My brother and I fought over the dishrag stole when playing church, the young girl I was unaware of irony, of the impossibility of my wanting to be the priest this time, not just the altar boy. The dark brown coffee table we had once slid up and down on our stomachs turned altar with a few of our mother’s good napkins, and somewhere our parents had accrued an intricately covered metal bowl that served as a rough approximation of what should hold the body of Christ. Grape juice, of course, could be drunk in great gulps from our simple plastic cups. But always the argument – who was able to transform the host, held high in prayer, and who would ring the bell? Do this in memory.
Never would we have performed these rituals if my mother was home. Sacrilege. But our summer sitter wasn’t Catholic, and she was of an age where our entertaining ourselves for even a short time would have been appreciated. I remember her in the dining room, near hologram of ponytail and back bent over something – books, magazines? – on the table. Her presence meant we were on the younger side of elementary school, old enough to be attending our monthly religious education classes, young enough to not mind spending more than our allotted Saturday evening hour at Mass.
Word for word, we could recite the Eucharistic prayers that we had heard since our infancies. Celebrant or congregant, we spoke of sacrifice and salvation in our living room, my brother giving me the chance to serve our understanding of god through acts not open to me in the Church. I think I am right in saying that our being raised Catholic gave my brother and I an appreciation of community and of observance. How he grew away from his baptism into a different expression of the Christian religion, I do not know. But by my confirmation, the Magdalene best expressed my understanding of faith. He that is without sin among you, let him first cast a stone at her.
My father and mother taught me to cast a line one summer off a pontoon on a middle Minnesota lake. Leech. Cass or Blackduck. The water was so clear, you could see to the bottom at certain depths. Fish and water plants waffled the sandy bottom. The sunnies or crappies shimmered, their small bodies silver in the sunpools. I wore a white hooded sweatshirt under my bright orange preserver. My brother sat nearby, tanned and smiling. He hadn’t yet lost his upper front tooth in a game of elementary parachute. After, he didn’t smile for years, his silver tooth a stigma. But this day, both teeth were broad and white, a pair. The neck of his preserver rode so high, it seemed ready to toss off his baseball cap.
The rod was mine, meant for small hands, maybe even new for our family vacation. Did I let go as the twang of string swung by? Did my mother, my father? The fishing rod sailed its arc and sank quickly. We could see it in its new home, bottomed and tantalizingly within reach, but no one dared to get it. My father had his arm in a cast from a softball slide go awry. My mother’s ears got infected if submerged. I, too young. My brother, just old enough but still afraid. Not one person on the boat perfect. The water was calm as the sun sent its color skimming lake top.
Today, I came across my eldest daughter staring at herself in the bathroom mirror. She leaned close, touched at her forehead, straightened, stared. Again and again. If we have nowhere to go, minutes will pass before she seems satisfied enough to turn away. She is nearly a teen, and each day she marks off what has changed image to image. I remember doing the same – practically counting pores, noting again and again the scar on my nose from a toxic bout of the chickenpox. Eyebrows, too thick. Eyes, a decent shade of brown. Hair, too short, too long, in need of bangs, why did I ever get bangs?
I want to tell her that mirrors are tricky things. That what she sees is her choice of focus, and what I see in her reflection, mine. Experiments have been done. Human perception is faulty and too tied to past experiences, memories, needs, desires. Memories are faulty, too. Experiments have been done. She is beautiful, but not perfectly so. The optimist sees high cheekbones, olive skin that easily bronzes each summer. A riot of curly hair down the back. The pessimist sees glasses and acne and tangles and tangles. Each glance, everything echoes back, but we see so little.
In 2015, scientists in Great Britain were able to map neural fingerprints of particular memories – in this case, photographs of Marilyn Monroe or Albert Einstein, hats or goggles. Though they were attempting to solve the mystery of how memories fade – being painted over like an out of fashion wall cover or shutting a door to lessen noise like a parent trying to tune out her child’s loud music – the answer may well be that memory fades through both processes. Maria Wimber and her coauthors suggest, “Remembering a past experience can, surprisingly, cause forgetting.” Apparently, the more often someone remembers the past, the more his or her mind pushes down elements, “competing traces,” that make retrieving the full memory more difficult.
This delicate warping means my childhood and that of my brother are entirely different, despite our large catalogue of shared experiences. Just as his adult trajectory has little mirrored mine, despite being siblings close in age. We cannot access what the other perceived at six or eight or ten. Over time, our memories have shaken off the traces of what might otherwise have been a universal view of what it was like to grow up north of Stillwater along Manning Avenue in a small stretch of acred neighborhood tucked between field and pasture.
“Remembering…has a darker side,” according to Wimber and her colleagues,“that induces forgetting of other experiences that interfere with retrieval, dynamically altering which aspects of our past remain accessible.” Distracted by present concerns and a future of competing memories, prefrontal cortical areas select and select. If analyzed, my brother’s and my brains would show clusters suppressing patterns of competing memories. We have adapted, forgotten some essential element of the other’s memory of the same time, the same place. Neither of us, it seems, can claim a catholic view. Or, my Einstein could be his Monroe, his hat, my goggles.
Imagine a young girl at the end of a dock, fishing. She wears a white shirt and bright flower shorts. A life preserver, a funny sun hat. She’s been slathered in sunscreen and bug spray. In her hand, a pink Barbie fishing pole with its string let out, its round orange bobber plopping about with the waves of another boat passing. Her father and grandfather stand on the shore, near the toddler with her own pole and preserver. Imagine the old catfish, blue and wiry, settled into the detritus tossed off the shore edge by a previous owner looking to establish a hatching ground for the lake’s bass and crappie. Imagine the hook. The dangling worm. Sun filtered through the dark water of a lake human-made. The hook not fully covered by the dangling worm. Its slight glint. Imagine the temptation.
Might the catfish have considered the danger? Might it have been irresistible, the easy meal? The flash toward, the mouth wide, the gulp and grasp, the pull, the panic. And above, a young girl brought off balance, listing waterward, her pole drawn down like a divining rod. How close she was to being reeled. Yet, lacking in equipment and using some effort, a young girl lands her showstopper, aided by adults and one medium net. She is hesitant at the photograph, happy to watch the large tail swish and dive.
Not everything can be caught and released. Sometimes the hook is swallowed too deep. Even when the line is cut, a sharp bit sticks the craw.
Raised on religion, I sometimes find god like a spoonful of peanut butter not chewed enough and inching its way down the throat so slowly it is hard to breathe. My brother finds comfort, I think, in the ritual of church, its weekly call, the pleasure of working to be saved. Not that we would talk about it. Not that we talk about much beyond the weather and aging parents, a good ball game. Raised together, our minds are miles apart on nearly every topic. For my part, god is – if god is – bond. My neighbor as myself. My gifts good only in how they serve community. I would like to ask my brother what he thinks god is – untouched altar boy to the pedophile priest, ex-Army libertarian, believer in individual rights up to the point the right being asked for goes against his beliefs. I would like to ask which people of this world he believes will be saved, and, I can only imagine, why so few. At the turn of the century, I might have been able to do so, and we might have been able to talk to each other, not around.
But now the world is full of sinners and full of judges, and laws – state or religion – are bent around the holes of collective memory, competing traces erased into competing narratives. We’ve been taken by different hooks and pulled into different depths. The dark water is human-made, and little sunlight filters down. If I had a prayer, that what we’ve caught could be released.
Weeks ago at the cabin, my brother-in-law got a treble hook stuck deep into his skin, barb and all. Pulling it out took an extra set of steady hands to maneuver the hook to its entry point before he could apply the heavy pressure required to break steel from its skin casement. The wound swelled immediately; the bleeding cleansed. Its care: wash well, apply clean cloth and a bit of pressure.
Belief might be like that.
The year before, my daughter caught a bass who had swallowed the hook so deep, it couldn’t be removed without injury. Blood seeped from its mouth. She cried when it’s release wasn’t back to the lake deep – though it tried once, twice to dive only to return topside, sideways, slowly drifting away. She didn’t fish for an entire year. How could she avoid the one whose bite was so strong it could kill?
Another story. Old, but not among the oldest. A preacher giving voice to the lowest of the low, giving hope to the overlooked, humanity to those cast aside. Giving his life. He said be fishers of men. He said be servants of all. His story repeats in time, as all good stories do. Even his ending.
I asked my dad who threw my childhood fishing pole in the lake that one summer. He couldn’t remember. In fact, I had to remind him that my pole was once launched out of a boat on a family vacation. Not only couldn’t he remember who, he couldn’t remember what or where or when.
Having raised her family Catholic, my mother asked why I didn’t take my daughters to church. She meant do this in memory– but of what? I expect she feels there is no other path to god than the one she followed upon the heels of her parents, who followed upon the heels of others and others, unaware of a memory’s process of selection and what might be wrought by centuries of competing traces. How might I talk to her of transcendence, the sensation of some interconnectedness and order to our disorderly world? Would she understand Einstein’s metaphor of being a child in library full of books in languages you don’t comprehend? I tell my daughters that energy can’t be created or destroyed, which may or may not mean we are all an eternity gently held in one static body for the blink of the universe’s eye. But of eternity, I have no memory.
At the party, my brother laughs about fake news. I imagine all the things we might disagree about under that heading. I could ask him about finding the small cat skeleton, as best we could tell, in the overgrown rubbish heap on the edge of the woods alongside the rusted old wood stove. Or wonder if he ever kept one of the glass insulators that we would find under the electric lines running alongside the train tracks across the far fields behind our house. Or tell our children the story of how we used to collect aluminum cans from the neighbors to recycle when recycling mostly meant earning a few cents per can at the scrap yard. How we lugged those black plastic trash bags house to house, then brought our spoils to the garage, where we spilled the contents on the floor and stomped each can to make it flat to take up less space. Does he remember?
His ten-year-old daughter was baptized last week, outdoors in a lake. He is proud of her decision to affirm her faith. I see a hook and line slowly being reeled in. My family was out of town, but I wish we might have attended. On the car ride home, I might have told my daughters about my own confirmation and how I chose Saint Mary Magdalene as my confirmation saint. I might have said that my brother was named after Saint Thomas and joked about the irony of his certainty and my doubt. Would I have said that I prefer doubt because I believe more in questions?
My daughters are still young but afraid. The climate is changing. Drought and illness are spreading. Famine. War. Displacement. Guns enter schools, again and again. Media is both frivolous and cruel. Charity fades as fast as ink can dry on a check. I can’t tell them enough that my brother and I once played going to church, played with the rites of sacrifice. We were as sure of our own sins as of our power to forgive and to be forgiven. We were sure that to live right meant living with respect for the entirety. At least, that is what I remember.