I’ve heard the saying before that your earliest childhood memories are often the ones that will dart through your head at the end of your life. Just like Charles Foster Kane gasping out “Rosebud” on his deathbed, these are the things you take with you, the things you hold onto when nothing else is left. Though for me, it wouldn’t be the name of my juvenile snow sled.
I can remember a clear blue pool nestled in a shady hollow and me, screaming in half-terrified exhilaration as I sprinted off the diving board with stinging feet, my floaty-clad arms flailing jubilantly. I can remember bubble gum ice cream on a summer night, sitting at a red picnic table, crying from the brain freeze. I can remember going to the zoo with my grandfather and riding the carousel, sitting on a chipped-painted cheetah, spinning in endless circles as he held my tiny hand. I can remember my old hound dog Mason, his droopy eyes, his sloppy kisses. I can remember one time for curiosity’s sake pulling one of his long, black whiskers right out of his snout, and him just wincing and whimpering, and I feeling so guilty that I had caused him pain that I swore to never do it again.
I can remember complaining every time we had fish, I can remember spilling spaghetti sauce on myself every time I wore a white shirt. I can remember losing my first tooth and my night-shift working mother, instead of having me put it under my pillow for a dollar, tiredly taking my tooth and handing me a single bill, and me realizing that there was no tooth fairy. A piece of magic instantly gone forever.
And then things get murky, details lost in the gloom of those middle school years we all try so hard to forget. Well we finally did it and now there’s three years, four if you were still awkward as a high school freshman, that we can just shrug our shoulders at and say “eh, doesn’t matter.” And on the other side of that era, everything looks vastly different.
I’m at the pool, and it’s so hot I can feel myself sweating the moment I sit down but I recline gracefully on a lawn chair, oiling my skin to hasten the effects of future skin cancer. There is no swimming, there is no laughing and running around, there is only flirting with the lifeguard and cutting eyes maliciously at the other young teenage girls nearby. Ice cream is a thing of the past. I haven’t had refined sugar since I had baby teeth. Now I run three miles a day, staying in shape for when my cheerleading season starts back up.
I don’t even know directions to the zoo anymore. I haven’t thought about that merry-go-round in years. My mother has to beg me to call my grandparents to check in, which I rarely do because I’ve forgotten the pleasure of easily conversing with elderly relatives. What would I even say?
My old dog Mason died before I started 7th grade. I was at summer camp when it happened so I never even got to say goodbye. My dad buried him in the backyard, but when we moved to a new house, we left him behind. When we moved, the family dinners lost their frequency, just like my parents stopped pretending they liked each other so much. I can’t remember the last time I saw them kiss, or hold hands.
I’ve become an expert at making frozen dinners. Santa Claus, the Easter Bunny, and everyone else has made it to the does-not-exist list, along with unicorns, soulmates, and my letter from Hogwarts. I stopped liking Christmas when my first boyfriend broke up with me the day before winter break in the cafeteria with all our friends watching. The only holiday that still brings me joy is Thanksgiving, and that’s mainly because it’s the one day of the year when I allow myself to eat without counting every calorie I consume, forcing myself to stop at 1200.
I take myself very, very seriously. I date cool boys, I get into trouble with my friends and I never get caught. And I try to think back to when I was last happy and all I know is that it was in the days of overalls and pigtails. Back then I slept easy, woke up early on Saturdays just to watch cartoons, spent all my time outside, rode my bike barefoot, looked for pictures in the clouds, and dreamt big dreams.
I don’t know when the innocence died but there is such a disconnect between who I was and who I am now that I look in the mirror and I don’t even recognize the person staring back. These are not my eyes, these are not my hands. I feel trapped in a life that can never embody who I really am.
The reason Orson Welles transcribed onto paper that famous last word of his figment Citizen Kane is because it isn’t really about a bobsled at all. It is a memory of the last moment before everything in his life changed, forever.
Its been four more years and time has begun to make new life grow inside me. I can accept now that sometimes to seize the day, your hair is going to have to get wet. I’ve put on a pound or two or fifteen from some unhealthy eating but that’s okay, because I feel stronger, more firmly planted. I’ve gone to the zoo again to gawk at the gorillas, I’ve spent time playing with my new puppy. My parent’s sometimes fragile relationship is still a twisted knife for me, but I can see now the way they look at each other, the mutual respect, my father’s strong and gentle quietness uniquely complementing my mother’s boisterous spunk. I had the best Christmas in ages last year, a day spent with a sweet, caring guy who loves me better than I deserve and makes me believe in magic a little more every day.
I’m so far from where I want to be. I still care too much about outward appearances. I am still a perfectionist who beats myself down with ruthless words like “stupid” and “failure” every time I do something wrong. I still break down and I still feel all alone sometimes but I know that my best days aren’t behind me, and that my fondest memories are still before me. I have books to read, people to meet, and opportunities to take.
I don’t know where I’m going or how I’m going to get there, but I want it to be fully, unapologetically me running down that path, pure and free.