On Memory

October 27, 2022 § 10 Comments

By Sonya Spillmann

In the shade of a canopied backyard, ten feet away from the base of the giant oak (from which I often pulled bark, I’m sorry, tree) I hold out my thin young arms in a rigid “T.” An imitation. An imagination. I wear white-piped shorts and a page-boy haircut. I must stay as still as possible. 

I cannot keep my arms up like that now, a woman in her forties, for more than a minute without shaking but then, as a girl of seven, I became the shape of a letter for what felt like hours.

From the corner of my eye, a grey squirrel crawls, indifferent, from behind the detached garage, around the lilac bush, and into our back yard. Don’t move, don’t move, don’t move. An incantation. I’m a tree, just a tree, just a tree.  

The creature stops moving, sits back on his hind legs, and shows off the silken white fur of his stomach. I keep my head straight, watch him though, moving here, there, closer, further. Then closer, closer. I hold my breath, close my eyes. It’s as if I can hear the grass move. When I open my eyes again, he’s right under my outstretched arm.  

But then, without warning or notice, not even a chirp or a grunt, he jumps straight up, and bites the supple flesh of the back of my arm. After this, the memory goes dark.  

In the coming years, if a Sunday School teacher places a flannelgraph of all the flora and fauna God made in Eden and the picture includes a squirrel, I shoot my hand into the air, wiggling until I am called on; if my piano teacher assigns a piece called “Let us Chase the Squirrel”; if I meet a new friend and need to brag. I tell this story to anyone, for any reason, until sixth grade, when all the girls cover their mouths and giggle. 

“No, I’m serious, he just jumped up and bit me!”

“Can squirrels even jump that high?” one girl asks.  

I cock my head, never having considered this question before. Never needed to, irrelevant. 

“Can squirrels jump, like, vertically?” she questions. 

I shake my head a little, confused. I’d never seen a squirrel jump anywhere but from tree to tree. But, yes? This one did. 

“Let me see your scar,” she says.    

“My what?”

“Your scar. If you were bit by a squirrel, you’d have a scar.” 

I would have a scar? 

I would have a scar. I stare at her with a blank face, waiting for the room to finish shifting. But—I want to say—I’ve been telling this story for years.  

But, I say out loud, “I don’t have a scar.” 

“Then you weren’t bit by a squirrel.” 


A shrug from her, a head tilt from me. Then the conversation moves along the current that girls this age create with the ease of children circling water with a stick. 

I do not mind her correction, but rather must contend with the unease in my heart. Where did this memory come from? Why did I believe it was it true? If I’d told that story so often, to almost everyone I knew, why hadn’t anyone else questioned me before? 

And now, as I work on memoir, I write the narratives I remember, as I remember them. But because I’m missing no flesh from my arm, I must make room in my heart, if not the page, for possible correction. In the same way that since sixth grade, I begin this same story with, “I used to tell everyone I was bit by a squirrel.” 


Sonya Spillmann, a former critical care nurse, is a writer currently working on a memoir about identity and mother loss. She is a staff writer for the collaborative motherhood blog Coffee+Crumbs and teaches writing workshops through Exhale Creativity. She was a part of DC’s Listen To Your Mother performance in 2015 and has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize. You can find her at her website and reluctantly on Instagram. 

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§ 10 Responses to On Memory

  • This piece, beautifully done, arrives just as a discovered my own less dramatic misremembering. And I appreciate the bit of craft tip at the end!

  • Sally Showalter says:

    Without my diaries when young, and journals since late twenties, and photos, I would be lost at times as to the truth for the most part. I loved your piece and how strong a memory can live as real.

  • Sonya Spillmann says:

    Thank you both so much. I’m writing what I remember, then have to check it against my journals and pictures — yes. Thanks for reading.

  • Jan Wilberg says:

    I love this essay. The myths of our childhood – mine is skating perfect figure 8’s at a pond in the woods. Did this happen? The skating, probably. The figure 8’s were my heart’s desire but doubt the scratches I left in the ice resembled any number.

  • Judy sandler says:

    Not only did I get bitten by a squirrel, a fact I can check, but I find that I, too, as I write my difficult story of raising a child with substance use disorder and mental illness, need to collaborate with my son to get closer to the truth of what happened.

  • lgrizzo says:

    Always an issue – but because you acknowledge it may have been true – or only partly true – the memory can still be yours to keep and write about.

  • sonya ewan says:

    Love it. In your defense, I was bit by a rabbit in seventh grade but I don’t have a scar.

  • By interrogating our own memories, we are often led to new discoveries about our lives and ourselves.

  • vrendes says:

    I love this! So much of our memory is like this. We just think it is all true, whatever that means. All we have is our own perception of what happened. There’s no cam recorder footage. Thank God!

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