When I was nine, each boy in my Cub Scout den received the same bag of stuff—sponges, rods, colored pipe cleaners, yarn, felt, and other craft materials—and the den mother gave us two weeks to make something of them.
Memory works its own sort of magic. I’m not sure why I remember that bag’s weight, the way light penetrated its walls when I peeked inside, the shadows when I looked in later. Perhaps I’m inventing. I’ve opened many more bags, but the moment seems true and fresh.
The bag sat on my bureau all week long. I still see it. Maybe it survives in memory because the apprehension I felt is now so familiar. I needed to make something wonderful from its contents. I needed to stand out.
And win. The den mother would decide who used the pieces most imaginatively, and I thought that should be me. Every other boy may have felt the same, but it mattered more to me. They would solve the challenge, and I would transcend it. I was supposed to be talented at things like that.
Memory doesn’t disappear so much as erode, soil leaving to reveal outbreaks of shelved strata. Particulars vanish to expose what’s beneath and behind them. What I am is in the nine year-old, waiting to be seen.
I was so apprehensive that, after a week, I’d spent more time dreaming of winning than doing anything to win. The pendulum paused and swung back—I began to wonder if I could make anything at all.
My mother reminded me of my task as though I’d forgotten it, and when I told her I had no plan and no idea how to begin, she told me let my creation take its own shape. “It’s supposed to be fun,” she said.
Dreams and memory overlap. The hard edges of experience soften and fuzz from what they were, but, in their place, events become more essentially themselves. To others they may bear no resemblance to reality—two people never remember a common experience exactly the same way—but they communicate deeper accuracy.
My father finally made my project for me. My mother must have voiced frustration, and, complimenting his artistic nature, compelled him to compel me. Dad and I sat on my bed, the bag’s emptied contents between us, and he asked about my ideas. I said “Circus” and that’s what my materials became. In a hour’s time, two sponges topped two rods with yarn strung between them, the pipe cleaner tightrope walker stepping from one sponge platform, a rod in his hands to keep him balanced, yarn netting beneath him, a pipe cleaner ringmaster beneath that, and a circus menagerie waiting on the periphery.
A parent hijacking a project is cliché—the child participates, observes, then leaves the room to make a sandwich and watch TV. I’ve seen and read it one hundred times. Yet in the play titled “Memories of My Dad,” this moment is a key scene, one of few starring just my father and me.
Somehow memory convinces us. Recollection becomes reality, as delusion aligns details along a bias that points every image the same direction.
The most vivid part of my memory was my disappointment when my circus did not win. I’m not sure how it became my circus, but it was miles ahead of my den-mates’ sloppy and incoherent constructions. When she announced the winner, I sunk. For the first time I understood hope and disappointment are directly proportional. Maybe the den mother saw the project wasn’t actually mine, but, though my father really lost, I lost.
In fables, outcomes save you from reiteration. You learn. In life, moments can seem to bleed into what’s next, a pattern set for the first time. But what if that’s exactly wrong? What if memory is the opposite of reality, making the past fit what has happened since, an erosion more purposeful than we can believe?
Maybe the past is inescapable because what we believe happened, did.