LORENZO: O dear discretion, how his words are suited!
The fool hath planted in his memory
An army of good words, and I do know
A many fools, that stand in better place,
Garnished like him, that for a tricksy word
Defy the matter.
William Shakespeare (The Merchant of Venice. Act III, Scene V)
MY YOUNGEST SISTER has been not so much reinventing her childhood as inventing it, with very little of the original being considered. Poor thing wants something worth telling a psychoanalyst (not that she’d know what analysis is, or anything about Freud or Jung ... not even their names) without actually going to a professional in that field. She has told me that she has no intention of speaking to any health-care worker about her past, present or dreams for the future; she just wants the medication she’s taken for decades. Offers of cognitive therapy are declined: She doesn’t want to know. However, she feels compelled to chat about those things that come to mind. (An aunt of mine had ECT, and told me that as she recovered old pictures and memories seemed to float up to the surface, which she found rather pleasant.)
Actually, as I am five years older than this sister, I have a pretty good handle on her life. I remember her being born (I remember our mother’s morning sickness!) and the next fifteen or so years after that. I remember when she was invited to drop out of school. Despite hardships of a financial nature, and the emotional pressures of having an absent father and a present, but rather loopy, mother, we muddled by quite well. We had a house with a garden, we had a dock on the harbour (in Bermuda), and we had more friends than we could keep up with. We had music and, in moderation after about 1960, we had television. We went to the cinema regularly, the Saturday shows could be seen for a florin, and that included sweets of some sort. A florin is 10P, which is hardly worth bending over to pick up if you drop the coin in the street these days.
My sister did not excel at school, but, to her great credit, she worked steadily most of her life and was never fired from a job. We were talking the other evening (on the telephone) about teachers at the school we both attended (so did our sister and one of our brothers) and how one, Mrs Lorna Harriott, was key to starting us reading, reading almost compulsively. Both of my sisters, like me, are never without a stack of books.
My youngest sister tells me that she can read anything (she likes true crime, especially involving child abuse and serial rapists and killers) and within a few days she can no longer recall the book title and author, the plot, the theme, the characters. I’m the opposite, I carry words and lines from things I read forty (and more) years ago about with me and take great pleasure in revisiting them in my mind, and in rereading in part, or completely, books that made my days. They made my years, my life. There is something to be said for having a mind that (apparently) erases what one reads in under a week: one can reread the same books and rediscover them completely, as one enjoyed them the very first time, not knowing the storyline, the outcome. Incidentally, my sister retains little or nothing of films and television programmes. She has favourite actors and entertainers, but it is facial recognition and she’d be hard-pressed to catalogue their work. I have never heard my sister quote from a book, or make a reference to a famous speech (real or invented by a novelist). It’s curious.
Recently my sister asked me the name of one of our neighbours in Bermuda, as she’d been wondering if that neighbour might have been enticing her to visit as my sister walked home from the bus stop after school. She thought the lady had given her mashed bananas on toast. I thought that odd. It got odder. My sister wondered if the neighbour had had a son. Even odder, and disturbing, my sister wondered aloud if she might have been sexually abused or molested as a child, and simply didn’t remember it. “How could I find out?” she wondered. My reply was that after reading hundreds of books about abused children, she was starting to believe that it was in some way normal, or awfully likely, hardly rare. She was feeling left out. I wondered if I should mention psychotherapy! I didn't.
This week, three things from three calls.
My sister tells me she sorts and stores her clothing by colour. Interesting. It suggests that when she feels blue, she could dress from head to foot (Alice band to slippers) in blue. Is there a hyphen in anal-retentive? Has she heard of OCD? My youngest brother once had a Sri Lankan housekeeper, a fellow, probably a doctor or lawyer in real life, who arranged all the items in my brother’s kitchen cupboards and fridge and freezer by colour. That could have been inventive behaviour, to be annoying. Or he might have simply been bored silly at pushing a Hoover around twelve or more hours a day to live in a tiny, shared room.
One day my sister called to tell me that she was thinking back on schooldays when she was a member of the school’s Brownie troop. Running around the playing fields in her uniform. I had to break the bad news to her: the school had no extra-curricular activities, no Brownies or Scouts, and we were not permitted to wear anything but our school uniform. Moreover, I knew that she’d never been a Brownie or Girl Guide or Scout. It may be, over forty years later, she wishes that she had been a Brownie (healthier than wishing to have been molested!) and has invented that part of her past.
This morning’s call concerned a film that she remembered seeing decades ago, she wanted to know if I knew the title of it, as she wanted to see it again. I asked who was in the film, and she thought it starred John Wayne.
“It had an unhappy ending,” she noted. “Everybody died of the Blue Bonnet Plague.”
“The Blue Bonnet Plague.”
She’d actually said that. I wondered if she meant the flowers that Lady Bird Johnson had been so fond of, or the margarine. I resisted the temptation to ask.
“I haven’t a clue,” I replied.
No doubt my sister thinks I have a brain like a sieve.