Memories of my childhood are rare. For reasons unknown to me, much of the stuff of my childhood seems to have simply vanished from my brain. I do have memories, but it’s quite possible the majority of those few are not real memories created from experience but, rather, from repeated recounting of the experience by others who were there. I don’t doubt the memories, whether original or reproduced by being repeated told about events, are legitimate. It’s the blank spaces in between, where no memories seem to exist, that sometimes make me think I didn’t have a childhood at all, but emerged fully formed as a semi-functional adult. That can’t be true, of course, because I have a few memories of my teen years, though they, too, have never been as clear as I think they should be.
An early memory I know did not arise from seeing photos or hearing stories is of me crying and pleading to travel with my father, who was leaving on one of his weekly trips around south Texas to sell lumber to lumber yards. Petra, a Mexican woman who my parents hired as a maid and to provide child care, restrained and comforted me as my father walked out to his car, parked in front of the house. I don’t remember much else about that scene. But I remember something else about Petra. She used to make leche quemada, a sweet dessert consisting of condensed milk and sugar and not much else, boiled on a stove top until it was thick and a rich beige color. We moved from Brownsville to Corpus Christi when I was five years old, so I know that memory is almost as old as I am.
Experiences and memories, though, are not necessarily what make us what we are. Maybe we can develop—for lack of a better term—sympathetic memories based on what we think we know of others’ experiences. Perhaps, for example, I know more about Petra than my recollections reveal. Perhaps I heard her tell stories of her life in Matamoros and the experience of crossing into Brownsville to work. Maybe that explains my otherwise inexplicable sense of empathy with people struggling to get by along the Texas-Mexico border.
When I read descriptions of a dust-swept life along the South Texas border or see films about migrants living in tiny cardboard shacks along the river, I feel as thought I know that life and I have experienced that life. I neither know nor have I experienced that life, yet something inside me—possibly Petra’s stories, if she told them—makes me feel I have. My emotional connection to the people who live along the border, people who struggle to eke out a hard life of simple survival from an unforgiving land and unforgiving people, is strong but seemingly without a rational basis, unless my guess about Petra’s stories is correct. For whatever reason, I feel a kinship with Mexicans who carved out a life along the north side of the border, working hard just to put a little food on the table and an inadequate roof over their heads.
While I’ve searched my memory for recollections of desolate life along the Texas-Mexico border, down along the Rio Grande, anything that would help explain that emotional connection I feel for border life, I can’t find anything concrete. I have to depend on conjecture to explain it. Conjecture is not nearly as satisfying as fact. I suppose I’ll continue to wonder why I feel this strong sense of connection with the border.