I think I was a cat for Hal­loween one year. I have a pic­ture of me in a leo­tard and tights with a con­struc­tion paper ears and a tail and my face paint­ed white with black whiskers.  It’s not much of a tail and I remem­ber being a lit­tle dis­ap­point­ed that I did­n’t have a cloth one with wire in it so that I could make it twitch or at least curl it inter­est­ing­ly. I don’t remem­ber any­thing else about that Hal­loween, or that cos­tume. But I do have the picture.

I’m try­ing to work with the notion of fam­i­ly sto­ries in some essays that I am writ­ing. The need for those sto­ries and the vari­abil­i­ty of those sto­ries and how they orga­nize and glue togeth­er fam­i­lies. The prob­lem is that I need exam­ples and at any giv­en moment in time I can’t just call up sto­ries. My mem­o­ry is entire­ly asso­cia­tive. It’s as if my mem­o­ry is a very tan­gled ball of twine — the only way to find my mem­o­ries is to be offered an end of the string made up of some oth­er mem­o­ry or some remark from some­one. Or a picture.

I have a small album of pic­tures that my moth­er gave to me when I got mar­ried. In it are pic­tures of me as a child and a few of me and my sib­lings.  I love those pictures.

Some of those pic­tures of me are from before I mak­ing con­scious mem­o­ries. There are pic­tures of me being held by my grand­par­ents. One of me as a one year-old proud­ly wear­ing my father’s watch. And oh the hair, bright white and all over the place — fright-wig and looks like Ein­stein were fre­quent remarks.

Slow­ly as a I page through the pic­tures some things become clear­er. I remem­ber a house we lived in when I was  4 and my grand­par­en­t’s back yard. There’s the one of my in a tutu and those blue cat eye glass­es with my friend from kinder­garten — whose name was… oh yeah Lin­da! And how I want­ed to be a bal­le­ri­na — but I don’t think I ever took dance lessons. (If I’m wrong my mom will tell me.)

There are pic­tures of me and my sib­lings. One spe­cial one of the five of us just after my youngest broth­er was born. I don’t remem­ber the pic­ture being tak­en but I do remem­ber the warm Sep­tem­ber day that he was born. The neigh­bor was look­ing after us and told us in the mid­dle of the after­noon that we had a broth­er. And remem­ber­ing that after­noon reminds me of the fam­i­ly sto­ry that’s told about my broth­er’s birth. You see, it’s said that my dad and the doc­tor watched the first game of a Pirates double-header while wait­ing for my broth­er to be born. It con­tin­ues that after Joe’s birth with my dad, the doc­tor, and my new baby broth­er watch­ing the sec­ond game. True? Most like­ly not. But it’s been told over and over again and it does explain Joe’s grade-school obses­sion with baseball.

Once I start down that road — grab that bit of string of mem­o­ry I can find anoth­er sto­ry and anoth­er sto­ry and yet anoth­er. Sto­ries about my broth­ers and their odd­ly bal­anced rela­tion­ship (5 years and a good­ly num­ber of pounds sep­a­rat­ed them but they put up a unit­ed front when­ev­er chal­lenged.) Sto­ries about my sis­ters and their pas­sions, one for music, the oth­er for hors­es. All the things that make my fam­i­ly unique­ly my family.

But with­out the first pic­ture I get no where.

So I keep in my stu­dio a small brown, now quite beat­en up, pho­to album. With a hand­ful of pic­tures. That can send me back in time and unrav­el my mem­o­ry knots. Every time I open it I’m grate­ful that my mom made it for me.

I'm smiling!