The Color of a Memory

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Photo of colorful collage by Janet Rebhan

Referring to my novel, Finding Tranquility Base, a reader recently asked me how I could remember so many details about West Texas when I haven’t lived there for many years. I’m not sure I have the answer for this other than to say that when I experience something provocative, my memory backs it up into a neurological database that would make the NSA jealous. I then weave the memories into my stories, and it doesn’t always happen consciously.

I can recall a time when I was about eight or nine years old when my mother drove us home from some after-school activities down one of the main streets in our little town. I rode “shotgun” in the front passenger seat next to Mom, and my big sister and little brother sat in the back. (I no doubt had to arm wrestle my sister for the coveted front seat spot, but oddly, I don’t remember that part). The sun was just beginning to set and the street lights were starting to come on. We pulled up to a red light and there was a tall lean man with bright red hair standing on the corner closest to my side of the car.

Now, in our little town, we just didn’t see that many redheads, especially with such brightly colored hues like this man sported on his head. We also knew most of the people in town already, and this man was a STRANGER.

The man was cleared to walk across the intersection, but he just stood there looking at our car. This made my mother a little uncomfortable, and she instructed my sister and me to lock our doors. I asked her why, and she quickly replied, “So the redhead can’t get in,” referring to this man by referencing his most obvious feature.

We dutifully did as we were told, and I would continue to stare at the man until the light turned green. Was he really up to no good? Or was he simply waiting on someone? I turned my head to keep my eye on him as we drove away. He stared back, watching our car until we disappeared from view, still never crossing the street.

For the next few months, I looked at all redheaded people, whether in person or on television, with suspicion. Then one day, I asked my mother about the incident. She hadn’t even remembered referring to the man as a redhead; only that she had felt his behavior to be odd and she feared he might try to hop in the car with us. She laughed at how I had equated the color of the man’s hair with his behavior, and from that day forward, whenever anyone in my family asked someone else to lock the doors, the rest of us would chime in, laughing, “So the REDHEADS can’t get in!”

Years later I would create a female character in my debut novel with striking red hair. There was never a debate in my mind as to what color her hair would be. It just came to me from the very first draft and I never changed that particular detail. And wouldn’t you know, this redhead would turn out to be someone whose motives were questionable?

And so goes the creative process. Imagination works in mysterious ways…

Or something like that ;)

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