When my family sits around the littered remains of a holiday dinner and drinks coffee from the thin china cups we use once a year, we tell stories tightly woven together by time’s erasure and creation of memory. My brother burying my mother’s real pearl earrings in a treasure chest in the grass, my father sitting with a cowboy astride a horse, a photograph that later arrived C.O.D. by mail, and my mother clutching a porcelain doll she received from Santa the Christmas her father passed away. Those are the stories that belong to them, but when I recount my memory that I almost died when I was seven, my father shakes his head and pushes his chair away from the table. He doesn’t believe my stories. He smiles indulgently at my mother as if they agree. But there is one memory my mother and I share, and it is the truth. Why she doesn’t speak up and confirm my story, I am not sure. Perhaps the habits of the past still cling to her like fragile paper whose folds are too delicate to open.
“Play on the swing set,” my mother said. “Your brother will be up soon.” She looked tired as she smoothed my hair. She was responsible for so much back then. Not only did she have to raise two children, but she had to give dinner parties, and keep the house so it looked like a magazine. And, she had to be a wife. In 1973, that was a job in itself.
I waited until she went into the house and wandered to the neat edge of our property where my father had fertilized, watered and mowed his piece of land. I lifted my shoe with the sensible leather laces and stepped over the strict green line. I did not look back. I trailed my fingers through the swaying strands that arched over my head. I felt my heart drumming in my chest as I pushed further and further into the wild growth. Grey grasshoppers whirred crazily past my path, tangled in the skirt of my dress, and were like light bits of rough paper as I swept them off. A young black garter snake slithered under my foot just as I lifted my shoe. Startled, I stopped.
The meadow ended at a teasing creek that bounced and jostled past rocks strewn haphazardly in the water. Painted Lady butterflies, orange and black wings fanning in the baking heat, sunned themselves on the dry tops of boulders. Mayfly, thousands of them, danced in a tight swarm above the water unaware that their life cycle would end in a few short hours.
The creek was low and there was enough room for me to stand on a log and peer into the water. Concentrating, I leaned my arm in up to the shoulder to touch a brilliant red leaf trapped under the surface. The fall was slow. The log rolled as my weight shifted with my arm, and I went face first into the creek. It must have been a still hole of water I fell in. I didn’t hit bottom, not right away. But, soon, the heaviness of my shoes and the weight of my soaked dress bore down on me. Then, I remember, there was peacefulness.
I floated on my back and looked overhead at the canopy of trees leaning towards each other whispering and praying. The pale blue sky was framed by yellow aspen leaves, futile bare branches, and the green of a hill far away. My eyes moved side to side watching Emperor dragonflies with iridescent green and violet wings flit and hover above my face. The gentle water gurgled in my ears and my hands bobbed in the current. I think about it now, and I must have been terrified. I think too of how alone I was. I think last of how I might have drowned. But I didn’t. Finally, my small, frantic fingers found a branch and I pulled myself out of the creek.
I howled silently like babies do when they are so stunned by pain or fear they cannot make a sound. Stumbling, I ran through the grass, the blades tearing at my legs, my eyes blurred with tears and mucky water. I found my mother.
She shushed me, stripping the muddy clothes from my body. She drew a bath and washed my hair, rinsing it carefully by cupping her hand so the soap would not run down into my eyes. She dressed me again and laid me down on my bed. As I fell asleep, I heard my brother’s wail as he woke from his nap. My mother’s patient footsteps slipped past my door.
And that is all I remember. When I talk about the day I almost died when I was seven, my father shakes his head. “It didn’t happen,” he says. But I see it in the picture of me standing proudly in front of the yellow school bus in my new blue Montgomery Ward dress. The watercolor sky, the church of trees, my hair floating like fallen straw on water, it is all there.