This photo was taken during a family trip to Israel in the early 1970s. I was slightly younger than my daughter is now. The photo is interesting to me for a number of reasons. First, I remember that maroon shirt with the outside yellow stitching like I had it on this morning. I can remember exactly how it felt against my skin. I also remember those shorts. (Or should I call them hot pants? Oy.) I cut them down myself from some old worn out bell bottoms I had. I’m surprised my mother let me pack those for a trip to the Holy Land but I’m sure I wore them every day. I see my dearly departed long hair for which I also have a strong sense memory, like those war veterans who can still feel pain in a leg that was amputated years earlier. But I’m most interested in my expression, my seemingly happy, carefree demeanor. And the fact that while I vividly remember the shirt, the shorts, the hair, even the rings on my fingers, I don’t feel the slightest bond of recognition with that kid in the picture.
My grandparents had ferreted us away to Israel that summer over three decades ago to get away from an ugly situation at home. My parents were already divorced but had attempted a reconciliation that was a disaster. Now they were at each other’s throats and could not be in the same room without a scene. It would take years for the healing in our family to begin. We were living with our dad and that created even more drama and angst. As I’ve written before, my parents did come back together in the end, and were very close when my mom died ten years ago. My father spoke at her funeral.
But I’m fascinated by these 1973 snapshots from a Jerusalem hotel room because they were taken during the time when I believe I was completely checked out. My emotional Ground Zero. Something keeps bringing me back to those years. No matter what I write about, I always seem to circle back to the early 70s. I’ve been thinking a lot this week about memory. My recollections of that time are real to me, but I’m learning that memories are fluid, always changing. What I remember of myself as a kid is colored by my perception of my inner life, which often diverges from the factual reality of my outer experience.
In the past few days, I’ve reconnected with a bunch of people from my past through that ubiquitous online networking tool called Facebook. I first joined Facebook last year to monitor my daughter’s online activities. I didn’t really get it and couldn’t understand why anyone would spend time there making so-called “friends” and communicating in such a staccato fashion. But now I love it. I was trying to explain Facebook to my dad yesterday and it wasn’t easy. Totally different from a blog, a tool that helps you get a quick overview of people from wildly different parts of your life. The entry points on Facebook are very flexible. You can be a part of a community that you simply observe from afar, you can drop in quick comments about something very specific, or you can communicate with people in a very in-depth way. The beauty of Facebook is that there’s no pressure to respond. It’s not like an email or phone call where you feel some sense of obligation (or guilt) to reply.
Have you noticed that Facebook has reached some kind of tipping point lately? Suddenly everyone I ever knew seems to be joining and furiously linking to each other, including people I haven’t spoken to in 30 to 40 years. This week it was my old friends from Peterson School in Chicago, a place where I spent much of my time between the years of 1964 to 1972. A bunch of my classmates went on to Von Steuben High School with me but in some cases I have less memories of those years than I do of that earlier time at Peterson. Several years ago I wrote about Peterson School and included some of my old class photos. Here’s another one I found and just uploaded to Facebook:
This was my first grade class in the 1965-66 school year. Can you spot me? I’m third from the right in the first row, looking a bit shell shocked in my suit. You wouldn’t believe how many of the kids in this photo I suddenly find myself “friends” with on Facebook. It’s fascinating to me to resume conversations with people I last spoke to when Lyndon Johnson was in the White House. There’s a strange kind of healing that takes place when I talk to some of these folks—like the one that occurred between my parents years after their ugly divorce.
Barbara Wittert, the cute-as-a-button girl on the far left in the first row now lives in London with her husband. She joined Facebook a week ago and is making friends as fast as she did at Peterson School. Behind her to the right is William Tong, whose family owned Tong’s Tea Garden, our neighborhood Chinese restaurant. Bill has been posting many photos of the old days on his Facebook page. In addition to being a geologist for the EPA, he is in three bands and is a natural born archivist. The blond girl sitting down in front of me is Hilary Kaye. Her family moved away after grammar school and we completely lost touch. It was great to reconnect this week after so many years. She works at a college in Illinois, has three children, and teaches people how to play the mountain dulcimer. Who knew?
The year after the above photo was taken, Hilary and I were part of what she now calls a “social experiment.” Instead of going on to third grade, we were moved from second into fourth. That is a big jump at that age. I was already one of the youngest kids in my class so the switch made me almost two years younger than my new classmates. I was fascinated to hear Hilary’s thoughts today on the subject—that, like me, she now questions the wisdom of such a move. And the reasons for it. Looking at the class picture, I know it wasn’t because we were “smarter” than the other kids and we certainly weren’t more mature. I asked my father if he remembers having any misgivings about that decision and he said they talked about it, but immediately decided that it was better to be way younger than the other kids than to be bored in school. Bored? I don’t think I would have been. I don’t remember feeling at all upset that I’d be leaving my friends from that grade. It took a few years for the complete social paralysis caused by being so much younger than everyone else to set in.
Here I am with my seventh grade class. This was the first year that Peterson School had color photos and I wrote on the back of the print: “This picture cost $2.00—outrageous!!” Notice what a shrimp I am in the photo. I’m the geek on the far left of the first row wearing a double-breasted brown suit with dark brown piping. Standing next to me is Steve Wagner, one of the coolest kids at Peterson School, looking like he just finished rehearsals for “Godspell.” I’ve recently been in touch with 13 of these kids, even though I have very few memories of speaking to any of them when I was actually their classmate.
Here’s my point: I am consistently shocked by the memories these people have of me from back then. When I look back at those years, I think of a sad, quiet boy. One who had few friends, was a real loner, and just didn’t want to be noticed. That’s my current version of my childhood. But here are a few of the comments I’ve received recently: “Remember all the phony phone calls we constantly made?” “I thought you and your siblings were such cool kids.” “Remember when you would imitate the teachers and make fun of them in front of the class?” “I loved those great parties you had at your house.” “You were such a happy, outgoing kid.” “Remember the time you came to school and pretended you were Bob Fosse?” Huh? Who are they talking about? That can’t possibly be me. Bob Fosse? Seriously?
Taking a new look at those photos I realize how skewed so many of my memories are. But are my perceptions less “true” than the ones others have of me? Not necessarily. Some people I know don’t understand why anyone would want to connect with people from the past via Facebook or any other medium. These are the people who have no interest in looking back. They would never attend a class reunion, they throw out old letters and photos without a moment’s hesitation, and they are very turned off by personal blogs. They accuse people like me of living in the past. There may be unhealthy elements to my obsession with the past, I admit it. But I also believe that revisiting those fluctuating biorhythms of memory can truly help me understand who I am today.