IN MEMORIAM ON MEMORIAL DAY

By Paul

What, really, do we mean by memory?  Without it, it seems safe to say, we would hardly be human, inasmuch as we learn from the past, or we hope to, and without the recollection of past events, of people, or of our thoughts and feelings and reactions to all that has occurred in our lives, we would in essence be starting each day anew.   It has been shown that animals also have memory, and they are more than capable of learning from past experience, just as we humans attempt to do.

Given all this, in one sense, it seems strange that we have what is called Memorial Day, a time specifically dedicated to remembering.  It has its own provenance, of course, having been created soon after the Civil War by various individuals who mourned the passing of sons and brothers and spouses and friends, who died in the horror of that terrible, fratricidal conflagration.

When I was young, in fact, as often as not the day was referred to as Decoration Day, especially by people of the older generation, because we would go to the graves of those who had died, not just soldiers in various wars, but the graves of any and all loved ones, and leave tokens of remembrance, flags mostly, or flowers.  In this sense, it is akin to the Mexican “Día de los Muertos,” the Day of the Dead, when families gather at graves to eat and drink, and generally to celebrate loved ones who have moved on to a different place.

Memory is like that.  It brings to mind not just what has passed, but the emotion that surrounded, and still surrounds, those thoughts of the past.  For surely we do not remember everything that has ever happened to us, all that we have said and done and thought.  That would be too much for any individual to live with, especially as we grow older and we have done, and thought, and seen more and more of life.  The very word “recollect,” in fact, comes from the Latin “recolligere,” meaning to gather together and to collect again, even to pick and choose, which is exactly what our memory does.  Another related word in Latin is “lignum,” which means firewood.  At first, that might seem like an odd connection.  What has memory got to do with building a fire?  But its original reference was to wood that had been collected together, chosen for that particular purpose.

And is that not what we do so often with our memory?  Given various stimuli, different triggers, people, places, tastes, smells, words, songs or pieces of music, dates on the calendar, or wounds that seem only to half heal no matter how hard we try to cure or be rid of them, all these bring back a burning rush of feeling, of thought, or of sensation.  We experience, or re-experience over and over again, love and loss, pain and happiness, desire and repulsion, grief and joy, the hoped for, as well as what we most feared.  We have with us still the regrets we live with, the delight we experienced in life, people we loved and still love, those we may have fought with and those who brought us pain, and the people whom we, ourselves, have hurt, wittingly or unwittingly, our dreams, our hopes, our fears, our follies, the roads not taken and the longed-for wonder of where these roads might have led.  No one escapes the power of memory, whether we acknowledge it or not, whether we talk about it, or keep it buried in the tomb of our unconscious, from whence it springs on its own like unruly and destructive weeds in an otherwise ordered and well tended garden.

In his autobiography, Mark Twain said, “I grow old and my memory is not as active as it used to be.  When I was younger I could remember anything, whether it happened or not; but my faculties are decaying now, and soon it shall be such that I cannot remember any but the things that never happened.”  These words, as ironic as they may at first seem, point up what a mishmash memory can be, how it gets intertwined with our wishes, our deepest desires and our wrenching fears.  It sometimes seems to be indistinguishable from our imagination.  Did I really do that to my friend and how did he feel, did she say that to me, did my father despise me as much as I remember, and did my mother mourn my leaving home at a young age to enter a monastery, as I recall her doing?

Some things, it would appear, are true, or at least factual, and I know they happened in exactly the way I see them in my mind, but others, more fuzzy, less precise especially as time goes by, begin to look more like barely distinguishable shapes or images in a thick fog.  When I am afraid, I may recall events in a darker light, as if they were shadows or phantoms that haunt the mansions of the mind.  When the sun of a brighter day shines and I am feeling strong and, dare I say, more fully adult, do I see the remembered past for what it was, for the real forms it took and the ways I dealt with whatever was troubling or confusing or, for good or for ill, mesmerizing?

All this to say that we must trust our memory as we would a dear friend who, we know, has his own odd tendency to exaggerate, or to embellish, or even to tell tall tales merely to entertain us.

My own memory of my parents is like this.  They died so long ago now that they have begun to take on mythic proportions in the movie of my life.  I cannot, for example, remember a single time when my father kissed me.  But that was true of all fathers I knew in those years of the 1950’s, the fathers of my friends and classmates, as well as my own.  And if he had, I – we, all of us – would not have known what to do in our embarrassment.  I do, also though, remember the blows, the harsh words, the fear with which I approached him, and the tender mercies of my mother, protecting me from him.  But were there other things that I do not remember?  Who can say what he does not remember?  And, if there are things that go unremembered, why is that so?

Memorial Day is designed to bring these things to the fore, lest we forget.  We remember those who have died, first and especially in all the hellish or the just or simply the foolish and idiotic wars the country has fought.  We recall the days in late May, when the sun was shinning and the grass grew new and green and seemingly ecstatic after a long winter covered with the snows of January and the slush of March or April.  We see in our mind once again the picnics of days gone by, a snapshot of us all gathered at the lake or in a park or simply on the back porch.  We taste again the food cooked by those who loved us, by those who looked after us, by aunts and uncles who were part of our lives, giving us unwitting lessons in how to live like adults in a world that seemed to us at times only to be overwhelming and more than we ever thought we could come to terms with.

And each new day we make yet other memories for the day after.  That is the way we live, by acting in the present, by living the moment to the fullest, but by seeing it again and feeling it, experiencing it once more later, as we sit quietly, or lie awake in the long hours of a sleepless night.  Familiar faces, long gone perhaps, but still present in the moment of memory, visit us again.  We laugh or cry or rejoice, and feel the longing for what once was, and is still, but in a way different from what had been.

That’s Memorial Day.  That’s the day of remembrance.  That’s what it means to recall who we were, who we are, who we have become, and what it means to be fully, painfully, joyously, gloriously, and so yearningly, so vulnerably human.

TO FRANK AND KATHLEEN: HAPPY BIRTHDAY, LATE THOUGH IT MAY SEEM

By Paul

Next week, my father, had he lived, would have turned 95, and the following week, my mother, had she lived, would have celebrated her 93rd birthday. Instead, they each died much younger, he at age 47, and she at age 50. A long time ago, obviously. But does anyone ever really forget, or somehow get over, the passing of their parents?

There’s something about that bond between parent and child that lasts, and that outlasts even death itself, it would seem. Of course, it would have been wonderful had they lived into old age, not only each for their own sake, but from my selfish (childishly so?) point of view. I would very much have liked to get to know them, not as Mom and Dad, but as Frank and Kathleen, or Kay, as my mother usually called herself.

Frank, first of all, was a complex and complicated man. Full of anger, of rage sometimes, and of disappointment. And, it has to be said, he had much to be disappointed about. A brilliant man, of that I was always convinced, although you would not have known it from the mere facts of his life. He finished high school and got married right after graduating. This was followed a few years later by a stint in the navy on a destroyer escort in the North Atlantic during “the War,” as we all always simply called it in those years. As if there had been no other such wretched combat in all of human history. Returning home in late 1945 a young man in his mid-twenties, he was already burdened (and that is the word, I think) with two children. A third would come a few years later.

He had wanted to go to college, but circumstances were such that he had to get a job immediately and begin providing for the family. So, he did his duty, as many other men of his generation and social standing did in those years in upstate New York, and took a factory job. He worked a machine that somehow applied resin, and in the process it eventually turned out various grades of sandpaper. I believe he hated every minute of his workday and longed for something bigger, something greater, something grander than laboring on the factory floor, day in and day out. His dream, and it is almost too painful for me to say this so outlandish it seems, was to become the conductor of a symphony orchestra. How did an Irish-American kid from a gritty factory town in upstate New York have such aspirations? He didn’t even know how to play a musical instrument, but that seemed not to matter. He had somehow heard Mozart, and Brahms, and Beethoven, and Haydn on the radio, and he was hooked. I will never forget seeing him every Sunday afternoon, “conducting” orchestral pieces while seated at the kitchen table listening to the radio, with his ubiquitous glass of Ballantine Ale in front of him. I was never sure which he got more solace from, the alcohol, which he soaked himself in, or the music, which fed some part of him that nothing else could touch.

Although I was too young, too narcissistic, too engrossed in my own pain, my own aspirations and my own fears at the time, what I realize now is, how could he have been anything other than disappointed with his life? How could a great orchestral conductor live in the body of a man who trudged six blocks every morning to the factory, paper lunch bag in hand, condemned to stand for eight hours next to a dirty machine, clanking out an unholy din of pistons and gears, instead of the celestial melodies of Borodin or Tchaikovsky? No wonder he came home every evening, made dinner for the kids (while Kay was working nights), and sat and drank himself into a stupor of a dream of a life he could never live.

And Kathleen, dear Kay, long-suffering, loving, compassionate, ever supportive mother, and wife and companion to Frank that she was, did her best to help the family’s fortunes. But there was not a lot she could do, making $35.00 a week as a sales lady. Even in the early years of the 1950’s, that wasn’t a lot of money. But what dreams did she have for herself, that’s what I would like to know. That’s what I would ask her now, if I could talk with her today. I do not mean talking to Mom, or to someone I identify as “my mother” (as if you can ever get away from that, as if some dissociation were even possible), but if I could, I would speak to Kathleen, née Goyette, married at age 18 and never finished high school. What did you dream of, Kay, sitting on the bus each morning going to work, sloshing through the snow and the sleet of yet another northern winter, heading to the department store for one more day of folding and preparing ladies lingerie, of smiling and assisting and selling to snooty women who looked down on you, wishing that closing time would come an hour earlier?

Did you dream of another life, one of glamor and of class and of enough money to spend on a new dress? How could you not have? Who, after all, dreams of the drudgery of laboring day after day, only to come home to a house where poverty stood like a grim sentinel at the front door, to a disgruntled, disgraced, half-drunk husband, and to terrified children? Or at least I was terrified. I cannot actually speak for my siblings, but I know I was petrified whenever I found myself alone with my father. I knew the depth of his despair, and I knew that somehow he blamed me for something I was never quite sure of, and was jealous of the closeness his wife felt with me, and how she protected me from his blows and his curses, against the blinding rage of his deadening and disappointing life.

My mother was a beautiful woman, both inside and out. I remember her telling me once, with a degree of pride I’d never before noted, how a man whistled at her and said to her, as she walked to work one fine summer morning: “Hey lady, you don’t belong in this town. You belong down in New York City!” Was that your secret dream, to live the life of a glamorous woman in a city where such a woman could be appreciated?

But no one is one dimensional, and each of us has the chance to change, to grow and be more than what we were the day before. Only at death do we run the risk of being frozen forever in time, at least to those left behind. Obituaries have a way of solemnly characterizing “the dearly departed.” He or she was the devoted spouse, loving father or mother, beloved brother, sister, or cousin, or aunt, but in each case those who knew could always see through these simplistic epithets. Frank was surely both lover and hater, aspirer and disappointed drunkard, providing husband and father and raging marauder. And Kathleen was lover and beauty queen, glamorous dame and caring, compassionate mother and friend to all, a lady with longing, yearning ambitions, as well as the contented supporter of those for whom her only desire was to nurture and to sustain.

What would Kathleen and Frank have become, had they lived longer? And how would Paul have reacted or responded, accepting them or retreating from them? Would he have supported changes in each, emerging into a kind of adulthood in which we all might have seen the other as human beings, with the full range of emotions and desires entailed therein, with our own unique faults and failures, our hopes and aspirations, and all the energy and all the lassitude that we allow and expect in whatever strangers may cross our path? Would Paul have forgiven them, sustained them, loved them as they deserved, and still deserve, as both parents and people who are more than that?

It is one of the great mysteries of life that we will never know how we might have evolved and changed to accommodate or attempt to block the emergence of those who are forever gone. We are left only with hope, and a dim desire, haltingly expressed perhaps but deeply felt, that they, too, might have lived to change along with the rest of us, who change over time. For to stand still in time and to ossify is a kind of early death all its own, while still in the body. It is a repudiation of life, which is growth, which is the opportunity of becoming.

So, dead though they may be, I wish them life and fulfillment. I wish Frank and Kathleen all the happiness they did not find on the factory floor, or at the department store counter. I wish them beauty and heavenly music. I wish them all good things, all the kind thoughts and little mercies I might have provided for them because of who they were, with their faults and their glories, and everything that made them parents first of all (at least for me), but humans, too, above and beyond and before all else, human beings, in the end not so very different from you and me.