Memory

When I was eight years old my mother cut a piece out of a dress I had been longing to wear to a friend’s birthday party. She grabbed a pair of sewing scissors and sliced the part of the dress that would have covered my heart if, as she said, I had had one. “You’re killing me,” she always howled, eyes squeezed shut, fists clenched, when I disobeyed her or demanded an explanation she couldn’t supply or nagged for something she wasn’t going to give me. “Any minute now I’ll be dead on the floor,” she screamed that day, “you’re so heartless.” Needless to say, I did not go to the party. Instead I cried for a week and grieved over the incident for fifty years.

“How could you do that to a child?” I asked in later years, once when I was eighteen, again when I was thirty, yet again when I was forty-eight.

The odd thing was that each time I raised the incident my mother would say, “That never happened.” I’d look at her then, more scornfully each time, and let her know in no uncertain terms that I was going to go on reminding her of this crime against childhood until one of us was dead.

As the years passed and I regularly brought up the memory of the dress cutting, she just as regularly denied its veracity. So we went on, with me not believing her, and not believing her, and not believing her. Then one day, quite suddenly, I did. On a cold spring afternoon in my late fifties, I stepped off the Twenty-Third Street crosstown bus at Ninth Avenue, and as my foot hit the ground I realized that whatever it was that had happened that day more than half a century ago, it wasn’t at all what I remembered happening.

Migod, I thought, palm clapped to forehead, it’s as though I were born to manufacture my own grievance. But why? And hold on to it for dear life. Again, why? When my hand came away from my forehead, I tipped an invisible hat to Leonard. Me too, I said silently to him. “So old and still with so little information.”

Vivien Gornick, The Odd Woman and the City: A Memoir

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