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.

All Saints’ Day-1985

There is something about this time of year that always gets me thinking about the past, specifically autumn of 1985.  I was entering into the second year of my seven-year exile on prison grounds, and, sadly, I was no happier than I was the year prior.  I was starting a new school for the second time since our relocation, and, despite my protestations, my parents decided it would be best to send me to a Parochial school rather than the local junior high.  So, in September I donned my Catholic school uniform and made the long walk down the hill to the main road where I boarded the bus.  It was a seemingly endless journey to my new school, past prisons and tobacco fields, until we reached the “industrial” side of town where the bus deposited me at the entrance of a very small school.

There’s just nothing like entering a new school in the seventh grade, especially when it’s the kind of school where all the students have been together in the same tiny class since kindergarten.  And this school, situated in the center of an ethnic neighborhood, was not in the type of community that saw many newcomers.  It was a Polish school, and, as I would soon learn, Polish was often spoken, not during instruction but at other times- between teachers, teachers and students, the students themselves.  This would have been  fine…except for the fact that I am not Polish. I just felt tremendously out-of-place.  It was disorienting.

Well, that year I was not the only unfortunate to be starting seventh grade at my new school.  There was a group of families from a neighboring town that also migrated to this school and parish.  They were unique bunch, each family consisting of anywhere between seven to nine children. As it turned out, these families had been banished from their local Catholic church for participating in “cult-like” activities.  Apparently, they believed that the second coming of Jesus Christ was imminent and that he would  be  returning their rural town.  Years later, when, out of curiosity,  I researched this group, I  was horrified to learn of the deviance of some of its members.  But, at the time, that was not common knowledge.  All anyone knew was that they seemed a bit strange.

Anyway, being a new kid is school stinks, especially when you are eleven years old.  And new kids gravitate to other new kids.  So, when the new kids from the neighboring town offered me their friendship, I gratefully accepted.  Of course there was always something different about my new friends, although I couldn’t quite put my finger on what it was.  They were just so unlike the kids I hung out with from back home.  My old friends and I all came from similar backgrounds.  We were middle and working class and lived in either tiny 1940’s capes or 1970’s ranches.  We went to school and girl scouts together.  We were silly and had fun. I remember laughing…a lot…about ridiculous things.  We ran through backyards playing hide-and-seek and tag.  We played with Care Bears and Smurfs and Cabbage Patch Kids, and I think, for the most part, we were all relatively happy.  But these new girls were different.  They were dour.  But they offered friendship, and that I would have accepted from anyone.

After about a month, my new friends began inviting me to their homes for sleepovers.  I remember well the long and lonely drive to their houses.  We passed prisons and corn fields, tobacco fields and old colonial houses until we finally reached our destination.  Their homes were so unlike anything to which I was accustomed.  They were large, large enough to accommodate families with eight and nine children.  And they were old and, well, from my standpoint, creepy.  As a matter of fact, one of my friends informed me that her living room was haunted.  I believed her, and, now as an adult thirty years later, I still believe there was something off about that house.  There was a feeling, a flat, sad, heavy, lifeless feeling to her home.  Just like my new friend, the house was somber and cheerless.  It was as if it existed in a dream and its reality was from a time past.  It was eerie.  I remember not being able to sleep when I stayed there.  Insomnia, true insomnia, which plagued me into adulthood, began in my new home on prison grounds and settled in during my stays in that house.

I vividly recall one chilly autumn day when I packed up my overnight bag and headed over to another one of my new friend’s homes.  Again, it was large, large enough to accommodate my friend’s eight other siblings and her parents.  It was the day after Halloween.  What’s funny is that I don’t remember what I had done the night prior.  Did I go trick-or-treating?  Who knows?  I can recall every Halloween I had ever celebrated, except for that one.  Perhaps it’s because the events of the day after overshadowed the festivities of the night before.  What I do remember is sitting down for dinner at the kitchen table with my friend, a handful of her siblings and her parents.  I remember the mother saying in a rather serious tone, “Okay.  Let’s get the saints.”  I recall following my friend and her siblings into their dining room where, on the sideboard, was a vast collection of saint statues.  We carried the statues back into the kitchen and placed them on the table.  Confused, I tried to figure out why we were instructed to place the statues on the table beside the pizza. I sat there in silence.  Probably what was most distressing was that placed directly in front of me was the statue of Saint Michael slaying the devil.  Now even as a child, there was nothing that scared me more than Lucifer.  While other kids were afraid of monsters and burglars, I was afraid of the devil- the one with the tail and horns and pitchfork; the one on the Red Devil Paint cans.  As a matter of fact I remember having one of those cans in my house for some reason and turning it around so I wouldn’t have to see the picture on the front.  And now there he was.  In front of me.  Being slain.  Saint Michael slaying the devil with his scales and horns and tail right in front of me.  During dinner.  Sitting there, I wondered what was going on, but it all became clear when the mother instructed us to bow our heads and began to pray.  Then she thanked God that we were all gathered together, celebrating All Saints’ Day with the saints.  It was just too much.

If only I had the courage to call my parents and ask them to get me the hell out of there.  Instead, I stayed.  Insomnia kicked in, but I made it to morning.  And I think, although I don’t remember, that when my mother picked me up, I probably enjoyed the ride home, past the old colonial houses and barren trees, past corn fields and tobacco fields until I was nice and safe, back home…on prison grounds.

This is a re-edited version of a piece I posted last year.

The Season of Death and Dreams

AutumnDeath&Dreams

It astonishes me how one season can be both profoundly beautiful and profoundly sad.  When I was ten years old my family moved from a small industrial city to prison housing in a rural farming community.  At the time, my father was the assistant warden of a maximum security prison, and high level staff and their families were expected to live on the grounds.  Although we made the move in late August, for me, my seven years there are frozen in autumn.  Our home, one of four, was set upon a hill.  In back of our house-forest. In front of our house-fields. And if you looked past those fields, you could see a medium security prison looming on the horizon.  It was an isolating and lonely existence, and, no matter how beautiful the landscape was, for a child used to a neighborhood and city kids, it was, well, sad.  In my memory the sky was always gray, the trees always bare and the ground always covered in a blanket of the decomposing remains of what was once vibrant foliage.  What strikes me most, however, is the perennial sound of honking geese.  Prior to our move, I think it is possible that I had never before heard geese much less seen them flying overhead in V formation.  But there, in that place, geese were omnipresent, honking, flying overhead, reminding me that I was a stranger trapped in a place that they were escaping from, if not forever, at least for the impending winter.

As I have grown older, I have learned to truly appreciate and, in many ways, love the fall.  Fall is now a time of beautiful traditions-apple and pumpkin picking, hiking and collecting leaves while watching beams of sunlight shoot through tree branches, already majestic and adorned in gold.  I look to my children to teach me lessons in optimism.  They jump for joy into piles of dead leaves while happily awaiting the first snow to arrive and cover naked branches in crystal that shimmers in the light of the winter moon.

I guess it’s a matter of age and perspective.  It is so easy to allow deep sorrow born from past experience to rob us of the happiness that comes from enjoying the beauty of the life we now lead.  For me, I prefer to march on through dead leaves and enjoy hearing them crunch underfoot as I move on ahead.