First Chapter Second Place for Memoir: And Then I Fell Down by Marsha Graham

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And Then I Fell Down by Marsha Graham is the Second Place winner in the Nonfiction/Memoir category of Works in Progress for the East Texas Writers Guild First Chapter Book Awards.

Award-Winning First Chapter

I’m a storyteller. Most of my stories have a variety of endings. Stories such as…then Mom died and I felt like I’d never be whole again. Or…I never knew that rubber bumpers had a crystalline structure until fifty-five below weather in Fairbanks when I accidentally shattered one. Now, unless I’m talking about the distant past all my stories seem to end up with: “…and then I fell down.”

Because the life I knew, with its ups and downs, speed bumps, occasional forays into climbing mountains of problems, along with a few episodes of wallowing in mud pits of despair, and the odd, unanticipated wild ride, ended on one specific day. It is the difference between standing on the beach looking at the pretty ocean before the tsunami and being the last one left standing onshore after the tsunami, watching the debris of a lifetime being swept out to sea. The person I was on May 7, 2013 died on May 8th.

Marsha Graham
Marsha Graham

We seem to have a lot of May deaths in the family. Nevertheless, I’m still above ground without being a ghost or a zombie. I’m still standing, yet like a favorite character in the movie Short Circuit 2, I am now “standing here beside myself.” Instead of being myself.

Considering how many times I’ve reinvented myself during the past sixty-six years, that’s saying something.

By way of introduction, my name is Betty, because Mom was a devotee of both Betty Boop and Betty Grable. Later, there was fun with names because the spelling of my full name on my birth certificate is not the same as the name I was raised with, but that’s a different story for another time.

My older siblings assure me that I was neither found under a rhubarb leaf nor did I hatch from an egg in the hen yard. I have photographs demonstrating that I looked like any other baby you’d find in a photo from 1949 as an infant wrapped in swaddling clothes. No manger. That would have been pretentious, unnecessary, and probably heretical. Just a typical German-Polish immigrant family grandkid whose mother came from the Dakotas, Mom married into a long established English and Orangeman-Irish Midwestern family from Illinois. The American melting pot at work, whittling away at religious and ethnic differences. I still think of myself in terms of being German-Polish, although my spiritual life is more Irish – go figure.

Just as there are no memories of being born, there are also none from the early years. Little kids are usually prelingual and memory retention is lousy if you can’t create a verbal story to move the experience into long-term memory. What early memories I have are probably the result of visualizing situations I’ve heard many stories about.

For instance, there’s a memory of me sitting in a stroller on a curb watching muddy water gush down the road and spray up over a curb. I associate that with a flood our family was in while we were in South Sioux City, Nebraska – complete with a Diphtheria epidemic.

Would Mom have taken me to a curb near a raging flood? A wild rush of swirling water from the Missouri River that her husband and other men were out fighting off with sandbags? Probably not. Maybe a sibling went to look at the floodwater and took me along, but it’s unlikely because floods are scary; people get swept away, get sick, and die. However, my sister, who was eleven at the time, remembers a military duck boat arriving to evacuate us.

There’s a lot of drama and trauma during a major flood. If I were to remember something you’d think it would be the amphibious boat lumbering up into the yard. Or getting violently ill from a life-saving Diphtheria immunization. Memory of the boat? Zilch.

Chances are that the memory where I’m watching water rush by is a mental construct. Implanted memories happen.

Most of the recollections that are mine, and not an attempt to recreate stories of my infancy, start in North Dakota. Grandma. Her kitchen. The coal furnace in the basement that, for some reason, terrified the stuffing out of me. The coal chute. The black, shiny coal – don’t touch!

The garden out back of the house. My brother’s dog, Lady, dying and Grandma having to put down the newborn puppies because there was no hope. Me crying my eyes out as my brother, also sobbing, buried his dog and her dead puppies near the garden. My heart still clenches a little over the lingering sadness from that one. Fragments of a long-ago existence.

When it comes to memory here’s a test. Without looking at a calendar tell me what you were doing this time last year on the exact date you picked up this book. Unless it was some special day, you doubtless have no idea, which is why people have a terrible time with alibis if more than a short while goes by.

However, somewhere between the flood in South Sioux City and Lady’s tragic death giving birth to doomed puppies, something happened to me. It changed my life forever, although I have no recollection of it.

Grandpa died in late May of 1951. Mother made a pilgrimage back to her family home. We were there for the final illness, death, grieving, and funeral. Or so I’m told. My Aunt Joan, her husband, and my same-age cousin were also in attendance. Possibly the other adult kids, especially Uncle Paul who lived just a couple hundred miles away.

One version of the stories regarding my life-altering experience is that my cousin and I were alone in a room when I fell off Grandpa’s editor’s stool and hit my head. Or my cousin pushed me off the stool because we were playing some king of the mountain type game – as much as 18-month-old children can do that. Or I launched myself off a high chair – hey, a whole new room there – and did a swan dive head-first into the floor.

Nice stories. Creative. Inventive. None of them makes sense, since the traumatic head injury I got blew out my left eardrum, crushed the cochlea, and broke the auditory nerve as well as rearranging the bony sutures in my skull. Little kids that age don’t fall from a stool a couple of feet off the ground and end up with injuries like those. Or high chairs.

Because of the work I did later in the field of child protection, I was able to get a better idea of what happened. The impact was more like falling from the upper floor of a building and landing on my head. Little kids are like plastic. It is hard to even give them a greenstick fracture without a lot of force.

What happened? We’ll never know because I was prelingual and no long-term memory formed. I may have experienced post-concussion amnesia. I’ve heard about the huge lump. There was blood coming from the ear canal because of the blown eardrum. I was told the town doctor who looked at me was also the town drunk and he said it was just a bump on the head. Any adult or child of any age asked to remember who was present in the house had a different story. The adults are all dead so that chapter is closed. And really, how many of them could have been present? Nonetheless, considering the gravity of the injury, my story could have been concluded right there:

The End

However, difficult as it turned out to be in terms of life-adaptations, losing much of my hearing was a speed bump. Okay, it was a really steep hill, but since I can’t remember who I was before the head trauma, I have no idea what it was like to be fully hearing. I’m simply who I remember being as memories formed during the next few years.

Who I was then was Betty, daughter of Clara, granddaughter of Teresa, baby sister of Peggy and Bobby. And the only place I’ve ever lived since then is in a quiet world.

But that was still not: “and then I fell down.” That comes much, much later.

 

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