I was too young to remember 9/11. I was too young, and yet I seem to remember a tiny scrap of something; it’s almost too brief and too blurry, like the tenebrous image of a polaroid picture just before its contents take form.
I’m in the car, on the street that turns into my neighborhood. I can see the sun shining through the windshield, which is spotted with dried rain and dust. My mother’s voice comes on, softly, as if the radio of my memory is set to the lowest volume. “I need to pick your sister up from Kindergarten early today,” I think she says.
How can I remember this? The authenticity of the recollection doesn’t hold up when studying the facts. I was three. Actually, I had just turned three two months prior. It sounds unlikely that I could remember a snapshot of my life that far back in my memory, at an age when I didn’t even know what the word ‘memory’ meant. And yet, I hold onto this seemingly fictional fragment; the truth of its existence is fueled by my need for it to be real. I wouldn’t dare verify the reality of this moment with my mother, who is the only witness to my story. She would take it away; she would confirm the fear that has been haunting me for years: the fear that my childhood memories only exist as wisps of erratic emotion instead of solid images that have color and shape and form. My past blends into a series of questions without answers:
What year was that again? Who were my friends? What was I like? Who was I?
The version of the younger self that I recognize is built from the memories of others:
You were like this as a kid. I remember when you did this. This was who you were.
I seem to have lived two lives. One begins with the angst of middle school: glasses to contacts, J.K. Rowling to Stephanie Meyer, training bras to padded ones with underwire. I can give a firsthand account of my life from this point on. I lived it, and I know I did: my memories are my proof. I can talk about these memories in the first person and not feel like I’m lying. I can be reliable and truthful. I can be myself.
The second one came sometime before the acne and the shaved legs and the foundation lines and the two-piece swimsuits. It came sometime before first person pronouns and personal accounts and stories filled with detail and color and life.
She came before. She was eerily confidant, they say. She was Cinderella in the preschool play, and they let her improvise her own scene because she wanted to. (They wouldn’t let her kiss the prince, though. Hugs only.) She had the first Harry Potter book read by Kindergarten, and she loved to gather the other students around her and read to them. Showoff. In the first grade, she stood up and told the whole class that her daddy was voting for the two Johns, not Bush. She was crazy and fun and loud and full of sass and laughter and innocence. They say.
But she is not me. She is Phoebe, on the carousel, reaching for the ring, and I am Holden: jaded and lost, looking for the little girl with the smudged purple glasses who refused to play Foursquare during recess because she was too busy reading, thank you very much. But that girl exists in their eyes, in their memories, and they try to tell me that we are the same person, but I don’t believe them. She is like a snowglobe, the one someone else bought for you when they visited that place you’ve never been. It sits on your desk in your bedroom, collecting dust, and when you look at it, you remember the friend and the stories they told you of their trip, but that’s all it is: A representation of a memory you never experienced.
So I continue to grasp at this mental picture of that infamous day. The significance of the memory isn’t that it’s linked with 9/11, although I suppose that’s why I choose to remember it. I cling to it not because of its importance in history, not because it’s rooted in substantiality, not because its contents hold any significance to who I was or who I’ve become, but because when I close my eyes, I am not looking at the three-year-old in the back seat: I am her. Her eyes and mine share the same gaze, our pronouns match, and our stories are linked. True or false, fact or fiction, it is our memory: untainted, unbiased, and unbroken.
Non-fiction piece by Mallory Miller