A tiny black-and-white photo showed up shortly after Thanksgiving among my treasures. On the back of it my mother had jotted, “Rehoboth Beach, Delaware: Aug. 56,” Someone had later taken scissors to the snapshot, cropping out the magical expanses of sand. I entrusted this dreamy image to an artist. She transformed it into a new cover for my 2014 memoir Ollie Ollie In Come Free and for the audiobook I have just lovingly recorded during the sixty-fifth year of my life.
I do keep wondering what is in the metal washtub. Peggy and Paul are enthralled, and their swishing of its contents is quite purposeful. Paul’s smile speaks of utter delight in the task at hand, and Peggy, her arm casually entwined with his, is intently following his lead. My best guess is that there are some crabs in there: I have never forgotten being pinched by a crab that week when a friendly stranger let us come close to a similar tub teeming with these irresistibly weird creatures. In a moment of bravery, I’d reached my hand out and before I know it I was wailing.
But that trauma must have come later. In this innocent scene I am momentarily distracted by the person holding the camera. My left hand is in much too far; if there are truly crabs in the tub I should be paying better attention. Betsy has already lost interest, and is absorbed by the toddler task of mixing her own special potion.
The sun is soaking our skin. The breeze is playing havoc with Betsy’s hair, though mine is confined, maybe in a small, stubby braid. My mother’s attempt to keep my long bangs out of my eyes has proven useless.
We are all radiant. Paul is the oldest now; it has been eight months since Mary-Louise died, a few days after my third birthday, a few days before Christmas. Who is the grown-up with the camera? Someone bent on forgetting, no doubt. Probably our sweet dad.
We kids move as one, our touch, our scent, our voices, our body language infinitely familiar. I wonder at our belief in our completeness, and how our cataclysmic family loss seeks no expression. Like a jelly-fish, we have closed in around our older sister’s absence. You would never know she haunts us. We don’t know it ourselves.
I, the adult Anne, have been tugged into the photo as if by some Mary Poppins magic. Immersed in its sunny energy, I marvel at the miracle of our resilience, yes, the resilience adults used to count on to minimalize children’s suffering. Yet some strong and unmistakable force is slogging through our happiness: the yearning of our young bodies for what has been lost.
We are, after all, a wriggly litter of puppies, forever tussling, nipping and nuzzling, and not so long ago one of us has been pried off the heap. Within two-and-a-half years, Paul too will be torn from our midst, taking with him his sparkly wonderment at myriad adventures on this side of the veil.
In our big family babies will continue to be born. The ones not in this photo. The ones who will never sit playing on this beach. Peggy, Betsy and I will completely forget we ever lived this happy day, crouching together around a beat-up washtub.
In our family nowadays we speak of those who remember nothing, and those who remember too much, but we might well ask: which family is being remembered, and which is being forgotten? The “we” kept shifting through our early years like the sand on the distant dunes.
Peggy would try earnestly after Paul’s death to be the oldest, but she could never succeed. I would wonder all my life why I felt a bit young and useless within the family, even though I had moved to a prestigious spot near the top of the heap. I would forget that I was the fifth kid in our family. Before any of us in this photo were born, there was a beautiful blond toddler, Vic, who was our only real oldest.
Those who sat on this beach once upon a time breathed each other’s air… and then we didn’t. But the cells of our small bodies never forgot. And so it has always been for so many families, the comings and the goings, the births and the deaths. There is a temptation to say it doesn’t matter, since it was ever thus in human history.
But we as a race are all slowly learning that it all matters, every moment when children are torn from one another, children from parents and parents from children. With the explosion of knowledge about trauma and ACE studies, we can no longer wish away the effects on children of our own doing: time-honored institutions like war, incarceration, forced flights from home and country. We know now that children pay a lasting price for the heartless systemic choices we’ve always taken for granted. And they all still scramble valiantly to fill in the empty spaces that can’t be filled.
I originally wrote Ollie Ollie In Come Free: A Memoir of Swallowed Time, as a way to honor what needed to be honored, in my own childhood, and in other children’s lives as well. In recording my memoir as an audiobook, I further reawakened the sounds of my sisters’ teasing, my parents’ edicts, my teachers’ scoldings, my own youthful musings. Voices that have either fallen silent in death, or grown old as children’s voices always do when we are granted the privilege of a long life.