Many years ago, during a trip back to my native Scotland, I decided to visit some of the houses I’d lived in as a child. One of my sisters decided it would be fun to accompany me on my trip down memory lane, so I bundled my infant son into the back of a hire car and headed off down the road, my sister with an old creased map in her hand, and me with a lot of old memories swirling in my head.
Half an hour later, I was looking out the car window at a cold, grey farm cottage. The broken windows and the peeling paint on the front door told me that it had been abandoned many years before. I half closed my eyes and tried to conjure up an image of what it had looked like when there were six people crammed into that one-bedroom house. The years slowly slipped away, and I was transported back in time, to when I was five years old.
We got out of the car, walked across to one of the windows and looked into the gloomy interior.
“Do you remember that horrible purple jumpsuit I used to have?” I said to my sister. “I remember swinging on it from a clothes hook in the coat cupboard. I had to stop when I almost tore the hood off.”
“The purple jumpsuit wasn’t yours, it was mine!” she said, in an unusually possessive tone. “And I was the one who used to swing from it.”
“I think you’re mistaken. It was mine.”
“I’m not mistaken,” she said, forcing a smile.
“Look! The old tree’s still there,” I said, pointing to a sycamore at the side of the house in an attempt to change the subject. “Do you remember when I fell out of it and gouged a huge hole in my leg?”
“Are you sure that wasn’t David?” she said, referring to my brother.
“No it was definitely me,” I said, as I rolled up my trouser leg to show her the old scar on my shin.
“You didn’t get that from the tree; you got it falling off a bike,” she said.
The excitement that I’d felt as we were driving up to the house began seeping out of my body; it trickled down to my shoes and then disappeared into the dark earth beneath my feet.
We drove to our second house in silence.
When we got out to inspect the newly renovated bungalow that looked nothing like the old house we’d lived in, I felt the cold wind tugging at my inadequate jacket. We stood there in silence for a few minutes, neither of us attempting to translate our memories into words for fear that the other would write them off as false.
That was twenty years ago. Now, as I attempt to write a memoir about my childhood in rural Scotland, I’m forced to re-examine my memories of those early years. I’ve often asked myself what I should do about those competing stories.
After much soul searching and talking with other people about their childhood memories, I now know that each person’s truth is unique. We all think differently and have our own version of the truth.
I can only be true to my version.