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.

Loneliness and Literature


backlit dark dawn environment

Photo by Pixabay on

Some say they read literature to build empathy and develop a deeper understanding of lives different from their own. It sounds so selfless, so noble. But, if I am to be honest, I am neither as selfless nor as noble as that. Sure, one of the benefits of reading is that it invites us to reach beyond ourselves and our limited knowledge of the worlds outside ours, but, for me, what I like most about literature is that within it I can find myself and in doing so feel less alone in my own small world, for my world, as all worlds are, is a lonely place. We are solitary creatures-no matter how many people surround us, no matter how many friends and relationships we forge, we are alone with our thoughts, our memories, our secrets.

Sometimes readers and writers remain strangers, walking side by side, appreciating the company, but, in the end, they develop no greater understanding of the other than in the beginning. But there are other times, when somewhere in the forest of thought and words, there is a flicker of light, and under that light the writer fully sees the reader and reveals to her what before was unspoken, hidden, buried.

Sometimes a writer looks at you and tells you who you are. Or tells you that you are not alone, for she is the same as you, at least in that moment, in that thought, in that action. This, for me, is the greatest gift the writer bestows upon the reader.

I do not possess the ability to retain and perfectly recall hundreds of lines I have read in books from years past. There are only a handful which I carry with me, but these have been my companions, assuring me that someone else, some writer at some moment in time, felt the same way I did, and we met once when I wandered into her world of mystery and words, and in a flicker of light she saw me, and I understood that I was not alone.

Here are a few of those lines:

“The real loneliness is living among all these kind people who only ask one to pretend!” Edith Wharton, The Age of Innocence

“I’m inclined to reserve all judgements, a habit that has opened up many curious natures to me and also made me the victim of not a few veteran bores. The abnormal mind is quick to detect and attach itself to this quality when it appears in a normal person, and so it came about that in college I was unjustly accused of being a politician, because I was privy to secret griefs of wild, unknown men.” F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby

” ‘You will have only one story,’ she had said. ‘You’ll write your one story many ways. Don’t ever worry about story. You have only one.’ ” Elizabeth Strout, My Name is Lucy Barton

“What if my whole life has been wrong?” Leo Tolstoy, The Death of Ivan Ilyich

What lines do you carry with you? When has an author echoed or articulated your thoughts, secrets, fears? What has an author said to reassure you that you are not alone?



Thoughts on “A Midafternoon Lunch in New England on a Gray December Day”

I wrote this four years ago, and, since that time, have often thought about the couple in the restaurant. I hope they are still well, but time when you are in your twilight years moves faster. Time in your middle years moves faster; I know because that is where I find myself today-thinking about that restaurant, that couple, my husband and children as we were when I first posted this, and that gray December sky; the same sky I tried to ignore at the restaurant; the same sky that I see now as I look out my window.

Here is the original post (with a few minor edits).

I was intrigued by the elderly couple who sat across from us at the restaurant. It was her, really, who called my attention. She had to be in her late seventies, perhaps early eighties. And she was beautiful in a hearty New England way. I would venture that she might not have been considered beautiful in her youth, but at that moment, as the beauty of others her age faded, she was vibrant. She was robust, not lithe; her face full and happy; her skin porcelain and glowing. Her eyes were blue, but what struck me most was that the lids did not sag with the heaviness of age. Those eyes sparkled large and childlike. She drank a cocktail and breezily chatted with the gentleman who sat across from her and whose back was to me. I gleaned that he, with his nearly bald head resting upon a neck buried deep beneath hunched shoulders, was older, mid-eighties maybe.

It was a dreary, gray December day, and it seemed that the only place to be was a warm New England restaurant. All you had to do was ignore the view from the window and enjoy the soft lamplight of the indoors. As we shared a bowl of mussels, my husband, children and I chatted about our son’s birthday and Christmas and the wonderful things we planned to do over the winter recess. From time to time, however, I couldn’t help but study the elderly couple across from us.

There was a gorgeous bouquet of peach and white roses on our neighbor’s table. Their anniversary I figured. “How wonderful,” I thought. How long must they have been married? Fifty years, give or take? And still, seeming so much in love. They chatted away, her voice somewhat high pitched and girlish. She reached across the table for her companion’s hand. She smiled and giggled and sipped her cocktail, and, at one point, she belly laughed. It was the kind of deep, uncontrollable, sincere laugh that, unfortunately, you seldom hear. She laughed so heartily that, try as she might, she couldn’t stop herself, and you didn’t want her to stop for the sound of her laugh was so cheerful.

Later, a guest from another table approached the couple to congratulate them on their anniversary. Then she asked how long they had been married, and I waited for the response, certain for it to be forty, fifty, perhaps even sixty years. The elderly lady smiled and said, “It’s our one year anniversary.”

And just like that, the entire narrative I had created for our neighbors dissolved; yet, they were still so captivating, so charming, more so perhaps. Now there were so many questions. What had her life been like? Did she spend the first thirty years of her adulthood in a loveless marriage? Was she widowed while raising young children? Did she have any children? Maybe she didn’t have any. That might account for youthfulness.

The elderly couple continued on, laughing and chatting. I heard her say, “Here we are. Having this lovely lunch in this beautiful restaurant, then we will go home and sit and it will be over.” She reached for her partner’s hand again and smiled and looked at her roses and grew silent just for a moment. But when the waitress came to check on the table, she resumed her happy chatter, commenting that the when she returns she would love it if the sangria had whole blueberries in it. She ordered dessert for herself and her partner-they would share a piece of chocolate cake. She might not have wanted the cake, but she didn’t want the moment to end.

How she worked to hold onto that beautiful late afternoon lunch. I understood. I looked at my husband and our two children. He and I somewhat bewildered to find ourselves in our forties, still with the silly hopes and dreams we shared in our twenties, but different now, tired, worried. And our children. One who has so many struggles and the other who seems to navigate through life with ease but who already shoulders the weight of being the one for whom things seem to come easier. The four of us sharing a beautiful few hours. Just us. In that place. Wanting to stop time. To remain just as we were in that moment.

As the sky outside the window grew darker, we realized our moment was over. Afternoon was gone, having slipped away under a cloak of charcoal sky. Our neighbors stood up to leave. She, tall and straight and carrying her vase of flowers, led the way to the exit. He, fragile and stooped, followed slowly behind. I prayed they would return again for another anniversary.