“Why Won’t You Speak, Memory?” by B. Rocca

An original memoir written in CW 352:  Creative Nonfiction Workshop with Prof. Elizabeth Geoghegan — Spring 2010


“Why Won’t You Speak, Memory?”

When I was in high school, I wanted to be a clown. But not just a clown, I wanted to be a juggler. It started when I was 15, at the end of my sophomore year, when I had three book covers in my hands after returning text-books. I rolled them into balls, held two in my left hand and one in my right, saying to a friend, “Check it out.” I accompanied my action with the most practical circus song I could think of, “Do do do-do-do do do do do,” and I gave my best attempt at what I would soon learn is called a three-ball cascade.

To do a simple three-ball cascade, you need three balls. Ball A, B, and C. Ball A and C go in one hand, B in the other. Throw A into the air and, while in it’s the air, B is thrown underneath of it and A is caught in the hand that was holding B. While B is in the air, C is thrown and B is caught in the hand that was holding C. Repeat.

This did not happen when I attempted it. I had no general knowledge of how to juggle, thinking it was catching and throwing at random times. And it is. And it isn’t. Most of juggling is patterns. Once you get everything moving in a pattern, it feels right—things make sense for a moment.

So my whole summer was devoted to juggling.

I learned the 3-ball cascade, reverse cascade, Mill’s mess, four balls, behind the back, catch a ball on the back of my neck. I integrated kicking, optical illusions, and bounce juggling into my act. Then I found a set of juggling pins in my garage. Pins look like bowling pins, but are much lighter and they are far more difficult to juggle. The ones I had were made of plastic with green, red, or blue around the thick base. They had a black rubber stopper on the end, and grooved white handles that turned into a thick silver dollar sized end—like a baseball bat. I didn’t like the feel of the plastic whapping my fingers with every catch. It was particularly bad when I went for double and triple spins, the pins flying 15 feet in the air and stinging every time they came down. Besides, they were too hard to do tricks with, and infuriating when a behind the back toss went horribly wrong and nailed me in the head.

My friends told me I was juggling too much. I told them I was going to join Ringling. They said I was stupid. I told them they were jealous. They told me I was stupid.

Little did they know that I had found a kit for making balloon animals when I was cleaning my basement. Much did they laugh when I started making them balloon animals.

“Holy shit, Brian. Are you becoming a fucking clown? Why are you getting this crap?”

“The fucked up thing’s that I’m not. I found all this shit in my house. It’s like someone’s trying to groom me to be a clown with some sort of sick scavenger hunt.”

I juggle a lot of memories in my head, too. My first memory of a clown is my Aunt Carolyn. One Halloween she dressed up as Raggedy Ann, but she put her makeup on too thick and had red cheeks that filled both sides of her face, and heavy red lipstick. She had on a long-sleeved blue shirt with a white dress that looped around both shoulders, candy cane socks pulled to her knees, and a wig with curly red hair that stuck out from under a hat. To be honest, she kind of scared my brother, Scott, and me. We knew it was her, but she denied it the whole time saying, “Who’s Aunt Carolyn? I’m Raggedy Ann.” She gave each of us an orange pumpkin shaped sucker on a white stick as big as our palms, and we stopped asking questions.

Another time, she brought a clown to the house for my birthday. The clown was appropriately dressed as any clown should be—wig, make-up, lugging a tackle box and a bag of clanking pots. She made balloon animals (just dogs and simple things like that—no big deal), did face painting, and pulled red foam rabbits from the pots as some sort of magic trick that I don’t remember why was magical.

I don’t know why Aunt Carolyn dressed up as Raggedy Ann or brought clowns around, but it was an endearing gesture to try the costume, and to keep us entertained on our birthdays. I even have a picture at home of her holding me in her arms while we waved goodbye or hello to clown on our bricked front porch—so it’s easy to see why I have draw a connection between her and clowns.  I’ve always wondered if it was she who left the pins and balloon animal kit for me to find.

I don’t mean to imply that she was a clown of any sort, because she was so much more than that. She went into the Navy right out of high school at a time when people were burning draft cards and hoisting anti-war signs. My mom said that when she stayed on ships for a long time, she slept with a baseball bat. I don’t know how you get one of those on a military ship, but how badass do you have to be to be able to produce a bat from under your blankets and beat off rapists with it? Pretty fucking badass.

My grandpa died before my memory learned to speak. After that, Aunt Carolyn moved in with my grandma until she passed away at 41—I was only 6. Until then, Aunt Carolyn was stationed at Scott Air Force Base near Belleville, Illinois, and she  traveled all over the world with the military to places like England, China, and Germany—from what I’m told, loving every minute of it. They said she could smoke cigarettes and drink beer with any man, and she was skinny—her arms were long and thin, but strong from loading airplanes during the day. She drank, she smoked, she traveled; she was everything I would have looked up to when I was seventeen.  And eighteen. And nineteen. And twenty.

Once, I studied in Rome for 4 months and wondered where she would have told me to go in Europe. And I think she would have been proud of me when I traveled around the United States on road trips, and camped on the rocky beaches of rivers in Missouri—because there’s so much more than just the small towns in Illinois where we’re both from. On those beaches in Missouri, there are nights that you can see so many stars it looks like the sky’s falling. Or maybe, if there’s a heaven, you can see all the kisses an angel’s blown to you.

The house she and my grandma lived in had a big backyard. It looked like an odd shaped football field built on a hill, maybe only seventy yards long with the other thirty added to the width. Big enough that we could play washers and chase down orange Frisbees we could never throw properly—always seeming to arc wide to the left or right and crash into the grass. There was a wooden periwinkle porch at the back door with a great view of the hill. The hill climbed for what seemed like days before the garden started. Their property ended on the other side of the garden, where a tree line to thick woods began.

My aunt loved to garden, so Scott and I helped her when we got the chance; but when it comes to my Aunt Carolyn, my memory works like a photo album. In one picture, I’m at my grandma’s house on the hill with my brother, grandma, and Aunt Carolyn, sitting on flipped white buckets that came from the butcher shop in the grocery store my dad managed—once filled with white slimy pig intestines used to make sausage—slinging dirt over my shoulder and dropping golf ball-sized bulbs into holes.  In another, we’re throwing weeds into Folgers coffee cans, sweating in the late afternoon when the sun was shining over the tree line. Her hair was a light gold, and glowed in the sunlight. I don’t remember what we planted or what color the blooms were. I don’t remember what kind of beer she drank at night, or the smell of her cigarettes—they all smell alike to me—but when we watched TV at dusk, we could see neighbors walking up and down the hill to look at the piece of paradise we planted.  In all of the pictures, we’re having fun, or if not fun, we’re never disappointed or wanting to be anywhere else. I guess she was planting more than just flowers.

Sometimes we’d pile into her blue van with three rows of seats behind the driver, and go to the zoo. I remember we watched the seals plop their shiny black bellies down on tan rocks–their whiskers twitching as they stared at one other.  If we waited long enough, they’d bark and slide towards the water, diving in towards the trainer carrying a bucket of fish. Scott and I laughed and pointed at their antics; my aunt laughed at ours. I couldn’t have done what she did. I can’t deal with kids like she could, no matter how much I love them. They’re so small, breakable, and noisy, they cry and bitch and moan, but they do have something special in them. When my little cousin gives me a hug or smiles at me so hard her cheeks look like they’re stretching, I can see why Aunt Carolyn spent time with us. I just don’t know why none of my other relatives have ever struck me the way she did.

Flip through the photo album to the Missouri Botanical Gardens where we’re walking the red bricked side-walks holding hands, walking through Japanese gardens with great blooms of sapphire irises, sprinkling some sort of pebbles into dark water filled with orange Fu-Manchu fish, and staring at nameplates on brick memorials to service men and women who have passed. For some reason, I have a lot of photos in my head of us being at those bricks. I don’t remember what we were doing there, if she was searching for people she had known or looking for one that suited her, I’ll never know.

Most of what I have left are stories from other people that feel like someone reading pages ripped out from books. At Christmas one year, my mom and Aunt Mary Jane started talking about Aunt Carolyn.

Aunt Mary Jane sat with her legs crossed and back straight against her chair, the wine glass she held rested on her knee.

“One time, I think it was mine or your mom’s birthday, we went out for dinner and hit a few places—had a bit too much to drink.  Well, we stopped the car on Vandalia Street—remember that Joyce?” She leaned forward; just as she always does the further she gets into a story. “And we stood outside the car, arguing about who should be driving. Let’s just say, we made it home, laughing all the way back.” She leaned against the chair again and put her hand over her heart.  “Oh, shit.” She looked at me like I had already done something wrong. “That doesn’t make it right to drink and drive though, Brian—it was different then.”

My mom pointed her finger at me, “Yeah, Brian. I’ll kick your ass if I catch you drinking and driving.” There was a moment of silence, but it was quickly filled in by my Mom. “She was probably drinking beer or Absolut. I always hated that stuff, but she loved ‘em. She was funny when she got drunk, too. She giggled a lot. That probably drove your dad crazy, hearing us both giggle like idiots.”

“That’s ‘cause they were! Oh, shit, Joyce, I’m just teasing yah!”

“Brian, listen to this.” My mom put her put her forearms on the table and leaned towards me. “Since Mary Jane’s ten years older than me and nine older than Carolyn, she used to babysit us when my mom and dad were at work in the summer.  When we got out of hand, she’d beat us with a flyswatter. A green flyswatter! Well, one day, Carolyn and I had had enough.” She smiled and nodded her head. “We pinned her down and beat the hell out of her with that thing.”

There’s always a brief moment of silence after these stories get told that feels somehow awkward and appropriate. Even though I only get excerpts from her life, I try to remember I’m not the only one juggling things.

I knew she loved me by the way she hugged. She held on, every time, like it was her last. Little did she know, each hug could have very well been the last that I remembered. I’m not sure if she was trying to squeeze the life out of me or put some of herself into me, but she somehow did a little of both.

If I think about her on a timeline, the last memory I have of her is right before she died. If all of these memories are being juggled, this is the one that stings.

It was evening when my mom brought Scott and me to see her. She sat in her blue chair in front of the window by the back porch—the sun shined bright above the hill, barely beginning to fall behind the trees. A yellow cotton blanket enveloped her from her ankles to her underarms, and there was a machine on the ground that had clear tentacles scaling up a metal pole to a bag, slithering from the bag to her chair, wrapping her all around in a sickly squeeze—so unlike the ones she gave ever me. One bit into her right hand and another climbed into her nose. When I was twenty, I asked my mom about this. She said that Aunt Carolyn never had a tube in her nose or her hand.

“She had a feeding tube in her abdomen, and a hyper alimentation line implanted in her chest wall—it hung from an IV pole that had an infuser on it.”

My mom’s a nurse, and sometimes her jargon is too much for me, but in this case it felt appropriate because I didn’t want to know what a hyper alimentation line was. I hate asking my mom questions about her. I can tell it’s hard on her to think back, and she almost always starts to cry when she talks about her sister. I don’t blame her, because thinking about Aunt Carolyn and seeing her cry is the closest I ever come to shedding a tear. Aunt Carolyn was diagnosed with Intermittent Occlusive Mesentery Artery Disease, something that usually occurs in very old people.

“The last time I ever talked to her,” my mom told me, “I was with your Aunt Mary Jane and her in the hospital room. She stared at us for the longest time and didn’t say a word.” I can see her telling me this with her voice cracking and tears welling up. “I asked her what she was looking at or doing, and she said, ‘I’m trying to memorize your faces.’ I think she knew she wouldn’t be seeing us again, and she was right. All the rest of the weeks she had left, she never regained consciousness.”

I don’t know what the last thing Aunt Carolyn said to me was—my memory’s muted. She looked at me with droopy eyes. Her face was pale.  She picked up her left hand, the tentacle hadn’t punctured it yet, and she pushed out her pointer finger towards me and retracted it several times, so hinge-like. Her lips gave a meager smile, but one worth more than words. The only thing that looked normal was her hair—as curly as ever, glowing in the sunlight like a seraph.

I remember Scott and I waited for her to get home at 3 pm every weekday. When we saw her van pull into the driveway, we’d giggle with excitement. When we heard footsteps boom on the creaky wooden stairs from the garage, we’d hide behind the ripped black leather chair that we stuck our fingers in to feel the itchy stuffing when we were bored, or we’d hide along the wall so she couldn’t see us when she opened the door.  Tension built in our bodies as we looked at each other, waiting for the perfect moment. There was electricity in our muscles, and we snickered, thinking we were so clever. The door opened, and when she took two or three steps, “Surprise!” Every time. She did act surprised most days, but I remember how tired she looked when she came in wearing her tan t-shirt and green and black pants—never taking off her smile. She ended up surprising everyone more than I could have imagined.

I often wonder why I’ve never been able to forget her, and yet I wonder why I can’t remember so much. Maybe it’s because she never stopped smiling that I think about her, or maybe because I never got to know her bad side. Sometimes I try to figure out what she taught me so long ago, who she was, who I am, and who I want to be. There’s no pattern to any of these memories, but I’ve been trying to make them cascade for so long. All I know is that, like her hugs, I never want to let go.

—written by Brian Rocca


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