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How to carve a bird

Remembering the power to make memories


I will never forget the first memory I told myself never to forget. It happened while my sisters and I were visiting a neighbor with my mother to apologize for my thieving ways, seeing as I had stolen a necklace from their household the night before.

I was 5, and had pocketed the necklace as I was carousing through their house with their kids as our parents boozed it up in the living room. Then, when my dad got drunk enough to start insulting my mother in front of company, it was time to go. The next day my mother saw the necklace on me and asked where I got it, and since I had not learned to spin effectual yarns just yet, I told a very ineffectual one instead, which my mother saw through like it was cellophane. Instantly she had my friend's father on the phone to say we'd be right over to make a big display of apology.

Lord, I did not know what the big deal was with the big display of apology. The necklace was just a charm in the shape of a small beer barrel on a thin silver chain, and even at 5 I knew that if you value something you don't leave it sitting under the bed with cat hair clinging to it. And what's worse is that my mother was a complete klepto herself. She stole ashtrays from Sambo's coffee shop all the time. We had them all over our house, with the logo of the little Nigerian boy being chased by a tiger, and our kitchen dish towel was actually a bath mat taken from a Holiday Inn the summer before, during our sojourn when we moved from San Fernando Valley up to Monterey, Calif., where my mother got a position developing computer systems after my father lost his last job selling trailers. But like all kleptos, my mother kept her own credo; only steal stuff from places that probably won't miss them until after you're gone, pretty much. The apology is not exactly the memory I told myself never to forget, by the way, I just remember it anyway for no particular reason.

Anyway, while we were there making a big display of apology to our neighbor, my little sister Kim, who evidently thought she could fly, began to remove her blue turtleneck all of a sudden. "Fly, fly, fly," she kept saying. Turtlenecks, I suppose, are not aerodynamic. She had almost gotten it all the way off before my mother dove over the ottoman to stop her.

"Let her fly," the man laughed.

And that is the image I told myself never to forget, that of my mother diving over an ottoman to keep my sister from stripping, and our nice neighbor laughing to let her fly, because it just so happens that seconds beforehand I'd had the revelation that I could make memories, and to demonstrate it to myself I swore I'd memorize the next instant forever, and the next instant my mother dove over the ottoman. It has no significance other than it happens to be the first memory I told myself to keep after I realized I had the power to keep them.

And once I discovered the power to keep memories, it was like I couldn't stop using it. After our big display of apology, our neighbor showed us his workshop where he carved wooden figurines. His specialty seemed to be the little birds that pop out of cuckoo clocks, because shelf after shelf was packed with these little wooden birds.

"Wow," my mother exclaimed reverently, which was unusual. I'd never seen my mother act reverently to anyone, but this man had been very gracious in the face of our big display of apology, so the least we could do was act impressed with his pieces of workmanship. My mother picked one up and said, "I could never carve a bird."

"Sure, you can," the man said. "You just take a hunk of wood, visualize the bird in your mind, then cut away anything that isn't the bird."

This must have been meant to be a joke, because my mother laughed like she was watching The Carol Burnett Show. Then we went home and I never, ever, not once, saw that man again, though years later I would find one of these birds in my mother's effects. I don't know whether my mother had stolen it or received it as a gift, and she wasn't around to tell me, but I do remember that after the man told her how to carve a bird, she in turn told my father if he ever insulted her again she'd leave him in the dust like a dead bush. They had a huge fight after that, but she stuck her ground, and looking back I wonder sometimes if my mother hadn't learned to carve a bird for herself after all, if she hadn't visualized what she wanted and proceeded to cut away anything that wasn't in that picture. Let her fly, the man had laughed. So my mother flew. This is not exactly the memory I told myself never to forget, but I remember it anyway for no particular reason.

Hollis Gillespie will host her Shocking Real-Life Memoir Writing Seminar in Charlotte on Sunday, Jan. 20. For more information, visit

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