Writing exercise recalls forgotten memories

By Paula Damon

Many years ago, when I was a newspaper reporter, I attended writing a National Federation of Press Women writing workshop in Kansas City.

Paula Damon

Paula Damon

In the class, we were required to set aside the unbiased writing our profession demanded and quickly adopt a biased approach toward the stories within us.

Using a subjective style begged uninhibited articulation of internal dialogues and buried accounts of bygone days.

The workshop facilitator defined the timed writing exercise as “stream of consciousness.”

We were to journal non-stop for five minutes, not lifting our pens or censoring our thoughts.

Much like a car race announcer calling, “Gentleman, start your engines,” the instructor prompted us to complete this sentence: “I remember when…” after which a silent resistance hung over us as heavy morning dew.

Conscience of the ticking clock and without premeditation, I pushed my pen across an unblemished page of paper, hoping it would act as a vessel that would magically channel memories.

Slowly, the exercise peeled away untold layers of a well-preserved experience rooted in my childhood.

As a child, I remember Sunday drives with my family.

I remember analyzing degrees of newness as we traveled further and further away.

I remember my throat tightening and swallowing hard as ubiquitous unfamiliarity replaced sameness.

I remember new sights as we rounded mountains through Central Pennsylvania.

I remember holding my breath while trying to read road signs.

I remember interpreting my parents’ arguments that spilled into the back seat.

I remember sitting there, pressed in with my siblings: thigh-to-thigh, arm-to-arm, shoulder-to-shoulder.

After what seemed like an hour of writing, the workshop leader chimed, “Time’s up,” and then invited us to begin the second five-minute assignment.

“Only this time, the journal prompt is ‘I don’t remember.’ You may begin.”

Sighing deeply before a belabored pause, I forced myself to recall what I didn’t remember.

I don’t remember how much time I spent dallying after the bell rang one snowy afternoon, dismissing my best friend, Bonnie, and me from our third-grade classroom.

I don’t remember if it was the first snow of the season in October or one of many that had already fallen in December.

I don’t remember how many blocks from school we were on our routine walk home when we stopped on a city sidewalk.

I don’t remember the level of intrigue, causing us to leisurely kneel at an iron grate that was tightly laid over a window well of a century-old house along the way.

I don’t remember if it was a stranger’s dwelling or one of an acquaintance.

With fists stuffed with snow, I don’t remember why we were so taken, completely mesmerized by the repetitive motion of grating and shoving, circling and smoothing snow into the well.

I don’t remember being bothered by my mittens that had hardened into crusty armor or by my numbing fingers that had grown thick and red.

I don’t recall if Bonnie and I had conversation or carried on in silence.

I don’t know how long we stayed there on frozen knees, pawing over those iron bars. I don’t remember dusk looming.

When our play was done and rose to our feet, I can’t figure out why I let out deep sonorous sighs or why my head felt airy and trance like.

I don’t remember if I cleaned up by clapping my hands and dusting off my coat before heading home.

I don’t remember my frozen rump awkwardly carrying my stiff legs as pegs dragging along my feet, which had lost almost all feeling.

I don’t know how many streets Bonnie and I crossed or if there was any traffic to speak of.

I can’t recall at all our trek over dimly lit streets and down darkening alleyways. I don’t remember seeing light pour from my childhood abode, a sturdy brick Craftsman at the corner of Third and Spruce.

I don’t know how long I hesitated while standing at the front door before turning the tarnished brass doorknob. I don’t remember crossing the threshold after my long haul home.

I don’t know what caused the worn look on my mother’s worried face or recall the yardstick she hid with a sweaty grip behind her back.

I don’t at all remember that spanking.

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