Memory’s Pen

Mat Parke is an emeritus blogger with BCC and all-around great guy. We’re glad he dropped in for a guest post.

You cannot step twice into the same river, for other waters are ever flowing on to you. — Heraclitus

Childhood represents an increasingly small piece of our lives but occupies the largest space in memory. A banker’s lamp perched on my father’s desk. Moonlight shining through willow trees. The sun warm on my body as a record plays. My sister sitting in a red-leather upholstered chair looking at pictures in a book.

These things remembered are real. The willow trees are gone and the house long sold, but other artifacts remain. The desk and the lamp, no longer paired, can be found in my parent’s new house. The red-leather chair and possibly the book gather dust in the basement. But even if preserved, almost nothing that saw everyday use some thirty years ago is still part of the daily fray. Instead they sit in the recesses of cupboards and closets where I and my siblings stumble across them when making visits to the unfamiliar house my parents now live in. In their new setting these items act as totems of a family that has also changed into something our childhood eyes would not recognize.

A vinyl record rests on a shelf inside a worn cardboard sleeve. The story embedded in its grooves would not interest me if I was hearing it for the first time today but I begin to wonder if I know anyone with an actual record player. The record reminds me of the hours sitting in the bay window on the south side of the house with my sister Alice listening and retelling the story of Tubby the Tuba. We recite along with the narrator the story of the sad fat little tuba who puffs away and sighs because he is never given a pretty melody. At the crucial moment, after Tubby has found and risked a melody in the orchestra and gained acceptance among his peers, there is a scratch in the record that reminds Alice and me of electrical interference. As the narrator concludes his happy ending of “and they all played!” we respond with our invariable supplement of “including the electrical wire”. This seems to our five- and six-year-old selves the height of sophisticated humor.

There is a wide age range among eight siblings, which further complicates the already fraught remembrance of event or custom. Though we might all recall an activity, it is difficult to agree on the time, the players or any of the thousands of details that went into making it. That it was late summer might be obvious because we were harvesting hay. But was it the Massey-Ferguson or Ford tractor pulling the hay wagon? Where all the kids present or was the youngest missing? Morgan was driving and John was stacking but who else was sitting on the growing cross-hatch of bales? Rachel for sure because when the wagon bumped across a dike in the field and the wagon overturned she broke her arm.

Even when we agree on the general contours of the event, the meaning remains contested. What does it say that the kids were riding on the hay wagon? Were my parents foolish or neglectful for allowing children to be proximate to farm machinery when they were superfluous to the work? Or was my father indulging his children in a bucolic rural moment that he never enjoyed growing up in the city? Why did we switch to one ton bales the following year? A sibling points out the bigger bales could no longer be manually stacked and says my father switched to avoid another accident. Another argues it was related to my oldest brother moving out of the house and the loss of his free labor.

When the siblings gather, usually in twos and threes (only once in the last twenty-five years were we all present), the conversation inevitably turns to our childhood. This is not surprising. We have scattered across the country and around the world and most of us see each other so rarely that we are unfamiliar with the details of one another’s current life. Many of us struggle to be intimate with the others the way we popularly envision siblings, even adult siblings, should be. Eventually we exhaust the touchstones of popular culture, politics and, depending on the sibling, church topics and we talk again about the years on the farm because those were the only years we were all under one roof. By the time we moved to the “city”—as we sincerely thought of Provo in 1985—John was already married and living in Germany and the steady migration of children out of their parent’s household was poised to take off in earnest.

During most conversations the competition to control the contours and meaning of our family history is barely noticeable, like a low hum in the back of the room. A word here, a correction there is barely noticed as social graces and the lubricant of good conversation (my siblings are uniformly excellent conversationalists) ensure things keep moving. By unspoken mutual agreement, certain topics are off limits. But even these agreeable compromises are not always enough to avoid more muscular confrontations. The more siblings present the more likely that cracks along fault lines will appear and the rivalry to hold the narrative pen will burst again into the open. When this happens old alliances revive themselves and new alliances make themselves known. (I was hugely surprised a few years back to find that at some point my five sisters had agreed that we brothers were thoughtless!) Conflagrations flare up as we pore over this or that episode. At those moments we are auguries convinced we can wring meaning for the others out of the bones of events long past.

When the arguments run hottest, I see again that I am the sole repository of moments in time preserved in the medium of my memory. When recall fails, in old age or death, they will disappear entirely and any vestige that remains will depend on my success at transmitting them to others. Some memories have acquired enough meaning that I badly want to save them in something more permanent than my brain’s circuitry. In an effort to preserve them I might transcribe them into a book or onto a tape or into a series of ones and zeros. But if I write in the most pain-staking detail that on the day we were stung by the hornets, Alice and I crossed the back lawn and climbed over the fence and walked through the orchard and squeezed through the barb-wire fence and walked barefoot up the field to pick apples, you will still not have a picture anything like the one I have in my mind. More bitter sweet is the knowledge that a year or two from now I will have a different picture and a different set of associations and a different meaning attached to the same event. After all I can do I will have already lost what I long to hold onto.

Comments

  1. “I am the sole repository of moments in time preserved in the medium of my memory. When recall fails, in old age or death, they will disappear entirely and any vestige that remains will depend on my success at transmitting them to others.”

    In the book “A Soldier of the Great War” by Mark Helprin, the aged main character Alessandro Giuliani remembers his dead wife: “Just to think about her makes me happy. When I die, no one will think about her ever again, which is why I’ve been holding on.”

  2. Capozaino says:

    Great post making something that is often treated in an abstract and esoteric way a bit easier to grasp. The fleeting nature of memory and self can be both a blessing and a curse. We are constantly losing hold of who we are and what we perceive at any given moment, and often this loss is regrettable. However, it also grants us the ability to shed old outlooks and become new. You can see the converse reflected in the Internet, which does not generally forget. Though you may have become a different person from the drunken reveler in the photos on Facebook, that version of you is frozen in Facebook’s memory.

  3. This has become a major theme in my life. After years of working toward it, I have recently returned to live near the town where I grew up. Many of my old friends are here, and my parents and a brother are nearby also. But we’re busy now, married with kids. I haven’t given up on my quest to recapture the magic of my youth, but I know I have quite a ways to go yet.

  4. Mat, this is really beautifully written. Are you planning on sharing it with your brothers and sisters?

  5. KLC,

    Loss is certainly an important catalyst for remembrance and preservation. My own thoughts on the subject are the result of thinking about what I can and can’t hold onto in the wake of death. I was struck by how the explicit agenda set out in 2 Nephi 25:23 was similar to efforts within my own family to put one’s own gloss on history and I tried to use those themes in my post.

    Capozaino,

    Facebook seems to me as just another form of journal keeping. It’s difficult to predict what someone a hundred years hence will make of what you post now. One of the things I try to get at in my post is our desire in families (or churches or nations) to control history’s narrative out of a conscious or unconscious desire to advance and validate our own reading. This isn’t necessarily born out of a desire to propagandize our progeny. We are just likely to naturally feel that our understanding is correct even when our grasp on memory is slippery.

    Karen,

    No–though I’m sure it would be met with mixed reactions if I did. As it happens, I was talking on the phone with one of my sisters as I was writing this and read a few paragraphs to her and her response was decidedly negative.

  6. Good OP! The Church has come a long way in it efforts toward Family Histories, but still needs to move away from teaching only Family Works Sheets and kinship recording, to members again doing narrative.
    We now live in a richer world to do this. With the blending of Word processing with things like phone photos, we can made a better narritive record today.

  7. And your post just happens to synchronize with today’s Dinosaur Comics as well — http://www.qwantz.com/index.php?comic=1914 . I’m sure that’s a sign from heaven that you’re on to something good here :)

  8. Mat, I don’t understand how anyone could glean anything negative out of this narrative. It’s lovely and for me, quite sentimental. I loved reading it. Thanks.

  9. charlene says:

    Mat, this is beautiful. I’m also one of eight siblings and conversation never wanes when we are together. We rarely relive childhood events, unless urged by circumstances like making a video for the parents’ anniversary. We acknowledge that we each grew up in a different family, by virtue of time and birth order. It’s usually fun to compare different views of an event. Time together is too short and rare to contest over who has the accurate account of history. A dear friend opened his autobiography with, “I’ll write my own fiction as honestly as I can.”

  10. Dane,

    There’s more than simple serendipity at here.

    meems,

    My sister’s response more along the lines of “why do you even want to think about this” than “I hate this”.

    charlene,

    I really liked hearing how you interact within your own family. When I posted this I was hoping to hear about sibling dynamics in other large families. Everyone in my family has strong opinions and there is a lot of sibling rivalry, particularly among siblings that are proximate in age. Most of us enjoy argument but even those who don’t have no problem standing up for themselves and their viewpoints. The result is we are a loud, fractious lot and when, say, four or more of us get together spouses tend to seek refuge from the din. I’ve wondered if this combination of traits is the result of competition for limited resources (chiefly time, attention and money) or otherwise related to our childhood environment or is just the personalities we were imbued with at birth.

  11. charlene says:

    Mat,
    I think it’s the personalities you came with. I’m a middle child, so I’m not willing to start too many battles to be right. There’s too much ammo that can come from all directions and I’ve lived long enough that I’m not too sure when I’m right anyway. I did learn early on that there are tough things you just don’t bring up. Now time is too precious to spend it fighting or picking at old wounds.

    You’re right about the struggle for scarce resources. Parents’ widely dispersed attention led us all to be quite independent. Maybe I’m just not paying attention to a continued sibling rivalry. There are few spouses who are willing to spend much time with us. Our mutual assertiveness may be the reason.

  12. Matt, this was beautifully written and expressed thank you for sharing this. I find my memory fragmenting and realigning more and more. I few years ago I was sick and thought I might bite the turf, so in the period of about two months I wrote little vignettes of my life for my kids. I’m surprised as I read them now, that I remembered then some things that have since slipped away.

  13. My family isn’t huge, but we still manage to have some of the dynamic you talk about here. There are some stories that we can all pretty much agree on, but others that only one of us remembers. Getting together and talking about childhood (which is about the only thing we can talk about anymore) is always an interesting experience, since all of us remember our growing up years so differently. Throwing in cousins (who we were pretty close to) just makes the dissonance that much stronger. Sometimes I wonder if we really grew up together, or if we just grew up at the same time.

    Beautifully written. Thanks for sharing.

  14. OP was beautifully written, thank you.

    Almost 20 years ago now “the incident” happened in my family. It was a fight of tragic and traumatic proportions involving parents, exs, and step-parents. The end result was that in a rage one biological parent signed away legal rights to my brother and myself and that the two portions of our family didn’t speak for 10 years. I was eleven at the time, so I have memories of the events. There are some things that I swear I remember as clear as day but then get up the courage to talk to someone else about them and realize we don’t remember them the same. I find it fascinating how we can all have such different version of “the facts” and all insist that what we think and remember is “the truth” of what happened. Even my half-siblings, who were too young to be involved in or remember anything from that time, have very strong and specific opinions about what happened. Their “memories” are of course influenced by the many retellings of “the incident” they’ve heard.

    To me, it doesn’t matter anymore how things did or didn’t happen. The objective truth of those events, if there ever was one, is long gone. What matters is what lives in our memories and the meaning we make of them now.

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