On the Ledge

By

On the Ledge
On the Ledge

I can no longer see the man’s face clearly, but I can still see my father’s. I hear my father talking softly to the man on the ledge, “Take it easy. Easy now. You don’t want to do this. Let me help you.” He eases up to the man, almost has his hands on his wrists, but a policeman rushes up. The man snatches his hands away from the outstretched hands of my father, and I watch as he back flips into space off the ledge of the Empire State Building. My family is in New York City for a vacation. It is July of 1964. I am eleven years old; old enough to wonder if witnessing this event is going to damage my psyche for the rest of my life.

Fast forward to March, 2009: I am 55 years old. I have just read a magazine article that challenges the veracity of our childhood memories. It states that just the act of recollection changes memories themselves, which leaves everyone’s childhood memories unreliable. This memory I trust, however, is in no small part due to the newspaper clipping I kept with my family’s picture in the paper. It details the suicide letter found in the man’s apartment, my father’s fruitless attempt to help and our eyewitness accounts of the incident. This memory is basically true.

This article has triggered another memory from my childhood. All of my adult life, I have entertained the memory of a neighbor who built a bomb shelter in my neighborhood. I remember it vividly. It was inside their gazebo, and they lifted the trap door to show me the ladder and the well-stocked shelves lining the wall. They had bottled water, canned food, batteries and flashlights. This was during the time of the Cuban missile crisis. During this time period, I also remember going in the hall at school and tucking my head into my lap during air-raid drills. The air raid drills are documented; I have seen pictures of other children my age tucked in the same position. The bomb shelter is another matter.

I recently saw the former neighbors at an anniversary party. I had not seen them for several years, but they keep in touch with my mother. I mentioned the bomb shelter to them, and they replied, “Bomb shelter? We didn’t have a bomb shelter.” I was shocked. I was absolutely convinced they had not only shown me the bomb shelter; they had invited my entire family over for refuge if the time came. They mentioned another family in the church who did have a bomb shelter. It didn’t matter. My memory is faulty, deficient and holey as a slice of Swiss cheese. I felt betrayed by my own mind.

My mother’s oldest sister has recently been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease. She has been aware that something was wrong for over a year now. She has difficulty bringing the names of things to her tongue, even though she can see the image in her mind. She has expressed her fears and concerns, and I have encouraged her to start keeping a journal and to write letters to her children and grandchildren while she is still able. Auntie has always been the well-schooled and well-tooled member of the family. She is highly regarded for her sense of style and ability to accessorize. She was valedictorian of her senior class and held down a prestigious position at the local shipyard. She supported her two children after divorcing her alcoholic husband, and she continued to work after she married her second husband until she reached retirement age. In recent years, my aunt, my mother and I have vacationed together several times, both in the mountains of Virginia and the beaches of Carolina.

My recent errant memory problem pales in contrast to what my aunt is now facing. I do worry, though. Does Alzheimer’s run in families? Is my bomb shelter fiasco an early sign? I’m not ready to undergo testing, but I do have less faith in my memory than I did before. That magazine article has made me question other childhood memories. Did Santa really appear at my front door on Christmas Eve? Did my sister actually color on my favorite baby doll’s face? (Yes, I have the baby doll.)

As Oprah likes to say, there is “one thing I know for sure.” I will help Auntie cling to her memories and enjoy her life in any way I can, just as I hold on to all the good things life has to offer. My childhood memories may be tarnished, and Auntie’s memories may be fading, but fate will have to pry our fingers off the ledge. Auntie and I are holding on to our memories and our lives with every ounce of energy we can summon. No back flips here.

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  • On the Ledge

    I can no longer see the man’s face clearly, but I can still see my father’s. I hear my father talking softly to the man on the ledge, “Take it easy. Easy now. You don’t want to do this. Let me help you.” He eases up to the man, almost has his hands on his wrists, but a policeman rushes up. The man snatches his hands away from the outstretched hands of my father, and I watch as he back flips into space off the ledge of the Empire State Building. My family is in New York City for a vacation. It is July of 1964. I am eleven years old; old enough to wonder if witnessing this event is going to damage my psyche for the rest of my life.

    Fast forward to March, 2009: I am 55 years old. I have just read a magazine article that challenges the veracity of our childhood memories. It states that just the act of recollection changes memories themselves, which leaves everyone’s childhood memories unreliable. This memory I trust, however, is in no small part due to the newspaper clipping I kept with my family’s picture in the paper. It details the suicide letter found in the man’s apartment, my father’s fruitless attempt to help and our eyewitness accounts of the incident. This memory is basically true.

    This article has triggered another memory from my childhood. All of my adult life, I have entertained the memory of a neighbor who built a bomb shelter in my neighborhood. I remember it vividly. It was inside their gazebo, and they lifted the trap door to show me the ladder and the well-stocked shelves lining the wall. They had bottled water, canned food, batteries and flashlights. This was during the time of the Cuban missile crisis. During this time period, I also remember going in the hall at school and tucking my head into my lap during air-raid drills. The air raid drills are documented; I have seen pictures of other children my age tucked in the same position. The bomb shelter is another matter.

    I recently saw the former neighbors at an anniversary party. I had not seen them for several years, but they keep in touch with my mother. I mentioned the bomb shelter to them, and they replied, “Bomb shelter? We didn’t have a bomb shelter.” I was shocked. I was absolutely convinced they had not only shown me the bomb shelter; they had invited my entire family over for refuge if the time came. They mentioned another family in the church who did have a bomb shelter. It didn’t matter. My memory is faulty, deficient and holey as a slice of Swiss cheese. I felt betrayed by my own mind.

    My mother’s oldest sister has recently been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease. She has been aware that something was wrong for over a year now. She has difficulty bringing the names of things to her tongue, even though she can see the image in her mind. She has expressed her fears and concerns, and I have encouraged her to start keeping a journal and to write letters to her children and grandchildren while she is still able. Auntie has always been the well-schooled and well-tooled member of the family. She is highly regarded for her sense of style and ability to accessorize. She was valedictorian of her senior class and held down a prestigious position at the local shipyard. She supported her two children after divorcing her alcoholic husband, and she continued to work after she married her second husband until she reached retirement age. In recent years, my aunt, my mother and I have vacationed together several times, both in the mountains of Virginia and the beaches of Carolina.

    My recent errant memory problem pales in contrast to what my aunt is now facing. I do worry, though. Does Alzheimer’s run in families? Is my bomb shelter fiasco an early sign? I’m not ready to undergo testing, but I do have less faith in my memory than I did before. That magazine article has made me question other childhood memories. Did Santa really appear at my front door on Christmas Eve? Did my sister actually color on my favorite baby doll’s face? (Yes, I have the baby doll.)

    As Oprah likes to say, there is “one thing I know for sure.” I will help Auntie cling to her memories and enjoy her life in any way I can, just as I hold on to all the good things life has to offer. My childhood memories may be tarnished, and Auntie’s memories may be fading, but fate will have to pry our fingers off the ledge. Auntie and I are holding on to our memories and our lives with every ounce of energy we can summon. No back flips here.

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3 Responses to “On the Ledge”

  1. melissa says:

    Ok – so perhaps I am a little biased. After all, you are my mom. But that was EXCELLENT! I am so proud of you!

  2. jane stephenson says:

    All I can say is “WOW”, you’ve done it again…another excellent article! I have always known you should put those marvelous thoughts on paper. Please keep writing, I love it!

    Love you,
    a fellow “WOW GIRL”
    Jane

  3. Kathy Frierson says:

    Couldn’t put your article down, Kim. It was exciting reading, and I enjoyed it very much. Can’t wait for the next one!

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