Sunday, September 7, 2008

Borderline Memories

There's something missing in the memories of my youth. There's quite alot missing, actually. I have only the most skeletal memories of my early years in Brownsville, Texas, where I was born and lived until the age of five.

I'm not even sure my memories are truly memories; it's more likely that they are artifacts of photos I have seen of that time in my life.

There are pictures of Ginger, our Staffordshire Terrier who, I'm told, was hyper-protective of our family and a cold-blooded killer of cats that made the mistake of entering our yard. Poor Ginger's death at the sharp claws of a cat who tore open the stitches from a fresh surgery of some kind, then, was ironic. But are those my memories, or are they artificial imprints of things I was told later on?

I do remember, albeit very, very vaguely, that one of my sisters somehow ran into a low-hanging branch of a big mesquite tree during what memory tells me was a rainstorm. The blood and the angst I remember were not from photos; they're either the real thing or they were manufactured from a recounting of the event in later years, when I was old enough to be regaled with stories of my youth.

There is the photo of me as a towheaded five-year-old, standing erect and wearing my red-striped shirt, shorts, and straw hat, that gives me a glimpse of our dusty yard and a dog house in desperate need of paint.

One memory I know did not arise from photos or stories is of me crying and pleading to go with my father, who was leaving on one of his weekly trips around south Texas to sell lumber to lumberyards. Petra, our sometimes maid, restrained me and comforted me as my father walked out to his car, which was parked in front of the house. I don't remember much else about that scene, but now that I think about it I remember another aspect of Petra. She used to make leche quemada, a sweet dessert made of condensed milk and sugar and not much else, boiled on a stove top until it was thick and a rich beige color.

Somehow, when I read books that describe a dust-swept life along the border or see films about migrants living in tiny cardboard shacks along the river, I feel as thought I know that life and I have experienced that life. My emotional connection to the people who lived, or who live, along the border, people who have struggled to eke out survival from an unforgiving land and an unforgiving people, is strong but completely without a rational basis. When I read stories about Mexicans who carved out a life along the north side of the border, working hard just to put food on the table and an inadequate roof over their heads, I feel a kinship with them.

While I've searched my memory for recollections of desolate life along the Texas-Mexico border, down along the Rio Grande, anything that would help explain that emotional connection I feel for border life, I can't find it.

So, I suppose I'll continue to wonder why I feel this strong sense of connection with the border of the late 1950s and early 1960s.

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