The Struggle to Preserve Personal History: What Happens when the Tangible Reminders and Memory Keepers are Gone?

The other day, my husband learned that the apartment in which he grew up in Rome was being torn down. It was built during the post-war economic boom of the 50s and 60s when Rome emerged from the rubble and restaked its claim as the Eternal City. What a word–eternal. Appropriate for a place where structures from the ancient world stand amongst the innovations of modernity. Eternal life, however, was not granted the home of my husband’s family, its existence lasting a mere sixty years.

The razing of that building is the obliteration of a small piece of history, personal as well as cultural. After hearing the news, my husband turned to me and said, “It’s as if none of it ever existed. My parents, theirs lives, their accomplishments, all of it, gone.” It is true–his family kept few photographs; the older members have passed away. What is left to keep their history alive other than the memories of my husband and his brother and cousins?

When the tangible reminders and the memory keepers are gone, what happens to what has been? The thought that the history of our existence fades away is terrifying. Perhaps it is because we find ourselves in middle age that my husband and I are struck by the profundity of loss. I too am in a desperate scramble to gather the remains of my fading history. My parents’ home is going on the market. Before dementia took my mother’s mind, she maintained the house as if it were a museum. Once she was gone, my father seemed to engage in a mission to erase her, dismantle the home she had preserved so carefully and start anew. Books were removed from bookcases and tossed into the garage; family photos were thrown into the basement along with holiday decorations and garbage. My husband and I would go to the house and try to clean the messes my father made only to discover the work undone a few weeks later. Searching for treasured books, photographs of my grandparents and any reminders that that there were some happy times has been like sifting through ashes.

Last week, my brother and sister-in-law called with happy news–they had discovered the boxes containing the portraits of my grandparents and mother when she was a little girl. I had been struggling with sleep for the weeks leading up, haunted with the notion that if we didn’t find these things, we would would have failed in our responsibility to preserve our family’s history. The discovery of those photographs has brought a measure of peace. What would have happened if those had not been found? Who would hold the image of those people, most of whose physical bodies have long since crumbled to dust?

I can still smell my grandparents’ house. I can still hear them, see them, feel them, but I cannot hold out something to my children and say, “Here, this is what my grandparents’ house smelled like,” or, as if I had a magic conch shell say, “Press your ear here. This is how my grandmother sounded when she sang.” All I can do to keep them alive is share my memories and show photographs.

Years ago, when my mother-in-law was visiting from Rome, I caught her sitting in silence, staring at the children. She was smiling and, when she discovered me watching, explained in her broken English, “I am taking a picture in here,” pointing to her head, “to keep with me when I go home.” How I wish it were possible-this preserving of memories. But the mind is fragile, and I have watched as memories slip away until a person no longer knows her own self.

The idea of losing memory is terrifying because it is a reminder of our mortality. The truth is most of us fade away. Even if our portraits are meticulously preserved, after a generation or two, who will care to look? Perhaps that is why we create art-music, paintings, poetry. If we create something that remains, a piece of us remains as well.

How ridiculous. The hubris of it-this need to stick around and be remembered. But most of us want to be remembered. We want to remain. If we turn to dust, what was the point of the suffering, the struggle, the battles we waged to survive in this world for the time we did? I am afraid to disappear. I am afraid to let my grandparents and those I have loved disappear. The thought of it is unbearably frightening, unbearably sad.

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