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.

Is It Real?

forest photography

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I believe that most artists have one question that drives their work. Through their craft they strive to find the answer or explanation to that singular uncertainty which haunts them.

Does God exist?

Does the devil?

Who is my father? My mother?

Am I a monster?

Are you?

What did happen that night?

What is wrong with me?

What is wrong with the world? What did he mean when he said___________?

What did she mean?

Was it all a mistake?

Did I do the wrong thing?

Did I live the wrong life?

For me, I write to find the answer to this question: Is it real?

Is it real? Is his love real? Is her love? Is this person my loved one claims to be real? Was it all real, all those beliefs and principles? Are your feelings, your affections, real? Are mine? Are you real? The person you assure me you are, are you real? Is everything my life is built upon real? Is all I hold dear real? Is the deer I just saw in my lawn real? Is that color of my lawn, the verdant green of the grass, real? Is that black speck I see out of the corner of my eye real? Is something really there? Those voices I hear as I lie in bed, are those real? That person that I see standing in my doorway as I drift off to sleep real, is she real?

Is it real? This is the most terrifying of questions because it is followed by-if it is real, what then? And, if it is not real, what was it?

Is it real? The answer to this question can be the most assuring or terrorizing of responses, but, more frightening than the answer itself is the uncertainty which drives the question. The uncertainty of what truly is. The terror lies in the not knowing.

I wrote Fade Into Another Place as I witnessed my mother succumb to the horrors of dementia-a disease that damns its victims to an eternity unknowns.  An eternity of wondering, is it real?

Fade Into Another Place

Out of the corner of my eye

I spy

a flash.

It is black.

Perhaps a cat?

Not my cat.

He has long since departed.

But another,

I imagine,

who has found his way inside

this place where I reside.

Funny though.

Not too long ago,

I had a visit from a friend

who everyone tells me

has long been dead.

But oh so real

as we sat and had a cup of tea.

“Don’t you see?”

I asked.

“She is here,

as plain as can be.”

Is it something that haunts this place?

I contemplate

as I sit

and wait

for another friend to arrive.

But, I know.

I know.

This is an empty place,

and I must journey alone.

No friends to accompany me

as I make my way

past faceless strangers who talk and whisper.

I listen,

and I try to hear.

Will they confirm my deepest fear?

Their voices rise-

a cacophonous symphony

as they chatter

chatter

chatter

“Stop!”

Silence is what I need

to concentrate and discern

what is real

and what is make believe.

And so I go

and go

and go

until I fade away

into another place

where, perhaps,

I will be young again.

 

 

 

Anxiety Knocking on Your Door

 

steel door handle on door

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Heart pounding, pulse quickening, shallow breathing-these are all very real symptoms of anxiety. I know because my anxiety is severe and at times crippling.

In examining my work as a writer, I have discovered that anxiety stands out as one of the great forces driving my narratives. What I have also noticed is that, when describing the condition, writers, myself included, focus on the physical manifestations listed above. We use these descriptions because they are accurate. Stating that, in the midst of an anxiety attack, your heart rate increases and you feel a pounding in your chest is not melodrama; it is truth.

The issue for the author, however, is because we use these descriptions so often, we have weakened their power. So, my self-assigned writing task for today is to describe anxiety in a way that reflects the truth yet eschews phrases that may, unfortunately, sound trite.

Here goes…

For me, when anxiety strikes, it is like hearing a knock on the front (or back) door. I assume that when most people hear a knock, they don’t panic-unless of course they have committed a crime and are waiting for the police to show up and arrest them.  Most think that perhaps it is a neighbor wanting to borrow a tool or a cup of sugar, or it could be the UPS carrier delivering a package. But, for a person with anxiety, a knock on the door always generates fear. The knock can mean that, in fact, the police have come to arrest you, although to the best of your knowledge, you have committed no crime. Or it could be someone coming to deliver tragic news. Or a home invader is positioned right outside the threshold. That knock on the door brings terror, and that terror spurs all those physical sensations we are going to avoid in this bit of writing.

What’s important to note here, is that if you suffer from anxiety, there is a constant rapping on your door-it comes in the sunlight, the moonlight and the shadows.

It reminds me of something I experienced as a teenager (true story). My father was a prison warden, and high-level corrections staff and their families were required to live on prison grounds, so, when I was ten years old, we moved onto state property. Our house was one of four built atop a hill.  Behind our homes were miles of forest. In front were fields and on the horizon, one of three prisons. For a child, the experience was what you would imagine-lonely and frightening.

One New Years Eve, my parents went out with my father’s colleagues who lived on the street. My brother was with friends and that left me alone on the hill with my best friend who came over to watch movies. I remember it was after midnight and we were upstairs watching Stand By Me when we heard a rapping on the back door.  We ran downstairs to see who it was, but when I turned on the back light, there was only darkness. Nothing else.  We grabbed knives from the kitchen and waited until my parents returned home.

So that’s it. Someone emerging from the darkness to rap on your door.  That’s anxiety.

A side note: a few months ago, I was startled awake by a rapping on the door. I looked at my phone; it was 3am.  I checked on my children before running downstairs and  peered out the window to find nothing. Just darkness.

 

 

 

Lead

My darkness covered you like a blanket weighted with lead.

But I didn’t know.

I didn’t mean to shroud you

with me.

 

In a moment of clarity, I saw it all

the horror of it all

the confusion of good intentions

and miscalculations

and foolish actions

the incapability of a mind full of chaos

to move toward the light.

 

Instead, I carried the heavy weight

of fear

dragging it along

and laying over all I touched

crushing all the good

the hope.

 

And what now

if I lift this leaden blanket laden with all my darkness?

What remains?

The broken remnants of what could have been;

who could have been?

Or is there hope buried beneath the withered remains of possibility?

The Monsters in My Bed

brown rocky mountain photography

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During the day,

I’m equipped to keep the monsters at bay.

But at night, when I’m asleep, I’m helpless.

Naked.

Stripped of saber.

and strategy.

So the monsters crawl under my sheets and, when I wake,

their talons are wrapped around my throat.

 

Sweet dreams are easy.

Sweet awakenings are another story.

Complacency

IMG_7479

It is impossible to be unhappy on this beautiful day.

The sky is clear and blue

only blue-the perfect compliment to the newly sprung leaves of verdant green

under whose canopy I sit and appreciate

the gentle breeze and glorious sun

whose rays sneak through this lush umbrella

to kiss my skin

-softly, gently.

*

It is impossible to be unhappy.

Is it not?

*

But the breeze-it lulls me to sleep

a dull dreamless sleep

which I do not wish to enter.

*

I long for a sharp and bitter wind

to jolt me awake.

*

My eyelids are heavy.

My limbs carry the invisible weight of complacency.

*

But it is just so pretty

and comfortable

sitting here.

Just sitting.

It is impossible to be unhappy.

 

This poem was originally published on June 3, 2018

Is This Death?

photo of columbus clouds

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Is this death, this dull ache in my back?

What of these pains that pulse through my body?

This fear that sleeps and wakes with me, is it death

like a crow picking on carrion in the street?

Is she death, this face that greets me in the mirror each morning?

This woman I do not recognize?

This exhaustion, is it death

ringing the bell, waring me that the time for eternal rest is fast approaching?

 

Perhaps it is death.

I do not like it though.

I prefer to believe it is life.

Life marching on.

Life marching over me.

 

Perhaps I will grab hold of it

and let it carry me along

through this maelstrom that rages for an eternity

or a moment.

 

Perhaps, when the winds die and the sea stops churning,

there will be peace

peace in this life

before death.

 

 

Shadows and Light

tree pathway

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Four years ago, I wrote this poem. Four years ago, I let go of the misguided belief that to write about painful family relationships is to be disloyal. Four years ago, I began the process of becoming an artist. Make no mistake-you cannot be an artist if you censor yourself; if you hid your past; if you sacrifice your truth to protect others.

Shadows & Light

Life with you was shadows and light.

On days when there was only light,

there was never only light.

A small step

in either direction

and you would cast your shadow.

Some days it would remain small

yet present.

It would lurk

and wait

and then grow.

It would grow

until it reigned over us.

And tears would rain

from eyes

that searched,

longing for light’s return.

If only it was always shadow,

the light would not be missed.

But such was not our fate.

.

Now that you are gone, it is only shadow-

that haunts my memories

that burdens my conscience

that chases the light.

Shadows

Light

You

I

Life

Death

An end

that never ends

Light Like a Sunday

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I am experimenting with line breaks and punctuation in poetry.  Which do you prefer, A or B? This morning, looking at both with fresh eyes, I prefer the rhythm of the first, despite B being my revision. Funny how a good night’s rest changes things.

A.

Light Like a Sunday

Light like a Sunday

afternoon-late

but not close enough to nightfall

just the dead, glaring light

of the interrogation room

declaring your guilt

in a game poorly played

in a life poorly played.

 

B.

Light, Like a Sunday

Light, like a Sunday

afternoon-late, but not close enough

to nightfall

just the dead

glaring light of the interrogation room

declaring your guilt

in a game poorly played

in a life poorly played.