“Remembrance of Things Past” is the title of a Marcel Proust work (I have not read) in which the bite of a madeleine cookie (which are delicious) brings back a flood of memories. Many, many pages of them.
I’ve been emotionally off-balance all day, wanting to buy a bunch of random, mostly useless stuff online, or eat. These are both activities that I have used as coping mechanisms. Bad coping mechanisms, but it’s what I do instead of the family tradition of alcohol, or doing recreational drugs.
A friend sent me a picture of Niagara Falls from 1969, the year the American side was shut off so they could examine it and perhaps clean out some of the debris from centuries of erosion to preserve the flow.
She shared it saying, “You were there, right?” I looked at it, and commented back about my dad and his love of big engineering projects, like canals and lock systems. My folks took a cruise through the Panama Canal and he was disappointed because they went through in the middle of the night and didn’t get to see anything. I also mentioned that there had been some personal, lasting trauma from that trip.
I was 7 or 8. It was the summer of 1969. The falls were “shut off” from June to December, so I think we went in late summer (we were camping when Apollo 11 landed on the moon, and my younger sister had been born at the end of May, so August seems about right). We had been to Niagara before in 1967. During that trip, we went through the Cave of the Winds (a boardwalk behind the American Falls). I made family history by complaining to my mother how much I hated it. She tried to get me to stop by saying something like “Stop that. Daddy paid a lot of money for this.” My six year old mouth replied, “I don’t care how much Daddy paid for it. I hate it.”
My mouth has made a lot of family history, come to think of it.
Anyway, on the 1969 trip, we were on the Canadian side in some kind of big building with kiosks. I got separated from my parents and siblings. Just looked up and didn’t see them. I don’t remember if I called for them. I remember being utterly terrified. Like borderline “pee your pants” terrified. I remember thinking I would never see them again. I was bawling. I don’t remember anyone trying to help me, either.
I went to one of the kiosks (a jewelry counter) and I remember telling the very nice ladies that I was lost. I gave them my name and they paged my father over the loudspeaker. My brother came to collect me.
We moved from Brattleboro, Vermont to Rutland, Vermont in November 1968. Before the actual move, I had a dream where I woke up in the old house all alone. Everyone had gone on without me. I woke up in tears. I was sharing my older sister’s room that night, and tried to tell her about me dream, but she said something like she thought it was stupid.
My family’s reaction, when I rejoined them in the Niagara Falls incident, was to make fun of me. In fact, this has been ongoing, my brother especially delighting in singing “Lost in Canada” to the old Canada Dry jingle.
Here’s the thing: my family loved dealing in humor. If you were funny, if you could come up with a fast zinger, you were a star, regardless of whether it hurt feelings. There was a deep vein of cruelty, and I confess to having done my share. Somewhere in my twenties, however, I stopped bringing up the old errors and misdeeds.
Here’s the thing: while there was no physical trauma, the incident has had a lasting effect. If I am out with a group, especially if it’s something where the members might split up and go separate ways, I am on edge the whole time, unless I’m holding the car keys. I do not trust that I will be missed.
Back in 2005 when I was training to work for a due diligence firm (not Bohan), the trainers and I (because none of the “hot” girls wanted to go with them) went to a bar on the Pacific Coast Highway. They weren’t happy about having only me join, and when I wen to the ladies room, they ditched me. I searched the bar with a clenched stomach and a bitter taste in my mouth because, I had been abandoned (by a couple of douchebags, but still…). I had enough money to get a cab back to the hotel. I’ve never seen or spoken to them since, and that’s fine, but I was having flashbacks to being 7 and feeling abandoned.
My friend’s innocent post about the falls (she had no way of knowing) triggered the flashbacks. I spent the rest of the day trying to focus on work when I was unwillingly remembering crying at the jewelry counter, all the mockery, the two guys ditching me at the bar, all of it.
I have unhealthy coping mechanisms I’ve been trying to get rid of, emotional eating and emotional shopping. I had to fight all day (and days later, I’m still fighting) the urge to stuff myself, to buy whatever caught my fancy on Amazon, to cry until I was dehydrated. I’ve said it before, I’m not a good crier. It’s loud, it’s ugly, it’s feral, and growing up, I was told that my tears were “crocodile tears” and not genuine. Thus the unhealthy coping.
Why am I posting this? Because I haven’t posted anything in a while, because maybe sharing will help me, or maybe it’ll help someone else to realize that the reason they don’t feel okay is a subconscious memory of pain making itself known.
As I was thinking back on this incident, a new angle occurred to me about getting lost that I hadn’t considered. At the various times this story was recounted over the dinner table, no one ever said anything about noticing I was missing. There was never “We looked around and you were gone.” And never “Your mother and I were so glad to get you back.” Never once did anyone indicate that they cared. No “you must have been so scared.” Just my father with, “Mr. Thatcher, please come get your daughter at the jewelry counter” as he laughed and my brother with that stupid fucking “Lost in Canada.” Was it a cover-up of uncomfortable emotions? I don’t know, but given the behavior around the incident, I suspect not.
And that, I think, is the core fear: abandonment. Not just “I got separated, but I came back” but people walking away from me and not regretting it. Being left alone.
The irony being is that, while I’ve lived among people, I have never yoked my life to someone else’s. There is a defensive element to this isolation: if I do not get close to you, you cannot abandon me.
I’ve managed to get past the urge to eat/shop today, although I canceled an order from Amazon of a photo drone and Air Pods. Toys I didn’t need. In food terms, it’s like putting those 10 Oreos back in the bag I just tore open. It’s progress.
Will there be a time when this memory doesn’t hurt? I don’t know. It’s been 51 years already, and the pain has gone underground to drive me to cope without realizing what’s bothering me. But, now that I know about it, maybe its poisonous power is now gone.