I’ve never been able to play Tetris. I’ve stacked the red, the green, the yellow and the blue, but I’ve just never been able to stack them without holes. Sometimes I think my mind trying to knit all my memories together is a kind of Tetris – like maybe I have a buildup of odd layers because I can’t make them fit as nice and pretty as I need them to, or maybe because I let them timeout, decide I don’t need them. But unlike a game of Tetris, I don’t have the ability to hold a chunk of time until I’m ready to handle it.
My mind does not distinguish difficult memories from the kinder ones. I should appreciate this mercy, be willing to lose childhood and adolescent joys in order to lose what weren’t. Unlike a video game, these blocks of memory fall on their own; I am not the god-hand choosing where they go.
Tetris makes the gaps visible. Sometimes when I play, I get too confident, stacking the oblong geometric shapes quicker and quicker until I lose my focus, start dropping shapes without an eye for where they fit. That’s when I drop bright green “L” shapes upside-down, forming a dark gap where there should be solid neon green. This false confidence is what causes me to lose the game every time. My highest score boasts only 49 line clears in twelve minutes. I think I lose control of my memories like that, get too far into the groove of remembering and then lose control, let it all go far enough I can’t keep up the rhyme and reason necessary to maintain order. Those losses are harder to accept, harder to reconcile. I can’t select a level-one-difficulty in accessing old memories.
My mother had stillborn twins just over a year before she had me. They were the only full-blooded biological siblings I had: two full-term girls who never grew up because of a blood clot. Some days I wonder if I would have been born had they survived. I wonder who I might have been instead, how my life might have gone.
My mother must be like me, missing chunks of time. Maybe she’s missing blocks of knowing, like knowing that the tiny child I used to be knew what she was talking about. She gets angry when she tells a story from my childhood and I can’t help her fill in the details. I wonder, too, if this is one of my shortcomings, one of the reasons I can’t fill in that gap for her.
When I was diagnosed with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), my psychiatrist didn’t mention it outright - the Zoloft was an in. I remember him saying the words “it should help with the PTSD too” and feeling lighter, not because I romanticized my illness, but because of the validation. My therapist told me my need for validation stems from the verdict of my father’s court case. I learned later, on my own, that memory holes are common for people with PTSD.
I didn’t tell anyone about my father until high school. I told the two twin boys I knew from school first. The shorter twin knew me first, so he knew first. I remember telling him late one night when I still lived in the house his brother would visit innumerable times down the road, and I remember him being kind. He was soothing, like aloe on a burn I’d been ignoring for years. His brother learned later that year and said, “Don’t worry, I don’t think of you any differently.” I hadn’t considered he might have.
Part of the reason I never learned how to play games and rarely watched classic movies was the absence of my father and the fact that my mother had to fill too many roles to be as present as most mothers are. She went to law school, tended a bar, tried to be a mother, too. My great-grandmother, Granny, retired long before I was born, so she filled a lot of the gaps in my parenting. She took me to school, taught me to cook, even taught me how to make coffee. Granny was the most stable element in my life.
She made it to her late eighties before she started forgetting things. I was in college by then. My cousin tells me it’s because she’d done everything she could to keep her brain strong; she’d had a good career for a woman born in the 1920s, working as an office secretary on Robins Air Force Base in the civilian department. She’d raised two children and kept up with the cooking and gardening on top of her work. She was still gardening when the signs started to surface, like forgetting phone numbers she’d known for decades.
I used to swear I never wanted children because I was afraid I’d marry a man like my father. He kidnapped me. Twice. At least that’s what my mother tells me. I think there’s proof somewhere; I just haven’t looked for it. I heard the story a dozen times before I met him again, wondered if he could really be as evil as my mother claimed he was. When I was a junior in high school, he kidnapped his four other children and drove them from Guadalajara all the way to Georgia. My mom helped him—she still loved him. I hadn’t told her yet. Some people might call a love like that toxic; little did we know my mother’s frequent illness around the same time was caused by my father dosing her coffee.
I left for college at seventeen, moving out of Granny’s house for the second to last time of many. I promised to call her every day, though I fell short a few months in, failing to call even once a week by the time I graduated three and a half years later. By then, she could still remember who I was most of the time, but details like my name and whether or not I’d married and had children yet were hard to grasp. She often thought my sisters were my children and would ask where my husband was. She’d always been one to go through the slew of names before she found the right one, but “Gena, Kristi, Jayne, I mean Scarlett, can you go check the mail,” soon turned to “girl, can you go check the mail.” She began to ask about my sister, the one my age. I had become two people.
During the first few months after graduating from college, I spent time with Granny while my mother was at work. The hours alone stressed Granny out, and Nana was worn thin from spending most days away from home to care for Granny; she’d been doing it for well over a year then. So while I was waiting for acceptance to grad school, I decided my best bet was to cook for Granny. She wasn’t able to cook for herself anymore, and at this point even making a plate was difficult, so I bought portioned containers that could be warmed in the microwave to replace the daunting serving bowls.
She loved southern staples. Chicken and dumplings, sweet potatoes, and butter beans. I made them her way: bacon and broth with oil and salt in the pot for seasoning, beans boiling in the water while the meat brought a southern flavor that somehow always made her face light up. Each week when I brought her the initial plate, a helping of each, carefully portioned because she hated to waste food, she’d smile and ask me, “Who taught you how to cook like this?”
Thanksgiving 2010 brought me something I’d always wished for, a new reason to give thanks: my father’s sisters and other extended family came to our house for a meal. I finally had a need to juggle two sides of a family. I made the dressing my mother never had, and the butter beans, too. Mother carved a turkey, and I stirred the pitchers of sweet tea. I ended the night with a recipe from my other great-grandmother, my father’s own Nana.
There’s a picture of him hugging me right before prom my sophomore year. He had bought my dress. He bought me lots of things: the dress, the supposedly indestructible digital camera that broke six months later, fancy foods I’d never tried before. I still felt troubled hugging him, still felt anxious when he looked at me.
I studied abroad in college. Five weeks in Europe made me want to do it again, so I made plans to study abroad in Russia and visit high school friends in Germany. When I couldn’t afford it, my father wanted to talk to me, then give me money to go on my trip. We hadn’t spoken in almost four years. I didn’t go to Russia.
The Christmas of my junior year in high school is one neon block of memory I’ll never lose. I’d been standing idly by while my mother helped my father bring his four children from his second marriage to America despite his lack of custodial right. I began to babysit those four siblings with my mother’s two. All six of my siblings were in one house while my parents worked on a case to try and get custody.
Christmas lunch at Nana’s brought us away from my father and the children. Some of my mother’s family was still raw from the court case, unwilling to forgive him and ignore the things I’d said. My aunt looked at my mother and said, “I can’t believe you’d bring him back into your life after what he did to Scarlett,” but I didn’t hear her from the other end of the room. All I heard was my mother telling me to take my sisters to the car, that we were leaving.
I grew up unsure as to whether anyone in my family knew what had happened to me. In the car, my mother called my father and relayed my aunt’s message. It took fury for me to say anything to her –
“Hang up the phone,” I said.
“I’m talking to your father,” she responded.
“Mother, hang up the phone,” I said, this time angry enough that she did.
I remember that conversation clearly—there aren’t holes in that row of memory blocks. When I close my eyes I am there again, strapped into the front seat of the car on Christmas day. I am asking my mother if she’d ever bothered to ask me about any of this. I recall clearly how my heart pounded, still anxious to speak on it despite no recollection of threats from my father. I recall, too, how her eyes opened too wide, how she focused so hard on the road as she drove us home that day. I remember how she asked me to detail what had happened, and the pain and humiliation of saying those words in front of toddlers.
Mother cried after that trip in the car. She locked herself in her bathroom as though she was the one who had been wronged and I had done the wronging. I had been wrong to wait so long to say anything, to let things get so far. I put all of my siblings in jeopardy knowing just how dangerous my father could be. How does one fit these pieces together? She had the right to hurt, the right to crumble having loved a man like that and likely feeling violated herself. When she came out, she told my father never to come back. He’d told her I made it up. At least she believed me.
Mother’s addiction came soon after that. Now, I don’t blame myself most days.
I remember the night we knew Granny didn’t have any sense of her life left. She decided she wanted to go home; she decided this from her chair, the taupe recliner with a pink throw over the back that she sat in every day. Dementia patients aren’t swayed by logic. I’d read up on it quite a bit before she got to this point; I wanted to be prepared and college had taught me to do my research. Nothing I said or did could convince my Nana to read the books and listen to what I was saying. When Granny called Nana her mother, Nana thought it was something she could relearn. When Granny forgot her home was indeed her home, we were all upset, but I was the only one who understood. You cannot fix what dementia has broken, you can only try to soothe the aches. I strove to be a buffer between the disease and the people I loved, filling as many gaps as I could for those around me.
I don’t remember everything that has happened in my life. There are months, sometimes whole seasons, that are lost. I remember one instance in which my father molested me very clearly, so clearly sometimes the PTSD sends me into a seemingly-unending flashback in which I live it again, only this time I am twenty-two, not four, so I know what is happening and still cannot change it. I do not remember much of the beach vacations my mother took me on after the custody case was settled, but I do remember cutting my foot on a shell, I do remember the counselling at Crescent Building in Macon.
No amount of reading will teach me what happened on the childhood days I cannot remember, yet I find myself hidden in between pages more days than not. I’ve always read to learn. I spent a good portion of my childhood like that, heard my Nana say, “you’ve got to go outside, you can’t live your life just reading books.” She was right, so I took the books outside.
After every local nursing home turned us down, I did some research and drove down to Miona Geriatric & Dementia Center in Ideal, Georgia. It was over an hour away. I was newly licensed and driving old highways I’d never even ridden on before. The high ratings were enough to draw me in, but we’d been given a short time estimate before we would lose her. It was too late for Miona to be a feasible option, but I toured anyway. With her hospice and hospital records in hand, I walked in the doors of the small facility and saw the opposite of what I’d seen before.
Granny could have been number 87 of the 88 capacity if she still had time left. A small old woman from Cordele asked my name and told me her story, one that the director knew so well he could whisper it to me before she got the words out. I envied that woman. I still do—I wanted, for a moment, to have a memory that held nothing but the essentials, that held none of the grief of what seemed like a long lifetime. A single row of blocks with no holes, that’s what I wanted then.
I don’t remember any of the case, but I know that my father went to court for the molestation. He got off with no penalty, a “not guilty” verdict. There wasn’t physical evidence, just my tiny words against his. It was all intermingled with the custody case too, making the accusations seem hollow - another chance for my mother to be made into the red-headed crazy woman. Pair the accusations of sexual abuse with her telling me not to tell the lawyer I loved my father—so many times that I cried in that lawyer’s office—and I was the unreliable child of a slanderous mother.
I remember the child psychiatrist who asked me to name the various parts of genitalia on crude photos of animated bodies, but I don’t remember what happened while I sat in the room adjacent to the courtroom, or whether that was the trial my father’s name was cleared due to lack of evidence, or the one my mother won full custody plus child support. I remember the delicate gold necklace with an angel my mother sent with me when my father had visitation rights, but I don’t remember telling the counselors he touched me.
When people suggest I try to have my father charged for my molestation now, knowing what I know and having the adult ability to define what happened to me, again I am reminded of Tetris. Being the victim on trial means having to drop pieces of memory together cohesively and quickly, though that speed makes for a great deal of mistakes. Like Tetris, those memory holes could pile up on each other, leading me to failure.
Each time I try to tackle the holes I let myself get aggressive, look at the blocks around them like things to conquer. I have a mean streak, the leftover fury at my mind for locking certain things away from me for my own good. I am angry for the happy memories my trauma has stolen from me. I spent a great deal of my life thinking I was the one playing Tetris with my own memories and failing to put the pieces where they should go. I don’t know who’s in control now, but I do know I can’t force my memories to fit where they don’t want to. Just as Granny couldn’t control how her dementia moved around chunks of her memory, deleting whole rows she would’ve liked to have kept, I cannot control how my trauma has caused my memories to shift and be deleted.
There are more gaps to be filled. I ponder hypnosis but can’t afford it. I can’t decide whether I want to access the parts of my mind that have hidden themselves from me or move forward with my fractured memory. Trauma has run so much of my life that some days, I want it all at the forefront to fill in the blocks, the oblongs, the spaces my should-be brilliant mind cannot. I don’t need them to be bright colors, don’t need the tidy, ninety-degree angles Tetris boasts. I only want a full line of memory, at least one.
about the writer
Scarlett Peterson is a Georgia native who received her B.A. in English and creative writing from Kennesaw State University. She’s currently working on an M.F.A. in poetry at Georgia College. Her poetry has appeared in Pamoja, Five2One, Serendipity, and Pennsylvania English. Her nonfiction has appeared in Pamoja and Madcap Review. For inquiries she can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.