Other people remember their seventeenth and eighteenth and nineteenth birthdays as milestones, landmarks of adventure to be remembered longingly as they glide through their senior years. Not I. Even when prompted by hearing stories of someone else’s ‘coming of age,’ I don’t remember.
I don’t recall being part of a crowd, one of a dozen young people making love on the beach, against a backdrop of ice chests full of beer, absorbing the heat and scent of a huge driftwood campfire. Nor do I long to relive the experience of smoking my first joint in the company of a girl who willingly shared herself, her first time, with me. You can’t relive something that didn’t happen.
It’s not that such experiences have no appeal for me; it’s simply that as far as I know, they aren’t part of my early life repertoire. What little I remember about the time of my life when I should have been ‘coming of age’ is, by and large, dull and lifeless, lacking in most respects the excitement of youthful rebellion and blossoming adulthood.
When, recently, I watched a retrospective of the early 1970s on television, the open-mouthed kisses between eager strangers dancing in the streets seemed utterly foreign to me. The uninhibited mutual exploration of young bodies I saw on the screen did not take place where I lived, at least not in my presence. And I certainly was not party to it, though I do remember wishing for such things; my libido was, to the best of my knowledge, fairly typical.
I came of age in a time of personal repression and fragile self-esteem. I dared not hope to be part of the revolution I heard so much about. Sure, I had my share of flings involving young women, but they were not the unrestrained lust-fests I heard about (and hear about to this day) and so badly wanted. Mine were restrained lust-fests.
And then I grew up, at the speed of an excruciating crawl. Along the way, I required of myself that I forego exhilarating experiences in favor of a life better suited to someone unaccustomed to taking risks. In a nutshell, either I missed out on the rights of passage to which everyone else staked their claims or that mythical life-changing transition is, indeed, a myth.
An acquaintance, who’s writing a memoir, seems to have had an utterly different experience than did I. He writes of excitement and danger in exquisite detail. I do not even recall wishing for a more exciting life. I recall virtually nothing at all.
This absence of recollections is, at times, troubling. Did something horrific happen to me, something so terrible that, to cope, I erased a large swath of my life from memory? Hah! The years from birth to post-college no longer constitutes a “large swatch of my life,” do they? I should be content with recollections of my life after college. Or should I? Should any of us be content with recollections? Shouldn’t we focus, instead, on the here and now and what we can make of what’s left of our lives?
Before I launch into a philosophical argument about the value of memory versus experience, I should say that my memories of my early years have not simply evaporated. I remember incidents from my junior high and high school years, but I don’t recall the context. I remember my infatuation with my high school biology teacher, Cookie Jones. I recall drinking beer with friends and then hanging my head out the back window of a station wagon, throwing up on cars following close behind. I remember my fight with Mark Westerman, whose blow to my lower lip resulted in a flood of blood soaking my shirt. For some reason, my one and only junior high date with Margaret Embry, when I took her to see Fantastic Voyage, remains with me. But outside these snapshots, and several others, I don’t have a complete picture of my youth. And before junior high and high school? Almost nothing. Occasionally, my mind’s eye will reveal a flash of experience, but not the context. From my years at Montclair Elementary, I remember making fun of, and then befriending, a little boy whose skin was blue, the result of some sort of heart condition, I think. And I recall being a member of the Safety Patrol, a group of students who served as crossing guards at crosswalks near the school; we carried long bamboo poles with a yellow flag attached to one end and held the poles across the street to stop cars while students crossed the street as they walked to school. I wonder whether that aspect of my childhood continues in schools today?
But back to the philosophical discussion. What value do memories have? Surely, they serve as reminders of things we’ve learned, things that are valuable as we live our lives day to day; I recall being burned when I touched a hot stove, the recollection of which serves a useful purpose today. But otherwise, what purpose do memories serve, really? Does it matter than I do not recall much of my youth? I mean, I might as well not have experienced my life from age five to twenty, save a few snippets that remain with me today. Does it matter? I honestly cannot say. Only people whose memories are far more complete than mine might answer, or try to answer, that question.
Judging from the number of times I’ve thought about, and written about, the paucity of memories from my youth, I have to say I’m bothered by it. But I suppose there’s no solution; if I haven’t been able to piece together my youth after sixty-two years, I doubt I’ll be able to do it during the next sixty-two years. Yet, maybe I’ll try to capture those fleeting moments of memory when they flash across my mind by writing them down. Over time, perhaps I can stitch those snippets together chronologically in some fashion to reconstruct my early years> Then I might decide it was a worthwhile endeavor, or that it was not.