Ever since I can remember, every time I’ve felt nervous or panicky, I’d hum Beethoven’s Für Elise, the first 30 seconds of it, repeatedly and it would calm me down. You know the tune I mean. Da-dah dah-dah dah-dah dah-DUM, dah-dah dah-dum, dah-dah dah-dum. I don’t know why I hum that particular tune. I don’t know why it works, but it always does. In fact, I hummed it for years without even knowing what it was called. I found out accidentally in fifth grade when my class went to the opera house on a field trip to learn all about symphony orchestras. That was the first time I heard the whole thing and not just the first 30 seconds on repeat.
I assume that it’s buried in my memory from the time before the fire. I remember nothing from before the fire. The doctors said it’s not unusual for that to happen when a child experiences major trauma at a young age. I was six when my house burned down and my parents died. The fireman found me hiding in my bedroom closet. I never spoke about the fire or my parents after I got out of the hospital. My father’s Aunt Alice, my only relative, took me in and raised me.
Like many people, I have smells and sounds that are attached to memories or emotions. The smell of tangerines always puts me in mind of Christmases with Aunt Alice. The tree smelled of pine and the kitchen smelled of cinnamon and fresh-baked cookies, but it’s only the scent of a tangerine that triggers the memories. There’s a certain song from my teen years that reminds me of my first heartbreak, and every time I hear it on the radio, I am transported back to the school gym where Steve Harper broke up with me at the Winter Wonderland dance. There must be a reason that Für Elise calms me down when I’m upset. And, although I don’t know the origin of this connection, I’ve used it when I needed it. I hummed it on my way to take my driver’s test and my SAT. I dah-dah-dum-ed my way through it as I unpacked in my dorm room freshman year at BU, worrying if I’d like my roommate.
I had a happy childhood with Aunt Alice. She had had no children of her own and she has told me more than a few times how glad she was that she got the chance to care for me. She always referred to it as a chance and not an obligation. I couldn’t have asked for a better parent. Even though she was technically my great aunt, she was only thirty-six when she took me in. My parents had had me when they were twenty and Aunt Alice was much younger than her sister, my paternal grandmother, becoming Aunt Alice to my father when she was only ten.
Aunt Alice had a wedding photo of my parents on the mantle in the living room. They were laughing in the photo. When I first moved in with her, Aunt Alice would tell me stories about them, how happy-go-lucky they were, how much they loved me, but I would shake my head and say that I didn’t remember that. I didn’t remember the house or the town we lived in, either. Every moment of my life before Aunt Alice came and took me from the hospital had been erased from my mind. After consulting a professional, Aunt Alice stopped talking to me about my parents and, at the suggestion of the therapist, waited for me to bring them up or ask about them. I never did. The photo remained on the mantle.
After my happy childhood with Aunt Alice, I went off to college. After graduation, I came back to live with Aunt Alice and work in a local bank. We had our own lives, but we enjoyed each other’s company. Aunt Alice owned an antique store and on Saturdays we’d go yard sale hopping, as she called it. She especially liked block sales, where several families living on the same street would get together and all have yard sales on the same day. We’d drive in her pickup truck to the sales in case we bought anything big.
The day I’m going to tell you about, the day all the memories came rushing back, was a Saturday. Aunt Alice had found a decent prospect in the Friday evening paper for yard sale hopping, a ten-family block sale in a middle-class neighborhood. The day was warm and sunny, a late May day, perfect for finding good buys on the front lawns of suburban hoarders.
We were at the third house on the street. I was wandering among the chachkas, when the little box caught my eye. It was a child’s jewelry box, about the size of two fat paperbacks, lying flat and stacked one atop the other. It had colorful flowers and butterflies on a lilac background. There was a drawer in the front with a tiny gold knob and a hinged lid that opened on the top. It drew me to it like a magnet. I picked it up with a mixture of fear and love. My hands trembled as I flipped up the latch and opened the lid. A tiny plastic ballerina on a spring popped up and began to twirl, a heart-shaped mirror on the lid’s underside reflecting her pirouettes, while Beethoven’s Für Elise played.
Suddenly, the sights and sounds of the yard sale around me disappeared, and the memories came flooding back, home-movie-like scenes of my life before the fire. People yelling and throwing things, people lurching, banging into walls and furniture and falling down, the sound of someone being slapped in the face, voices expressing disgust, remorse, anger, sorrow. The memories quickly overwhelmed me, the scenes blurred, and the sounds merged into white noise and the only discernible thing left I could see and hear was the tiny ballerina spinning around and around and the tune playing. Darkness closed in on me from all sides.
“I remember,” I whispered, before falling to the grass in a dead faint.
I awoke on a reclining Adirondack chair in the shade. Aunt Alice was bending over me, patting a cool cloth on my wrists. I had another cool cloth draped across my forehead. A woman I didn’t know was standing in front of me, holding a glass of water. A child of about eight was fanning me with a Chinese rice paper hand fan, waving his arm up and down in large sweeping motions and causing a slight stirring of air to wash over my left ear.
“I’m fine,” I said, as I tried to sit upright.
“Jimmy, stop!” said the water-glass-holding woman as she batted her hand in the boy’s direction.
Jimmy stopped fanning me. He looked like he could use some fanning himself. The exertion from waving his arm around had turned his face red and sweaty.
The woman thrust the glass of water at me. I took it from her and sipped at it.
“Thank you. I’m fine now. Really.”
Aunt Alice looked me up and down, nodded her head, and told everyone that I’d be fine, just a little too warm today. We’d sit quietly for a minute and then she’d take me home.
Jimmy and the woman walked off to man their yard sale tables and Aunt Alice adjusted the Adirondack chair so I could sit up and then perched on the edge.
“Do you want to talk about it?” she asked, gently.
“Did you know?” I asked Aunt Alice, “Did you know my parents were both alcoholics? That they fought all the time? That they got falling down drunk and had physical fights and loud arguments?”
Aunt Alice looked stricken when she answered.
“Oh, my darling, no.” She leaned over and game me a squeeze. “I did not know. I thought they were happy. They were, at first, when they lived here in town, but they moved soon after you were born and I didn’t see them much after that.”
“How did the fire start?” I asked, “Did the police tell you?”
“They said it was a grease fire that got out of hand.”
“I think they must have been having a fight,” I said, “And walked out of the room, forgetting about the dinner on the stove. It wasn’t the first time the dinner was burnt because of drinking and fighting. I remember a black, charred chicken one Sunday and several times when the smoke alarm went off.”
“I should have known. I should have noticed something.”
The pain and guilt in Aunt Alice’s eyes was too much for me.
“You couldn’t have known. You didn’t see them every day. And they didn’t do it every day. Please don’t feel bad.”
“But, why now?” Aunt Alice asked, “What made you remember it all now?”
“It was the ballerina jewelry box. It’s a musical one. I had one just like that one on the table over there. Whenever my parents would fight, I would take it into the closet and close the door. I’d take a flashlight and the music box into the closet and sit way back in the corner. I’d wind up the music box, open the lid and stare at the ballerina while the music played. That became my world until the fighting stopped. A tiny world of me, the ballerina, and Für Elise. That must be why I hum that bit of music when I’m nervous. It calms me down, just like the musical jewelry box did when I was a kid. It saved me the night of the fire, too. I was hiding in the closet with the music box because they were fighting again. The smoke hadn’t really gotten to the closet when the fireman found me. If I had been asleep in my bed or in another part of the house, I might have died of smoke inhalation, too.”
Aunt Alice turned to look at the musical jewelry box sitting on the folding table across the lawn and gasped.
“I gave you that box,” she whispered, “On your fourth birthday.”
I hugged Aunt Alice tight.
“See? You’ve always taken good care of me. Let’s go home now.
© 2019 Liza Cameron Wasser