The Weight of Memory

The time has come to move once again. My life is being streamlined down to its bare essentials. Nothing but the most basic and intrinsic valuables will follow me. To that aim, I spent several evenings poring through photo albums, culling duplicates, those shots taken from obscure angles, or those of people of whom I have long since forgotten. Many, many pictures are blurry. . . those you can trust to be taken by me. It is no easy undertaking. My memory does not serve me well – but will those faces resonate with my children or ex-husband?

At first I thought to separate pictures by category – my son, my daughter, our family, friends and family, places visited and vacationed. That stood me well for the first 200 or so photos. I heaved a heart-felt sigh of pure relief and went to bed.

The next day’s dawning brought the discovery of yet another box of photos. There was no ordering of these – I hadn’t the time or inclination. I might get back to retroactive examination, but not until after the move. And I was slowly beginning to realize my shelf space was soon to be severely compromised with those all too many albums. Books would have to be sacrificed to make way for them. That would be a travesty. Surely, I thought, I had found the remaining glimpses into our past.

I started sorting through my daughter’s room. She had moved to California where she attended college year-round. She had taken so much and had told me to throw out the rest. I believed I had done so.

Today I reached for a storage tub on her closet shelf. It was insanely heavy. I couldn’t imagine what she had that could weigh so much for such a relatively small space. You guessed it . . .photographs. I even found a weighty carry-all. In this I lucked out – these were just my daughter’s pictures. If I ever get around to sorting these and putting them in an album, I won’t hesitate to know whose they are.

I am struck by the sheer weight of memory. Its layers bind us, tie us together, identify us, acquaint us with ourselves and remind us of whom we want to be. We need those pictures to fill in the gaps in our memory – the holes where knowledge has slipped out and confusion slid in. They are necessary to substantiate our truths, validate the essences of who we are, or who we think we should be. Many times they serve as simple reminders, happy or grim, of the people we once were, allowing us to document our paths, illuminate them to the haze of our nebulous, pre-dementia fog.

I have so wanted to forget whole tracks of my life. Forgetfulness has served me well. There is much I choose not to remember, much that is an ambiguous fog. I prefer it to be so. It is simply too painful to remember some periods – when I bruised every time my husband yelled at me; the instances when my son threw things at me in fits of helpless rage, unable to control himself, unable to name the wellspring of his anger; my more promiscuous era when men were easily had and frighteningly, effortlessly thrown away; the spells in childhood when my parents wars spilled over on us children; the list could extend indefinitely. I looked at these pictures – at the smiles that went only so far – and still grieve for what should have been, what might have been, yada, yada, yada. I see the brittle shell housing the derelict body trying to pass as normalcy. Yet, there is a core of strength within that has remained firm, has been building, is becoming a viable, actual, everyday part of who I am. The weight of these memories are but ripples on the waters, not the tsunamis of old.

I came across pictures of me in a narcotic-induced, steroid enhanced, bloated characterization of myself, my brown hair dyed Howdy-Doody red; my body an additional 20 pounds on an already far too large form. It was at a wedding – that was a Good Day! My first thought was – why didn’t anyone tell me I looked like that? Then I remembered the neurotic defensiveness that marked my days. My family had tried to tell me. And I kept pushing them away.

My grandmother’s portrait stared back at me alongside her family, taken in Norway before she moved to America. I gazed into her eyes, trying to see the soul of the woman who was routinely battered by her husband, wondering where the fight in them had gone. The stamp of her features was clearly demarcated on her progeny, but so, for a couple, was the propensity to accept abuse. Her husband’s face was transparent in displaying his nature. A bulldog he was; a bully and miscreant who deserved prison and stayed free. Their legacy had been carried out through the generations.

My children’s pictures shone up at me but I had to ask – how much had I dampened the light of their beings? How much had their father and I? I couldn’t look at the happy times without knowing the hard ones were soon on their heels. One time my in-laws were visiting, never easy, and tension was peaked. My husband’s temper blew. He literally tore the garage apart, breaking things, yanking them off walls, emptying cartons. He took me into our bedroom, trying to control me physically and verbally. Then he jumped out the window and took off. I was terrified of him and for him. He was clearly not in his right mind. It took a couple of hours to locate him and when I did, he ran onto a railroad trestle crossing the Sacramento River. I called the police, I was so worried for him. When all was said and done, he had calmed down and we returned home, it was to see our six year old daughter and her grandmother cleaning the garage (out of sight, out of mind). It is a day vividly etched into my daughter’s consciousness. That was how she saw her parents in conflict resolution.

In point of fact, argument and tears were constant remembrances for them. My son, now a young adult, recently watched a video of our family from his early childhood. He was shocked to see his father and me laughing, teasing each other, having a water gun fight. He couldn’t remember us in love. It was one of the saddest things I had ever heard for there was love, a great deal of it. We just didn’t know healthy ways to express it or how to identify our true feelings. It is remarkable that these kids have grown into such capable, successful, empathic young people. Their memories didn’t show them the way.

There are fifteen large albums to stack side by side on the bookshelf. In the past ten years, I have probably only taken ten or eleven rolls of film . . .one for each sports season, one or two for vacations. It is enough. I have less I want to forget. Any time with my son is blessed as he has lived in California during that time. But the futility of pictures filling books which never again see the light of day exhausts me. My years of infamous decrepitude are better left forgotten. My shame has taken sharp reliefs of the person who failed to live with honor then. Yes, there are the good times, but really, wouldn’t I be just as well served by the vocal remembrances of friends and family? Couldn’t my life look forward now rather than back? I deserve that. My family does to. Let me skip from childhood to graduations to weddings to grandchildren, vacations, friends, and fun. The balance can be sealed in a time capsule to be opened in 100 years, when my descendants will shake their heads, ask who these people are and why they should care. Yes, it seems fitting. Otherwise, the weight of memory is too much too bear.

Half-Time Mother

Sitting in the rocking chair,
window offering stark respite,
she holds herself,
aching to see,
their shining faces.
Half-time Mother
time measured out
in the best
of the rocking chair’s bows.

Once a mother
at all times,
in all ways,
divorce stripped her
of the job
she knew most.

Days when she has them,
she laughs, cries,
shouts, sings,
and, exhausted,
thinks of the day
they have to leave.

One moment gone,
the ache begins to grow,
but unlike the green softness
of a young shoot
pushing itself from the earth,
she feels the emptiness
of her womb,
as she passes empty beds,
and longs for the moment
they run through  the door.

Divorce made a mother
into a woman of two lives,
one foot in either,
but never fulfilled,
one step draining her body,
the other her heart.

Travel Channel

The chair is cracked, crusted
with the remnants of countless meals,
smelling of urine and booze,
saturated with nicotine,
dark stains belying uses
not acknowledged,
nor even remembered,
as she sits
repeating the litany
over and again.
“I love the Travel Channel –
spent my whole life trying to get back to this chair,
and now – that it is too late –
I can’t get up, only watch”
As she bleakly, hopelessly
stares at feet swollen triple sized
with pus oozing from broken pustules,
the flesh no longer intact
as bit by bit
it fails away, melting into the chair
She hid in for so many years,
and now is trapped within,
dissolving, dissembling,
fading into the stained black ooze
crusted on the seat.

Soul Seeking

My life is filled
with fragments of others,
a dipping below the façade
for brief segments,
sifting past reflections,
always seeking their souls,
begging them to cry out to me.
To let me see,
for even the briefest of instants
the naked core they hide,
mostly from themselves,
certainly from others.
If for once I could gaze
a moment on their sacred ground,
I could die knowing
I’d seen the face of God
and didn’t shrink away.


My aunt made the gravy at Thanksgiving dinner,
she alone knew its secrets –
skimming the fat, constantly stirring,
never turning the flame too high,
adding a pinch of this, bit of that,
stirring, stirring, always in motion . . .
the gravy was divine.

Yet now you say we are at the gravy time,
the rewards finally ours to reap.
The struggles, the pain, our despair,
being just the right ingredients.
Granted, you stirred, and stirred,
and stirred some more . . .
but Honey,
you ain’t never learned how to cook.

Home for the Holidays

Begins the dreaded yearning
for hearth and home
as only Mom can make it . . .
a pervasive, clinging need
to nestle in the warm embrace
and drink from the wellspring
of utter contentment.

And so the journey,with attendance to a multitude
of details large and small,
the flurry of messages
so all is properly prepared,
paid for, sealed, delivered
to the doorstep
of the elusive family of heart.

Each gathering brings
the flood of memory
washing pores in bracing chill,
peeling the layers bit by bit
until all the adult trappings
are removed
and you become
the impressionable, innocent child
of yester year.
Yet with the vestiges
of bitter disillusionment remain.

Hence, the clangor and din
with which the most precious
of long awaited (and feared) days passes,
reducing us to our basest of selves,
hammering at each other
in long held patterns of familial, ritualistic torture
. . . . . to devolvement,
a flood of tears and aching hearts,
a tentative reweaving of the tapestry,
each time believing the threads
are realigned just differently enough
that the picture will have a different face
until the next time
the yearning begins.

Still as Stone

He sits still as stone,
imperturbably  standing against the stream,
neither in defiance or rage,
but because there is nothing else to do,
because he is and that is the manner of his days,
quietly moving, barely a whisper,
the tremor of his hand extending
so his whole body reflects the vibration.
Tremors but otherwise stillness
to the force of the stream, yet within,
ah, what flows beneath the surface?
A world as rich and full as his skin’s world is spare?
He pays no mind to his lack of movement
for his mind never stops churning,
a choreographed dance of infinite steps,
resting within the solidity of stone.

My enemy . . . Myself


Gears grinding ever slower
Gummed up by old oil
Smoke coming out of ears
As thought winds down.

I’m not a good friend to myself
Once was –
But the shifting trajectories
Confused my mind

Staring at the computer again
And again
No semblance of brainpower
No manifest of concise thoughts

I’m losing myself
That part I valued most
Wisps lifting and flying away
Moths banging against outside lights 

When did poison leech
Synapses, nerve conduits
Knots grown in density
Fog rolling in

For the drugs
And illnesses born
For the wasting away
Of what was God’s for taking 

Sorry for me being me
For the hours upon hours spent looking
Misunderstanding the simplest connections
Snow on the screen of my mind

All verbiage is gone.
I am no longer the girl
brightest at work, in college,
Computer not a handy tool

Father died from complications
Born from dementia
Is this my genetic influence?
Of which I have no control?

I stare at the computer
Mind numb, an enemy of myself
Lost – beating my head against walls
Alone – no longer hearing myself think.


Esmeralda’s Hair

Esmeralda always had trouble with her hair.  When she was two, her mother cut her hair for the first time.  It was so short her ears froze when she went outside.  It was so short it stuck straight up on her head.  It was so short people sometimes thought she was a boy.  Her mother tried to put bows in her hair with gel which looked very silly.  One day she walked up to her mother, put her hands on her hips and announced, “No more haircuts, never, never never”!

Her hair grew.  Soon it covered her ears.

A few weeks later Esmeralda was able to put bows in her hair without looking silly.

It reached her shoulders.  Esmeralda put barrettes in her hair, but they got lost, and she never removed them.  Her mother said, “You have to brush your hair and keep it neat if you want it long.”  Esmeralda just nodded and went back to playing.

As it grew, she liked to put her hair on top of her head, so Esmerelda pinned it up with chopsticks but never bothered to take them out.  They drooped and clacked as she moved.

Her hair grew so long her mother tried to braid it, but tangles got in the way.  Esmeralda never combed it, and it fell down her back in snarls and tangles.  Esmeralda’s teacher, Mrs. Cleanwick, spoke to the class about the importance of brushing their hair, pointing at the messy heap on top of Esmeralda’s head.

It grew so long it reached her waist.  Esmeralda liked to separate it in two and tie it into a bow at her neck.  One day Esmeralda and her friend had a fight.  They were so angry that they grabbed burdocks growing nearby and smashed them into each other’s hair.  Her friend took the burdocks out, Esmeralda didn’t.  Esmeralda’s mother just shook her head when she saw her.  The burdocks scratched her cheeks as she slept.

Soon she could sit on her hair.  She tried to brush her hair one day but the brush got stuck in the tangles, and she left just it there.

One night when she was sleeping, Teensy the mouse saw her hair dusting the floor and skittered up.  He made a home and each night brought back treasures he found during the day, jittering about his adventures in her ear as she dreamed.

When she was swinging at the playground, Esmeralda’s hair swept the ground, leaving the earth neat and her hair littered with twigs and clumps of dirt.

Her hair grew down to her knees.  One day Mama Bird flew by and decided her hair would be an excellent place to build a nest.  Pretty soon three chicks hatched.

Esmeralda sometimes liked having the birds but Mama Bird was always squawking, the chicks were always chirping and the worms Mama Bird brought back to her chicks that sometimes fell in her hair and squiggled down her neck.  Paying attention to school with all the noise was hard.

Jasper a little, brown chipmunk looking down from a tree thought her hair would make a wonderfully soft home to come to each day, jumped down and burrowed deep with his paws.

Esmeralda’s hair grew down on her toes.  She kept tripping as she walked.  Mama Bird squawked angrily at her because she scared the chicks. Jasper, the chipmunk, jittered at her to be careful.

One day her cat, Nubs, noticed the mouse, birds, and squirrel jumped on top of Esmeralda’s hair and stared at the smaller creatures.  It was a difficult load to carry.

The next door neighbor’s dog, Buster, saw Nubs in her hair and started jumping against Esmeralda. She had to run inside to hide.

Esmeralda went to school the next day to find her teacher, Mrs. Cleanwick had called Officer Brown from the Animal Control department.  Officer Brown gave a talk about the importance of not bringing animals to school unless the teacher was asked first.

The animals were making so much noise that Esmeralda had to sit in the school hall because the other kids in the class were so distracted.

When she and her friends climbed up a pine tree, Esmeralda’s hair got trapped in the branches leaving her hanging stuck in the air.  Sap from the tree clung to her hair. Little pine needles were everywhere, tickling and itching her.  She looked and felt like a fly trapped in a spider’s web.  It took a whole day and two of her best friend’s help to get her free.

In fits of frustration the animals skittered and chittered and slid down the tree, running off to find new homes.

That was it!  She ran home to her mother and cried “Cut my hair. PLEASE!!!”  Her mother started cutting . . . Out came a branch from a tree, twigs from the playground, the mouse’s treasures, the bird’s nest, the squirrels home, and clumps of dirt from the swings.  Next came the chopsticks, burdocks, barrettes and bows that had gotten lost, sap and pine needles from the tree she was stuck in, the brush that got stuck and hundreds and hundreds of snarls and tangles.

Esmeralda’s new haircut fell to her shoulders fell in soft waves.  Her mother brushed until it gleamed and put a bright bow in it.  She looked in the mirror and liked who she saw.  She promised herself she would always keep her hair neat and clean . . . And she did.

What Is The Church?

Within the building a musty odor clings to the air,
There are cracks on the ceiling,
The nave has been closed for years
because so much of it is unsafe.
Every penny we have goes to the roof
and all other repairs.

But I remember running through the balconies,
Sunday school lessons with many children
My father’s rich voice from the altar –
and others before and since,
the beautiful organ with all those pipes
and the music it stirred within the soul.

Couples have married here, babes baptized,
countless communions, church dinners,
fairs, thrift shops, and food pantry days.

Now the congregation as dwindled
so many being in their elder years
members for thirty or more years
wanting to die here as they lived here but
the organ is silenced – no money for repairs

What is a church really?
A place of worship
or a place to be worshipped?
A place for the few
or a place where the few
give to many – spreading the faith
that has brought them such comfort.

We may be the few now –
but God and his grand plan
are calling us – asking us to listen
to the depths of our hearts.

To know that just as Jesus died on the cross,
disciples were executed and exiled,
and even today, some Christians have to hide
in the woods, basements, away from prying eyes,
to practice the religion- without books or other paraphernalia
– we have been privileged to have this building.

A church need not be a fortress
holding people in, keeping people out.
Imposing, Magnificent, Intimidating.

Jesus authorized his disciples to go forth
with just the clothes on their backs,
taking nothing with them as they
proclaimed his message to the world.

But we would not get far
with these boards and mortar on our backs
our voices would be crushed by the stones.
Jesus said take nothing.

But a church is not a building, it is the people
and what those people are doing
to strengthen their faith
and to make the hard decisions.

What would Christ have us do?
That is where Christianity lies.

The place where I dump the stuff that's inside my head.

Geetha Balvannanathan's Blog - Isis Tratum

Poems, thoughts, healing, other art works (pictures, songs and videos not made by me belong to their authors, the rest being mine) © 2010-2046


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