DestinDonnieMeanKittyThe Creative Habit by Twyla Tharp

Ch 4. Ex 9. Mining for Memory in a Photograph

Examine a family photograph. Study it. What do you see in it that is indisputably similar to your life today, to the person you’ve become? What is vaguely similar? What bears no resemblance or suggests nothing memorable? What ended up the opposite of what you see? Why these four different outcomes? Explain this to yourself. In doing so, note the people and events that spring to mind. What faces appear unbidden? When was the last time you thought of these people?


Detailed Description

The image is old, cloudy and faded but the memory is sharp. I find myself filling in details that are not strictly visible. The foreground of the image is dominated by my face. My head is tilted to the side and I am squinting upwards into the sun. My expression is very serious and intent. I look a little annoyed. My hair is straight and smooth, but loose strands are hanging out of place. My ear is showing. It is un-pierced. The white tan line from my bathing suit sticks out against my darker skin. The nightgown is grayish-white in the image. It has cap sleeves and a small lace neckline. I seem to have my hip cocked just a little. It puts my body towards my brother but my shoulders away. I am holding a small kitten in my hands. It is black and white with bits of orange. It is standing up and moving around. It’s head is facing downwards. My hand is wrapped around it just a little as if you keep it from diving forward.

My brother Donnie is standing beside me. His hair looks like a blond football on his head. HIs face looks very round. he is squinting too but he is trying to smile. I can see that he is missing teeth. He has freckles on his nose from the sun but his skin is lighter than mine. He is wearing a vintage-styled, mint green T-shirt with dark green trim. It has the logo of the Incredible Hulk on it. His arm is around my waist. His fingers are not casual. They are digging in to my nightgown. His cheek is pressed close to my arm. His head is pushing my shoulder back a little. He is leaning towards me with his body just a little. His shirt is folded upwards a little. I can’t tell why. He could be holding something in his other arm. He may also have one arm inside his shirt.

The background is an ordinary brick wall. There is an old ten-speed bicycle leaned against it. It is hard to tell if it is brown or red in the photo. It is a tall, skinny bike. It has the kind of curled under handles that require the rider to lean forward. The wheels are thin with lots of spokes and a reflector.



My Mom picked this image and sent it to me. It was a good choice because it was an ordinary day but there are strong memories attached. The picture itself contains a powerful sense memory. I can feel it when I close my eyes. Some of what I remember is not about the picture, but the context surrounding it.

The picture was taken early in the morning after feeding the kitten. We wanted to take her picture so we went outside to get better light. The memory is so powerful in my mind that I feel myself painting in a great deal of depth and detail. I think most of the memory is real, but of course I think that. A memory of a memory of a memory must have flaws all along the way. I suppose what matters is what I think I remember. It was extremely hot. I could smell the heat on the dirt in my Uncle Kelly’s little garden. The dry grass stretches across the yard but the ditch behind the back fence was full of green weeds and vines with purple flowers on it. I used to feed those purple flowers to the rabbit “Cherry Eyes.” I don’t know if the bicycle belonged to my step-sister Donna, or to my Uncle Kelly. I think it was brown and it belonged to Kelly. I don’t think we had the red one yet. I think she got that the next year.

My nylon nightgown, which was lavender not grayish-white, had a scratchy facing on the inside. The gown was a little too small and it was sticking to me uncomfortably in the sun. I always loved nightgown sets. I used to pretend they were royal robes. Every time I outgrow one I would ask for another. The one in the picture was not one that I liked. It wanted it to have a waist like the dresses you saw cartoon characters wear. I also wanted pink. I don’t think I ever had a pink one, but I always wanted one. The nightgown smelled like old perfume and sweat. I wonder if the memory of the perfume is real? I know that was the year I discovered Paris perfume from a box full of perfume testers. It remember putting that perfume everywhere but I don’t know if this picture was taken before or after I did that. Maybe it was before but my mind is inserting the smell. My hair was tangled around the hair barrette. It was a tortoiseshell barrette with an alternating pattern of yellowish brown and darker brown. My Mom put it there to get my hair out of my face. My hair was fluffy and tended to tangle and fly away. It was never smooth and perfect as I imagined the other girls in my class. I remember that it was the thing I disliked about my appearance. I was wearing a very thin gold chain. I didn’t have a lot of jewelry so I feel as if I should remember what it was. It is right there, on the edge of my mind. I know it was significant to me but I just can’t remember  why. My ears were un-pierced. I wanted them to be pierced but my Mom would not let me. I was barefoot. We were standing on cold, smooth cement right outside the sliding glass door. There was grit under my feet. I had to look up at my Mom. That is so strange. I outgrew her quite early on. The sun was extremely bright. Somehow I thought I was prettier if I didn’t smile in pictures. Mom did not tell me to smile so I didn’t but I was happy to have the kitten.

Donnie is holding on to me tightly, leaning towards me. He smelled like himself, like a little boy who played in the dirt, but also unique, sweet and milky and kind of like bread that is getting a little stale. His hair was dirty and his fingers left a damp, gooey spot on my arm. I didn’t like that. His fingers were stubby, with short, dirty fingernails. He sucked his two middle fingers all the time. There were tooth marks imprinted on his knuckles. They always felt slimy. He was gripping my waist. His T-shirt was soft and clean. I remember that shirt. I think there were others like it with other super heroes. I think I may have had one too, or maybe it was my shirt and then his. I am not sure. I don’t think he was wearing pants when we took the picture, but he may have been wearing those short basketball-like shorts that little boys wore back then. He was barefoot and his toes were dirtier than mine. His skin felt like fire against me. Everywhere we touched got sweaty and sticky.

The memory brings back a whole jumble of contextual memories. We lived on Wares Ferry Road in Montgomery, Alabama. I was in the second grade, for the second time at Wares Ferry Elementary School. It was a tough year. All my years at school were tough. I hated it. I was unhappy all the time. I struggled with everything. I didn’t fit in with anyone. I didn’t have any friends. The kids, as kids often are, were cruel. They threw rocks. I spent my free time playing under the bushes by myself. I read books at lunch.

I guess I should have liked class time, but I didn’t. I always thought I was doing things correctly, but it always seemed to be wrong. The teachers thought I was broken and needed to be fixed. I knew that but I didn’t understand it. They moved me to the “slow table.” I knew all the answers. The slow table was ok though. No one was mean to me there. The work was super easy. I remember waiting on the teacher a lot and watching her at the other tables. I don’t think she really spent much time with us. There was a stigma attached to that table. Everyone knew there was something wrong with the kids who say there. The teacher had dark blond hair that looked solid to the touch. I don’t remember her name. I don’t remember the other kids at the table. I think there were 5 of us. It was one of those odd shaped, curved tables. The other kids had desks pushed together. I think I just sat there and daydreamed a lot. The school sent me for tests and more tests and more tests. I liked tests so that didn’t bother me. Then my Grandmother found a doctor, a specialist in working with children with neurological issues. They sent me to him. I don’t remember thinking anything bad about all the tests. I knew something wasn’t right and I wanted to fix it, but I don’t think I connected that to any deep fault within myself. I was mostly just confused. I didn’t know why the other kids did not like me and I definitely did not understand what I could be doing wrong in school.

The doctor said I had a problem called “incomplete dominance.” I remember that phrase coming up a lot. The doctor studied it. I think it turned out to be a kind of quack-theory that was not well accepted by the scientific community. The way it was explained to me then, he said that the two halves of my brain were not working together well because I did not have enough dominance on either side. The result was an inability to communicate my ideas through secondary methods. Information was going into my brain just fine. I interpreted it. Then I expressed it in writing, but what I wrote was not what I thought I was writing. I am not so sure about his diagnosis, but the explanation of the effects seems pretty accurate. I was already an avid reader many grade-levels past were I needed to be. I spoke clearly. My vocabulary was considerably advanced. The problem seemed only to manifest when I was asked to produce something. Even copying directly never produced replication of what I was given. It made it difficult to figure out what I actually knew. I don’t remember having any problem with multiple choice tests. I do remember that I liked them. I just struggled to write what needed writing. I suspect my teachers thought it was behavioral, but it definitely was not.

Doctor Co (I am not sure how to spell his name) designed a therapy program for me.  I had to do all kinds of weird exercises. I had to crawl on the floor and look at my hands. I had to walk pointing at my feet. I had these very strange glasses with a red lens over my right eye. I had to write with a red pencil so that I could only see what I was writing with one eye. Then I read through a green sheet of paper. I had workbook activities I was supposed to do. I really hated all of this. The physical exercises were extremely boring. The books were far too easy for me and not the least bit interesting. I would much rather have just sat around staring into space and daydreaming than do any of it. My mother used a tried and true parenting tool to ensure my cooperation. She bribed me.

I really wanted a cat. I wanted a cat with the desperate passion that only kids seem to have. It was as if having a cat would solve all the problems in the world and make everything ok. My Mom promised me that if I did my exercises, she would get me a cat. In hind sight, I wonder if she really planned to do it. It is entirely possible that she was not going to, but fortune intervened. My Grandfather found a tiny kitten in the ditch near his house. It was almost dead. Its’ little body was full of maggots. Its eyes and ears were not even open. He probably should have killed it and buried it, but he never had the heart to do things like that so he rescued it instead. he took it to the vet. When it got  a little stronger he gave it to us and we raised it with a bottle. We named it “Miracle.” That is the kitten in the photograph. It is an ironic image because the kitten is so small and sweet and we were so pleased to have it. However it turned out to be the meanest cat that ever lived. Seriously, that is a story all its own. That cat was a legend in her own time. “Miracle” morphed into “Mean Kitty.” She definitely was not the answer to all the words problems.

Mean Kitty was supposed to be my cat, but my Mom made me share with Donnie. I really didn’t like that. I was always frustrated when I had to share with Donnie. Donnie and I were very different. It was obvious from the day he was born. He was loud and wild and rebellious and generally disruptive. He was always into something. It seems as if I was perpetually trying to get away from him. He used to lay outside the door and kick and scream my name until my Mom, instead of punishing him, made me let him in. Then he would take my stuff and mess things up and generally do the obnoxious things that little boys seem genetically program to do to older sisters. I think he always loved me more than I loved him. I can see it in the picture, in the way he is holding on to me. I am sure my Mom told us to hug but I probably did not cooperate. I can almost feel my resistance, even now, over thirty years later. I feel the way I was pulling away on the inside as much as the outside. I wish I understood myself better, and know why I felt that way. I mean -really-, he was obnoxious, but why was I so rigid?


Exercise Questions

What do you see in it that is indisputably similar to your life today, to the person you’ve become?

I look much the same. I still tilt my head to the side when I take a picture. I still prefer not to smile. Somehow the idea that I am prettier when I don’t smile has seeped into my subconscious and I can’t seem to rid myself of it despite evidence that it is not true.

I still love long nightgowns. I still don’t have the perfect pale pink gown I used to wish for. My hair still gets in my eyes.

I still wear the same perfume I have always worn. The scent permeates everything.

On a deeper level, I see the similarity in my relationships. I am still somewhat rigid. I resist deep connections. I don’t like to feel obligated. I like people. I love them. I feel deep and intense passions, but I rarely allow any degree of emotional codependence. I tend to hold myself separate, the same way I was separating myself from my brother.

I am often resentful if I feel intruded on. I resented sharing my cat with my brother. I am still the same way. If I feel pushed to share beyond what I have offered, I become very stubborn and unyielding. I back myself into a corner and build up a protective zone that says “you will not pass.” If anyone is fool enough to pass, I am likely to have a highly emotional explosion. It does not usually work out well for anyone.

Donnie was just the opposite. He was wild, crazy, irresponsible and completely dishonest but he was very loving. He was always the one to initiate affection. He was always able to be close to people. He always loved me.


What is vaguely similar?

My artistic hands are beginning to develop in the picture, but there are only hints. As an adult, I think my hands have become quite highly expressive. They are proportional and well-shaped despite the crooked fingers I inherited from my Grandmother. The nicks and scratches and jagged edges tell stories. They are strong, competent hands capable of work that is both rough and delicate. In the photograph I see how soft and small they are. It is hard to believe they were ever mine.


What bears no resemblance or suggests nothing memorable?

My skin is much lighter. I use sunscreen religiously. My hair has changed. Sadly, despite assurance that it would get better with age, it actually got wilder and more unmanageable. The difference is that now I like it.

Donnie is gone. In the picture, I am part of a pair. I thought I would always be part of a pair: “Destin and Donnie.” Even if he drove me crazy, he was part of me, like an arm or a leg. I could be annoyed but I couldn’t be rid of him. When I see this picture, it is almost like it is a photograph of another person. It is some parallel universe when I existed differently than I ever will again.


What ended up the opposite of what you see?

That cat was possessed by the devil. I don’t actually believe in the devil, but for that cat I make an exception. Everyone says they had the meanest cat, but trust me… Mean Kitty (aka. Miracle) was the Queen of Mean. She didn’t just scratch if you did wrong. She actively pursued her victims, human and animal alike. She used to lurk around corners so she could jump out and attempt to disembowel whatever poor soul she latched on to. She growled when she ate. She hissed when you looked at her. Also, she remembered. If you bothered her, she might not get you then, but she would plot her vengeance and execute it when you least expected it. She looks so sweet in the picture, but it was all a lie!


Why these four different outcomes?

I wish I knew the reasons for all of it. Why was I and have I remained, so rigid and resistant? I genuinely don’t know. Why was Donnie so totally opposite of me. You would think siblings (though technically we are half siblings) would have more in common. I suppose genetics has a lot to do with it. he is a lot like his Dad. Despite the fact that I did not meet my Dad until adulthood, I seem to have a lot of him in me. Maybe we were simply doomed to be different from each other.

I guess I can say that I am the way that I am because I was lonely or sad or whatever other elements of childhood I want to address, but ultimately all of those things happen to lots of people and they react very differently so how can I say what made me the way I am? Some things seem to simply be innate.

My brother died on April 8, 2008. That changed everything. Losing a sibling is losing a part of your identity. Things can never be the way they would have been when a part of yourself is gone. It isn’t a loss that can be adapted. It just has to heal over and leave its’ scar.


Explain this to yourself. In doing so, note the people and events that spring to mind. What faces appear unbidden? When was the last time you thought of these people?

It is strange that the image made me think of elementary school and the doctor and therapy. Well, I guess it isn’t strange. The picture was taken when it was all happening. The kitten was directly related to the therapy since it was bribery to complete it. It just isn’t something I think about a lot. I can’t say that I understand it all that well today. I obviously don’t have those problems anymore. It is hard to understand why I was that way. Sometimes I think it was just a simple childhood phase that I grew out of the way children grow out of all kinds of other things. Maybe there was never anything wrong with me at all. I never felt insecure about it. I never doubted my own intelligence. It is just an episode in my life. Remembering how I was treated in school is unpleasant. That probably increased my existing tendency to resist deep connections. It obviously had an effect, but it is still a memory that rarely surfaces. When it does, it lacks emotional resonance. The picture brought it back a little. It made me a little angry to think about it.

When I look at the picture I can see my Uncle Kelly in my mind, even though he is not in the image. He was a big part of my life then, so his face keeps flitting through the slide show of images. I see him the way he was then, not the way he is now. I have to struggle to reconcile the image of him as a tall, young man with floppy blond hair and an abundance of energy to the older bald fellow who seems to always be on the edge of a nap. I don’t see him often so it is nice to remember.

I keep trying to see my mother in the picture but I can’t. I know she took it. I know she fed the kitten and taught me to do it. I can picture her hair swinging under her arm while she takes the picture, but I can’t see anything else. She isn’t a big part of this memory. I talk to her quite often. She is part of today as well as yesterday. That could be why her memory-self is not making an appearance.


Additional Images

These are the other images my mother sent me for this activity.

This image shocked me because she did not tell me she was going to send it. I was expecting another family photograph. The tombstone is on my mother’s land but I have only visited it once. I did not look at it very closely. I don’t know why I avoid it, but I do. I wasn’t expecting the image to pop into my E-mail.
This picture was taken a couple of years after the one with my brother and the kitten. We are in a new house and preparing to go out for Halloween. I did not select this image because I don’t have strong memories associated with it. There is not much action and the costume mask conceals Donnie’s face.
This picture was taken before the image I wrote about, I probably would have written about this one but my Mother sent it last and I had already begun the reflection. This shows my mother, my step-sister at ten-years-old, me at four-years-old, my grandmother and my little brother at about a year old.