I was just opining on She Writes, starting a new memoir discussion about writing memoir as the making of a record beyond the personal trying to articulate that the eye of the I, is a lens. Then I found another group simply titled something like “Writing About the Past.” Fair enough. And then I thought about a photograph that sits in my living room. Figures in fading light; four women in black dresses, the youngest a girl– my grandmother. Caught in time in black taffeta Sunday best for a portrait. But what of the backdrop of their lives and where does my own connect with theirs? And if I try to write about this conjunction of past and present do I have something to say apart from merely writing about me again?
The past has fascinated me, I think, because it means that self is connected to all that comes before. For me, it is the cedar chest of my identity. There are things I don’t like in there, reminders I’d like to cut away to make everything shiny and innocent again, but if I throw all of them away I will be missing something essential. I think of something I found in our den when cleaning out my parents’ house many years ago. It was an early replica of a war bonnet, made of turkey feathers and beading on leather. My parents were well aware of the Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act of 1940 and my mother was Bernard S. Rodey’s grandaughter– the “father” of the University of New Mexico, keeper of the family archives. When collectors examined it, they were disinterested, and eventually I threw it away.
Beneath the war bonnet, bundles of letters between my parents when my father was off in the Phillipines as a medic. An unfinished baby quilt started by my aunt, for my brother. My own baby dresses, wrapped in tissue paper. Our baby books. A diary of my mother’s.
Each of these things is a way in to my own story against the backdrop of cultural history. They literally give off the light of meaning.
What I meant to say when I began this post was not about the objects, though. It was about the people. Who is gone: my mother, my father. My aunts and all but two cousins on the Yankee side. Some of me, some of who I used to be is gone too, cf the photographs of me when my hair was dark are what I have left of who I was… for all of her imperfections I miss her too. I want them all back, healed of the things that killed them, and I want me back, with my mobility, vigor, dreams.
I think that if you can’t get these things back, you write about them; you resurrect them and breathe life into them,immortalize them, immemorialize them, make sure that there is some record of where they were, or that they were here, or that you were there, and are still within yourself, connected to that person.
I have a photograph of my cousin Holley sitting with me on the grass in front of my grandmother’s house; frazzled, pale little girl looking up at her beautiful cousin. Holley died three years ago. I am a frazzled, pale aging woman and writer looking back, seeing how precious the photo is; it keeps Holley with me, the child in me where I can see and fathom her; it tells our story….that we belonged to each other in that moment. As the moment is held in eternity, then we must belong to each other there as well.