My mother rarely drank, but she was tipsy on Merlot when I arrived. She’d invited my brother and me to her house for a late New Year’s lunch of salmon and wine. I would have tried to weasel out of it, claimed I had to work, but I wasn’t well. Afflicted by ataxia, I walked slowly, as if I was approaching eighty instead of thirty, and if I was without my cane, I lurched like a drunk. Pain traveled my body, circling through my veins. Two months of this and I was still awaiting a more specific diagnosis, though an MRI showed a shrunken cerebellum, the part of the brain that coordinates balance and voluntary movements. It seemed cruel to avoid my family.
My mother set a full plate in front of me and leaned against the table, picking up her wine glass. Her head wobbled, her eyes were hooded, she wore a dreamy smirk as she served up a section of my childhood. “Ya’ll haven’t forgot the Kiddie Park?” she said, and because I hadn’t thought of the place in years—she hadn’t mentioned it in years—I wondered if she would’ve asked if it weren’t for the alcohol.
My brother and I nodded. Her eyes widened. She often complained that we cling to amnesia, and after she tried to evoke good memories by sharing Kiddie Park anecdotes, I admitted that most of my childhood memories were formed by her recollections, her retellings, and that my Kiddie Park memories were blemished by the discomfort of tiny rides.
“I outgrew them,” I said. “I climbed into a baby elephant or frog, some animal, and my legs were just a little too long, but there wasn’t enough room to fully cross them.”
“I remember that,” my brother said.
“Do you remember your sides hurting?”
He laughed, and later I began to wonder if he remembered waving to our mother, smiling as he squirmed inside those tiny rides. A year and a half later, when we were sharing an apartment fifty miles north of her, I asked him about this and he said, “Is this for that story you’re writing? You seem to remember more than I do. I only remember what you’ve told me.”
We’re at the Kiddie Park, a miniature theme park of rides, game booths, and concession stands, where hot dogs turn, popcorn tumbles, and candy apples gleam. It’s a day park, but it stays open after dusk, when moonlight and park lamps converge above children on rides too small for older kids, those at the other end of grade school. Beneath speakers sprinkling nursery rhymes, I climb inside a baby elephant, next to the baby giraffe that holds my giggling twin brother. I giggle too as the carousel revolves, baby animals rising and falling, a synchronized dance to “The Wheels on the Bus.”
Each time we circle around, we catch a flash of our watching mother, who waves and beams. The only ride that can hold her is the miniature train that transports visitors. Walking would be faster and more comfortable for her, yet she and the other parents squeeze onto the train, their knees bumping the seats in front of them.
If my brother and I behave, if we don’t fight each other or run from our mother in opposite directions, she buys extra candy apples to take home. She stores them in the refrigerator, above the crisper, and instructs us to save them for dessert the next night.
In the morning I open the refrigerator to stare at them. Bubbles suspended in a red candy coating, glittery behind Saran Wrap, clear and crinkly. As the day passes, my looking progresses to touching. Touching to sniffing. Then peeling back the wrapper to lick, a taste of pure sugar. Eventually I take a bite, crunching and snickering with my brother as he bites into the other one. Later, after my mother cleans the kitchen and goes to her bedroom, I bite into the de-candied apple, and I’m disappointed at its watery blandness, its flavor stolen by the sugared coating I ate hours before.
Whose memories are these? As I wrote them, these images came clear to my mind. I invented nothing. But I can’t say precisely when I first visited the Kiddie Park. Similarly, I don’t remember when I stopped going—until I was seven? Ten? Twelve? Until I refused to go? Many of my memories are influenced by other people, stories they’ve told me, forgotten incidents, and I wonder how much of those nostalgic, candy-appled recollections of the Kiddie Park belong to my mother.
My physical therapist pushes me. Literally. Each visit, she nudges me from all sides while I cane my way down the hall. Sometimes she takes the cane, straps a pink belt around my waist, and walks beside me as I concentrate on each step, willing sore legs to move. Without my cane, walking requires the concentration of balancing along a tightrope. Occasionally I tip, and without my therapist by my side, holding that belt strap, I would fall to the floor.
My mother eventually dropped the Kiddie Park from conversation and replaced it with bigger parks: Six Flags over Georgia, Six Flags Astroworld, Disney Land, Disney World. Surely such large places couldn’t be forgotten.
“Ya’ll remember at Disney World people would point and say, ‘Hey, it’s the Grant twins.’ And I was all, ‘How do they know our last name?’ Then we’d get in line for something and the ride operator would announce over the loudspeaker, ‘We have the Grant twins in line.’ I was looking around saying, ‘What is going on here?’ until a woman tapped me on the shoulder and said, ‘Ma’am, your sons. They look like Horace and Harvey Grant. Identical Twins. NBA players.’”
Like us, the Grant twins were thin, black, bald, and wore prescription sports goggles.
What my mother must have hidden in this retelling is that she had been more frightened than puzzled by the attention paid to us. She’d suffered abuse from a childhood in rough neighborhoods, and even as an adult in the Air Force. She kept a close eye on us, her only children. Too close. She wouldn’t allow us to ride our bicycles off our street or visit our neighbors’ homes. Rarely could we play in their front yards. And when she started a small business, a promotional company, which required her to travel the country for conventions, she took us with her.
These road trips were exciting early on. Homeschooled kids, eleven, twelve years old, my brother and I enjoyed daylong car rides, sleeping in, eating fast food, playing Gameboys as the landscapes changed. Deserts to valleys. Valleys to mountains. Mountains to neck-craning skyscrapers—glassy constructions.
In these skyscraped cities: Atlanta, Houston, Orlando, among many more, we remained isolated. Our mother splurged for expansive hotel suites with kitchenettes, huge beds, and big screen TVs.
She instructed us to use the TV for our school tapes. Instead we copied answers from her teacher’s key while we watched cable. We enjoyed these distractions, though we felt they were intended only to divert us from our isolation, and over time we would become resentful as we watched teenagers on TV live normal teenaged lives, entire days spent out in the world, at school, at friends’ homes, and local hangouts.
I lacked the maturity to see my mother’s protection as love and if I wasn’t envying fictional, televised lives, I stood at the window, gazing down on microscopic bodies busying sidewalks, crossing streets, entering yellow taxis. Headed somewhere. My mother, worried someone would abduct us, forbade us from opening the door. For anyone. No housekeeping. No room service. Stay inside until I come back.
When she came back, she took us to those theme parks. Six Flags over Georgia, Six Flags Astroworld, Disney Land, Disney World. Although Disney World feels vaguely familiar—I remember crowds, heat, long lines, and the disappointment of finding sets of my favorite kid shows empty of child celebrities—the memories of these theme parks, like memories of the Kiddie Park, derive from my mother’s perspective, her retellings.
At the treadmill, my physical therapist straps me into a harness and drops foam blocks onto the belt as I walk ten minutes at one mile per hour. She assigns homework. Every other morning, standing on achy feet, I move my head up and down ten times. Then left to right. First with my eyes open, then another ten times with my eyes closed, an exercise that’s meant to restore my balance.
“What about Pear Apple County Fair?” my mother asked while she washed dishes after lunch, dividing her gaze between the sink and the window. She lived in a quiet neighborhood, each street lined with identical houses, safe as a family sitcom. In the summer, unaccompanied children biked, rode skateboards, and played basketball in the streets. Toddlers tricycled up and down the sidewalk while their parents watered lawns and sipped sodas on concrete porches. “Don’t tell me y’all done forgot Pear Apple County Fair.”
“I seem to only remember the end of things,” I said, then recalled for them how the park closed down—became an empty parking lot behind locked gates. “But by then I didn’t care,” I continued, “because it had already been ruined for me. Remember the field trip we took there? In fifth grade?”
“Oh, yeah,” my brother said, sitting up.
During that field trip I felt more rational than ever, and I explained, or complained, about how ridiculous our classmates seemed, blowing their parents’ money on tokens to buy tickets to buy the same toys and candy grocery stores sold for a fraction of the price.
My mother shook her head. She sighed. After she cleaned the counters, she tossed the rag in the sink and took her glass of wine to the living room, where she plunked down on a recliner. The footrest rose. The chair squeaked. Across the room, the TV boomed.
In her retellings, threats loomed on the periphery, never puncturing my world, because in her retellings she had always been present to protect me. If I’d have mentioned the first theme park I visited without her, would she remember? What would she remember? That my brother and I rode a half hour across San Antonio with Andrew, our fourth grade classmate, and his family? How much more Merlot would she pour if I mentioned that his parents trailed us at Fiesta Texas, that they stood outside of the ride and food lines and sat at separate tables during lunch—tacos and churros paid for with the money she’d given them? Would she relax if I told her that, although they kept their distance, we felt safe because they never let us wander from their sight? Or would she have thought them negligent since she would have stood beside us at all times?
Here’s where she’d gulp. At the water park, Andrew’s parents sit on a bench while he, my brother, and I splash in a wave pool, glittery beneath the Texas sun. Park attendees of all ages fight faux waves and dive underneath them to escape the heat. I dive too, switching from a doggy paddle to an underwater glide, surfacing to giggle beside my brother and Andrew until pain ripples through my calf. The muscle tightens and clenches as I struggle out of the pool and limp, teary-eyed and dripping, to my friend’s mother.
Beside her sits a quiet husband, who gazes into the wave pool, bobbing his head to Tejano music. My ache recedes as Andrew’s mother massages my calf, the muscle loosening under her fingers. “You have a Charlie horse, mijo,” she says. “It’s no big deal, but maybe it’s time to go home.”
For two years right after high school, my brother and I lived away from our mother, first with a friend and his family, then on our own in a one-bedroom party pad. When our lease ended and the apartment manager refused to renew it, we couch surfed around Northside San Antonio until she took us back. How did it feel to return home after failing to emerge into adulthood? Here. Here’s a day I remember on my own.
In a crowded mall, I’m transfixed by a self-playing piano. A Kiddie Park regular, I’m five or so, young enough to wonder what supernatural force animates this instrument—a ghost? A magician? An invisible musician? Modern technology doesn’t enter my mind, and I just stand there, in awe, until a security guard taps my shoulder and asks me about my parents’ whereabouts. A lost child, I cry until my mother emerges from a crowd of shoppers with my brother at her side, their faces agitated with panicked desperation. When she spots me, her facial expression transforms to relief. Then to elation. Mirroring my own.
On New Year’s, as I drove home from my mother’s lunch, I felt a tinge of guilt for lying about my memories, for ruining her fun. Guilt shifted to pity when I replayed her recollections and heard them as a construction of memories—of a life she couldn’t return to. Who could blame her? Nostalgia comforts when the present overwhelms and the future, what’s visible, looks bleak. If I clung to amnesia, as my mother claimed—that whiteout for painful memories, how it comforts, too—she clung to theme park memories because her sons no longer lived with her and one was ill, his health an internal danger doctors didn’t understand. She had no clue how to protect him.
On the third floor of a hospital, I follow my physical therapist to a treadmill. She straps me into a harness and gestures for my cane. When I step on and hand the cane to her, she leans it against a table and turns on the treadmill, gradually increasing the speed until the belt loops at one mile per hour. I hear my breaths and grip the rails until she promises I won’t fall.
I let go.
Bernard Grant is a doctoral student at the University of Cincinnati, where he is a Yates Fellow. He’s also received residency and fellowship support from The Anderson Center, the Jack Straw Cultural Center, Vermont Studio Center, Sundress Academy for the Arts, and Mineral School. He holds an MFA from Pacific Lutheran University and his stories and essays have appeared or are forthcoming in Crab Orchard Review, Lunch Ticket, Stirring, and The Chicago Tribune. He’s the author of two prose chapbooks, Puzzle Pieces (Paper Nautilus Press) and Fly Back at Me (Yellow Chair Press), and serves as associate essays editor at The Nervous Breakdown.