
Who can say? After all, it is just a memory, and memories have a way of reshaping themselves to fit the molds we adopt. But I can say this: when she came back to the car that afternoon, her hair hadn’t been cut, she was carrying no bags, and looked a little shocked when she found us all standing there, very much alive, in the Woolworth’s parking lot.