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.