“Little men,” Kathleen said.
“Little what?” I asked. “I don’t know what you are talking about.”
As part of my research to learn what happened when I burned my leg at age two, I was asking friends, relatives, siblings – anyone really – what they remembered about the accident. My sister Kathleen, four years older than me, was a solid bet. She would have been six years old at the time and in kindergarten. Where I always questioned my memories from the time as a two and then three-year old in the hospital, all the research on memory told me that she would have a far more accurate fact set from the time.
But when I asked her to provide her memories, she quickly and curtly responded. “Little men. That’s what I remember.”
I asked again, “What are you talking about? I don’t know anything about little men.”
She tossed back her head in what looked like a gesture filled half with amusement and half with frustration. “You got all these presents and you got these little men. I think Judy Schumacher gave them to you. Don’t you remember? They came in individual boxes and were all connected on a long blue ribbon. We opened them in mom’s closet when you were home from the hospital.”
Like a Polaroid picture, the little men developed right in front of me. Of course I remembered. It was a full set of miniature Disney characters – everyone from Snow White to Captain Hook.
“My favorite was Captain Hook,” she said as if she could see them as clearly as they were appearing one-by-one in my mind’s eye. I loved those little men and remembered playing with them. They were a child’s delight and I had forgotten about them for many years.
I had even forgotten about the conversation with Kathleen until last weekend. We were at winter “Gallagher weekend,” our semi-annual family get-together with siblings and kids. Kathleen and Susan, my other sister, met with me on Saturday night after most of the kids had gone to bed to give me some gifts for my December birthday.
It was there that Susan handed me that small white box. I opened the lid and drew back the paper to reveal eight little men. At first, I did not know what they were. They seemed so small. I pulled them out one by one. “Are these the little men?” I asked in disbelief.
“They couldn’t be,” Kathleen said.
“Yes, they are,” Susan said.
“Where did you get them?” I couldn’t help but ask. More than 40 years had passed.
“I found them in a box at my house,” Susan said as if it was the most normal thing possible.
Found them in a box at my house? How does anyone find anything 40 plus years later? How do you find something you weren’t looking for? The questions flooded through faster than I could process them.
I picked up Alice in Wonderland, with her white tights, flowing blond hair and bright blue dress. She was real. They all were real.
“What happened to the other ones?” Kathleen asked.
“I honestly don’t know,” Susan said. “I remember we played with them a lot Annie. Maybe we divided them up at some point and I took these. Maybe you lost the other ones.”
I didn’t know. It didn’t really matter.
What mattered right now was that another piece of the puzzle had fallen in place. Another memory I had in my mind, one that I wasn’t sure if I created or if it was real, had revealed itself in eight tiny little men.
I imagine that for more people it’s okay if their childhood memories are bit fuzzy. For me, I look at my burned leg many days and am not sure if I remember being there when it happened. I am not sure if I made up my memories or if what I remember is real. I am sure there is a psychological theory to explain why it’s so important to me to know if I actually remember the pictures left in my head or if I merely created them based on stories I heard over the years.
I so want the pictures to be real because whatever the storyline, the burns are real. Was the accident so real that I had to manufacture a story and pictures to protect myself? Or, did it happen as I remember – everything in slow motion and me watching my story unfold, not feeling any pain. I was not in my body as it happened but watching from above the kitchen stove, wondering if my mother would come in time to rescue me, if I would drop back in my body or just keep floating upward.
Seeing the little men – Alice in Wonderland, Jiminy Cricket, Captain Hook, Gepetto and four of the seven dwarfs – was an unexpected confirmation. That simple confirmation created a healing connection for me.
I did remember. It was okay. The images in my mind were right, they made sense. I didn’t have to worry about them anymore.