I wrote the following short story in response to this week’s CSB’s writing prompt: favorite childhood memory.
Melissa gazed at her computer screen, her fingers poised lightly on the keyboard. She had gotten as far as writing “Favorite Childhood Memory.” And then she stopped because she didn’t believe she had any “favorite childhood memory.” She had hated her childhood; at least, that’s how she remembered it. Her childhood had been one long series of painful or angst-driven events. She had been … was … very shy, very introverted, even as a five-year-old. She was never happy unless she was reading a book, especially a book about faraway places with people and animals that she knew probably didn’t really exist.
But her psychiatrist had wanted her to keep a journal of sorts. She had given Melissa a calendar and every day on the calendar had a writing prompt. Every day Melissa was to write something in response to the prompt. At her next appointment, Melissa would hand over what she had written and then they would discuss one or two. The psychiatrist thought the writing and reflection would help Melissa in understanding why she had had a nervous breakdown, why she had suddenly turned against her cousin Mary, the cousin who had opened her house and heart to her. It had only been a month since they started this “treatment,” and Melissa remained skeptical.
Today, she was stumped. What if she didn’t have a favorite childhood memory? What if the only time she could recall being happy was when she was lost in a book? When she was little, happiness was curling up by the old willow tree in their backyard and reading. She did remember how much she loved reading there. The willow’s trunk was broad and smooth and its slight curve fit her back perfectly then. The fronds dripped down from the branches into a thick green curtain. Melissa would part the green curtain and slip into the cool, shadowy space, her book du jour held fast against her chest.
She recalled one particularly hot summer day, when she had been hidden behind the green curtain of the willow tree, reading about ice princesses, and she fell asleep. The low electric buzz of the summer insects lulled her into a very deep sleep. She remembered that she dreamt of ice castles and long blue dresses with white fur trim and blonde hair and porcelain skin. She dreamt of everything she was not and everything she didn’t have.
And then she woke to the sensation of someone kissing her forehead and stroking her hair. She could smell his sun-baked skin, dusty from plowing the neighbor’s field. She felt the stubble of his chin brush her nose when he kissed her. She pretended to be still asleep, hoping that he would linger if she didn’t wake. It must be high noon, she thought, and he had stopped work for lunch. A faint odor of manure tickled her nostrils and she grimaced as she tried not to sneeze, knowing that the sneeze would be the end of her make-believe. But the more she tried not to sneeze, the more inevitable the sneeze was.
The spray from her nose covered a wide arc, including her book and his right arm. She wanted to cry. It had been such a sweet moment that she hadn’t wanted to spoil. And now he was on his knees, laughing, trying to get her to look at him.
“Lissa, that was a big sneeze! Just some dust up your nose? Here, why are you crying?” Against her better judgment, Melissa had started to bawl her head off. She knew that she had ruined the moment and nothing could appease her now. At least, that’s what she remembered feeling. That memory alone made her want to stop writing. Her father had worked such long hours as a farmer, especially in the summer when she saw him so little she could be convinced she had no father.
So when these precious moments came, when he found an unexpected minute to be with her, she wanted them to be perfect. And perfect meant no crying. If they were perfect, if I don’t do anything to mess them up, maybe there will be more. Maybe he won’t be gone so much. That’s how her logic ran when she a little girl.
Melissa clicked Save and started to back out of the program. But she paused and then resumed her typing. There was more to the story. It didn’t end with her sneeze and her father laughing at her. In fact, her father hadn’t been laughing at her at all. He had just thought her sneeze was funny, coming on as quickly and violently as it did. And then she remembered his concern when she started to cry and how he picked her up in his arms, his strong arms that she remembered being as solid as corded wood. She had wrapped her legs around his waist, or near around because she was very little then, and she was hugging his neck, breathing deep his dusty odor. And then she sneezed into his neck.
As Melissa typed, she continued to remember. How he hugged her tight as he carried her to the house. How he wiped her face with a warm, wet washcloth while her mother set the table for lunch. How she took the washcloth from him and wiped his neck, her tears gone as quickly as they had come. Then they had lunch and he teased her about sneezing on his neck and her mom stroked her cheek. When he left to go back to work, he kissed her eyes and her nose and said she was as good as new.
Melissa clicked Saved, closed the program, and shut down her laptop. She sat back and watched as the screen flickered and then went black. She will want to talk with her psychiatrist about this prompt, about the fact that she just might have a favorite childhood memory after all.