“Our memory is a more perfect world than the universe: it gives back life to those who no longer exist.” ― Guy de Maupassant
As the Dog Days of Summer 2022 near their finale – they began on Sunday, July 3, and will end on Thursday – I am struck by the concepts of memory, how it works, and how people perceive it.
As you know, this year marks the 50th Anniversary of my “core family’s” return to the United States after living for almost six years in Bogota, Colombia. For me, the period between my ninth birthday (March 5) and New Year’s Eve 1972 was full of drama, angst, vast changes, unexpected joys, and even more unexpected sadness, and I thought that it might be a good idea to jot down my memories of that year, even though they are inexact, blurred, and even fragmented.
I try hard to be as candid a narrator as I can and not present my recollections of the Summer of ’72 through a rosy lens of nostalgia or papered over with layers of nostalgic revisionism to idealize my childhood. Like all storytellers, I do have to be selective about how much detail I go into in these Tempus Fugit pieces, so of course, I’ve left out a ton of stories – such as my brief but failed attempt to learn how to play the piano when Mom and I stayed at the Valbuena family house in the spring of 1972, or my terrified reaction to the lightning strikes during a particularly severe thunderstorm early in the wet season. Those things happened, obviously, but I didn’t want to turn this blog into my “Internet autobiography.”
“I can only note that the past is beautiful because one never realises an emotion at the time. It expands later, and thus we don’t have complete emotions about the present, only about the past. ― Virginia Woolf
Anyway, the reason I bring up all of this stuff about memory and how we remember our past lives is because I woke up this morning thinking about how Vicky, my older half-sister, tells her life story to people, particularly during the “getting to know each other” stage of a budding friendship.
If Vicky ever decided to write a blog – an unlikely occurrence, since she claims to hate computers and didn’t have an Internet connection in 2016, the last time that we saw each other – and wrote a series of blog posts about her childhood, especially the period before she first moved to Miami with Mom and my dad, who was Vicky’s stepfather, her version of events would be far more idealized and romanticized than my recollections of the spring and summer of 1972.
“Remembrance of things past is not necessarily the remembrance of things as they were.” ― Marcel Proust
According to my half-sister, her childhood in Colombia was a Latin American version of Father Knows Best and Leave it to Beaver, tweaked to reflect the social status of her parents’ families, who by happenstance and custom, were at the top levels of Colombian society. Not quite at the very top, but still, at the upper end of the social class system that Colombia inherited from Spain, her colonial Mother Country until Simon Bolivar defeated the Spanish army at the Battle of Boyacá in 1819 and won independence for Colombia, Venezuela, and Ecuador.
I’m not going to regale you with the distortions, romanticisms, and outright fabrications of Vicky’s retelling of life in Colombia from 1952 to 1960. These generalizations – which are statements Vicky made so often over the years that I know them by heart – will have to suffice.
In Vicky’s “When I Was a Kid in Colombia” stories:
- Life was perfect
- Everyone was better off, and there was not as much violence as there is today
- Colombia was a happy, safe place to be a child in the 1950s
- Bogota had less crime then
- I got along well with everyone, and everyone got along with me
- Colombia was, and always has been, a better place to live than Miami
These assertions are untrue. Colombia saw some of its darkest and bloodiest years in the 1950s due to politically motivated fighting that started with the “Bogotazo” of April 9. 1948 and continued into the 10-year-long civil war known as La Violencia that resulted in over 200,000 deaths, most of them civilians, a four-year military dictatorship, and a return to a fragile democracy that was marred by an even longer civil war that is still ongoing as a low-intensity guerrilla war between left-wing guerrillas and the Colombian government.
Of course, since Vicky was not even born when the Bogotazo took place and was a small child who led a sheltered and privileged life as a member of two wealthy and influential families during La Violencia, life was good, even perfect, from her limited vantage point. If you lived in a big house or swanky apartment in Colombia’s capital, had a President of the Republic as one of your ancestors, and were surrounded by a loving family and a domestic staff that catered to your every need, you might think “life was perfect.”
Most of Vicky’s assertions were refuted by my mother’s telling of family history. Vicky was loved by everyone in the family, but that does not mean that she got along with everyone and vice versa. As a child, my older half-sister exhibited all the behaviors that bugged me during the 46 years (1969-2015) in which we interacted as siblings on a regular basis – unpredictable mood swings, sometimes violent tantrums, a penchant for exaggerating, distorting, or even inventing events, and malicious lying and manipulative behavior.
My source? The one person who knew Vicky best as a child – our mom.
I’m not sure why Vicky does the things she does or needs to reimagine history – whether it’s her personal history or that of Colombia and the world at large – as if it were straight out of a 1950s or 1960s Walt Disney Motion Pictures production. Does my half-sister remember her early life before Mom married my father in 1960 through such a distorted lens, or does she know that life in Colombia in the ‘50s and ‘60s was rosy for only a few privileged people and simply chooses to distort reality without caring for the truth?
I don’t know, and since we’ve been estranged since our mother died seven summers ago, I am not able to ask her.
“You forget what you want to remember and you remember what you want to forget.” ― Cormac McCarthy, The Road
As for my recollections of my childhood years (whether I refer to Bogota or Miami), I do not claim to have perfect recall or that the events I have written about on A Certain Point of View, Too are described with 100% accuracy. Human memory is, by its nature, inexact and incredibly fragile. We tend to forget many things that are sad, boring, or ordinary, and we latch onto those events and people that made us feel either extremely happy or extraordinarily traumatized. As narrators in our documentaries – so to speak – we might sound authoritative, but we are, unfortunately, hobbled by the capricious nature of how the brain stores and processes memories.
I will say this, though. I do my best to present these events and the people involved in them (including myself) as honestly and accurately as possible. I don’t romanticize or idealize the past, nor do I want the reader to believe that I was an angel as a pre-teenaged boy of nine and 10 years of age. I tried to be a good kid, sure, and for the most part I was well-behaved and compliant, especially regarding the parent-child dynamics between my mother and me.
However, I was not always cooperative or easy to get along with. I wasn’t exactly fond of doing my chores and tried to weasel my way out of doing the ones I liked least – such as taking the garbage out from the kitchen to the garbage can by the side of the house – as often as I could. Sometimes I’d lose my temper over insignificant things, or I’d talk back to Mom in a disrespectful manner, thus incurring her wrath and earning a weekend-long grounding or suspension of TV watching privileges. (Mom was one of the nicest persons on Earth and I loved her dearly, but she was also the “fuck-around-and-find-out” kind of parent who you did not want to mess with. At all.)
I guess what I’m trying to say here Is that even if my recollections of my childhood are inexact or incomplete, they’re not deliberately distorted to make certain individuals look bad and the narrator – me – look like a protagonist from those old ABC Afterschool Special movies that were a staple of 1970s and 1980s daytime TV. I had a happy childhood, for the most part, especially in the house on SW 102nd Avenue, but it was not perfectly happy, nor was I a perfectly good kid, either. Hell, I’m not a perfect adult, so…..
 In the context of my reminiscences about my childhood and family history, the term “core family” refers to my mother, Beatriz, my older half-sister, Vicky, and me. My extended family is far larger, especially on my mom’s side.
 And even with Mom, I have to remind myself that her recollections, too, were inexact and altered not just by the passage of time, but by the dynamics of the often stormy relationship between mother and daughter.
 I sometimes imagine that these posts will be read in an audiobook by either Peter Coyote – who does voiceover work for many of the more recent Ken Burns documentaries – or Morgan Freeman.