I wrote Birdie yesterday, though it had been bumping around in my head for a few days before, and that memory has been with me for nearly 50 years (gasp). It is mostly true, though I added details that seemed right but I can’t be sure of. I know Birdie was overdressed, but I am not sure what she was wearing. A buttoned up sweater seemed right. As I was writing that part, a purple fleece worn by a little girl my daughter’s age kept imposing itself on my memory. The little girl was in our playgroup and had black hair and dark eyes like Birdie. I’m sure that’s why the vision of her in the fleece kept superimposing itself on Birdie kneeling in the leaf pile. But there was no fleece in 1964 (or was it 63?), and purple wasn’t the ubiquitous color for girls then that it is now.*
I can feel that fleece under my fingers, the nubbiness from frequent washings, and fraying threads of pink coming loose at its edges. And then I remember that the little girl’s mother gave it to us as a hand me down, and that both my daughters wore it, so I touched it a lot. It had big round buttons and a wide collar. It tried hard to insert itself into my memory of Birdie in the leaves.
What other memories superimposed themselves on that story that I have accepted as true? I invented the feeling of jumping in the leaf pile and feeling more air than leaves. I do remember feeling a vague disappointment that the leaves weren’t as soft as they looked, but maybe that’s from later leaf pile jumping, maybe even a later generation of jumping with nieces and nephews and my own children.
And I remembered something when the piece was mostly written that would have changed the story, and decided not to include it. I remembered that Birdie had just washed her hair, and wasn’t allowed to play in the leaves. A concession was made so that she could be part of the melee of children and put herself carefully in the pile. Unlike what I wrote, she had probably jumped in leaves before. She was being careful to please her mother and not get her freshly washed hair dirty. I remember feeling sorry for her that she couldn’t jump in with abandon like the rest of us.
And I think I defaulted back to feeling sneering towards her very quickly, despite how cute and small she looked. I don’t want to explore the darkness of the animosity between our families, which I never understood, but adhered to. I remember our fathers shouting at each other, and my father muttering about her father. They were both volatile college professors. Their fighting was undignified and terrifying. My father was an alcoholic and tempestuous. But I knew where my loyalty lay.
Another girl named Martha moved next door to Birdie and lived there for two years, for third and fourth grade. Martha was in my grade and I was thrilled to have an ally across the street. I vaguely remember us taunting Birdie, but Birdie shrugging it off. So we stopped. Martha turned on me in fourth grade and found another best friend. She and her new friend taunted me. Then Martha moved away.**
I don’t love the term creative nonfiction, but that is the genre I work in. I make things up around the edges of memory, and sometimes memory catches up. Sometimes I write down the corrections. Then I wonder what parts I can trust. I could call it all fiction, but I like the challenge of shaping real experiences, even if my memory tricks me. That experience is true too.
And I like to think, I think it’s true, that that sharp, sharp memory of Birdie with shining hair kneeling carefully in our leaf pile kept me from being truly cruel to her. That quick vision of her, outside my need to feel superior, held me back. I knew what it was to be teased, and I knew she wasn’t really an enemy. And she gave as good as she got. We did end up as friends. I hold onto that.
*I think now that Birdie wore a red windbreaker, zipped part way up, over a dark turtleneck. But who knows?
**Memory is tricky. As I write this I realize I got the grade wrong for my first post, A My Name is Alice. I was finishing second grade, not third, because Martha was not at the party because she had not moved in yet.