Tag Archives: Memory

Retrospective 5: 1967 — Impossible Memories

I have always wondered about the life of the unborn. Babies feel pain. My daughter howled when her heel was pricked for the PKU test when she was a few days old. The old wives’ tale says that a happy mother brings a happy baby. I was a happy baby, the product of blissful months on the beach. Rachel was not, the product of my father’s wanderings, my mother’s loneliness and uncertainty, her cowed return to a home she had fled and an “I told you so” mother who hated the man she had married. And then there is Leah.

In spring of 1967 we are in Nashville. I am not quite two and a half. Rachel is seven months old. And my mother is pregnant again, already.

She feels well, as she always did when pregnant. But my dad has been offered a job at CERN in Switzerland. Her mother is growing sicker with every passing day. My mother has two babies and no resources for another. At some point, she sits in the doctor’s office and asks for an abortion.

He plays an imaginary violin. “You don’t want that,” he says. “Really, you don’t.”

Whether she really didn’t want an abortion and his words awoke her, or whether she simply bowed to male wisdom, accepting her fate as a woman without a mind, she folded her hands in her lap and said OK.

Thus Leah was given her chance. But since childhood this almost-aborted sister of mine has lived in horror of death, of the dark, damp, clamminess of it. She grew up with nightmares, with a jittering terror of the world around her and its dangers lurking everywhere. Still, she is the biggest risk-taker of the four of us: She has backpacked alone in Brazil, worked the agricultural seasons all over Europe, parachuted out of an airplane, squatted in a condemned London house, climbed Mount Kilimanjaro. She is both anal retentive and crazywild. She is empathetically generous and simultaneously grasping, always afraid of loss.

It was years after she was born that I found out about my mother’s visit to the doctor’s office. I don’t know if Leah knows about my mother’s moment of ambiguity towards her; I haven’t dared to ask.

One other memory: We are in Switzerland in November, in our sixth-floor apartment in Nyon. Leah has just been born. She has a shock of dark hair and an indignant expression. My mother names her after her mother, who died four months earlier. And I realize, now, that I don’t know whether my mother went home for her mother’s funeral. I realize that I know nothing at all about my mother, other than some facts, and a story I weave into a fabric of my own design out of my memories and those facts.

Retrospective 4: 1966 — In shadow

Two moments rise out of memory for this year, two pieces of information that I can never fully reconcile. There is my mother, in the doorway, backlit, with me on her hip. My dad (not my father, you understand) turns in his office chair, arrested by the fall of golden hair, the silhouette, the voice. When she comes into his office, he sees the clear pale cream of her skin, the scattering of freckles across her nose, and he aches with love. It is the first moment, the first recognition. It is the last image of her he carries, for after she dies, all the others flee. He remembers her most clearly in that first instance.

My mother asks for a job in my dad’s physics lab at Vanderbilt. My dad says yes. How long before they pass beyond boss and worker status? How long beyond friendship?

The other moment is my mother’s memory. She walks into her mother’s house, a house that is now historic, that was iconic when it was built because it was made to her father’s order in the new style by a rising architect. I hold only fleeting memories of the house, of long hallways, of flagstones in pale colors, of everything angled and squared. The roof is flat. The rooms are white, and the light beams in through cool square windows, straight and hard. But this is not true now. Now the house is surrounded by trees, and everything is softened.

My mother goes into her mother’s bedroom, and stops. Does she hear something that draws her there? Does the air feel different? Disturbed? Does she expect to find her mother, ailing, there in the bedroom? She finds, instead, my father coupled with her best friend.

Where was I? In the playpen on the grass outside, perhaps. In my grandmother’s arms, someplace else? It seems I can hear the dreadful silence of my mother’s cry. She sliced through whatever it was that had kept her loving him at that moment, and sent him off, back to the house on the beach, back to the the windy gray days and the gunmetal flash of the water that she had loved.

There is a shadow over this time. Did my father and my dad overlap? My mother says no, but still, the time is full of confusion. There were letters that Rachel and I found years later, love letters from Dad, recalling the “lawnmower engine” of her little Saab in those days. Recalling me in the playpen or on her hip. Rachel? Rachel was a blacocyst, then an embryo. At some point she was a fetus. At what point? We are 21 months apart. Was my mother pregnant that day in the doorway, standing in the light? Or did that come later?

We will probably never know. It is a darkness that shadows those years, that touched me, Rachel, all of us, in a future we could not predict, back then, when I was a baby and Rachel was still in waiting.

Retrospective 3: 1965 — Reconciliation

We are four, sitting on the grass, in bright sunshine. She wears a pink cotton dress, and her honey-lit hair falls sleek down her back. She turns to him, and he holds me on his shoulders, his hands dark against the pale cream of my baby legs. I smile, toothless still, wispy blond hair catching light. My grandmother, her mother, watches us all, wrapped in a lace and orange dress that is like a sari, that hangs loose over her body, which has been ravaged by cancer. She is breastless but bloated, large. Her dark hair is wrapped in a smooth bun on top of her head, and she carries herself imperiously. She must have one of those deep, commanding smoker’s voices. She looks happy, in the pictures where she holds me, but also distant. There is a time when those who are dying begin to let go, to drift away. She is right there, teetering, fighting for life, and yet somehow, irresistibly, beginning to leave.

My mother looks at my father, smiling, happy. She knows, already, his proclivities. These pictures must have been taken at the time of reconciliation, after she left him to come home to Nashville, and after he followed her, begging for another chance. And she loved him, hard and deep and without boundaries. Oh he drove too fast, so that she clung to me in the car and prayed to the God in whom she no longer believed. Oh he left her alone in her little house on the beach, sometimes for days, and then came blowing in with stories of danger, and lust and loss in Mexico, carrying flowers, or a handful of earth, or a stone from some far-off beach. “I thought of you. This stone is the color of your eyes.”

Carrying a leaf.

In the end, though, his rage, his fits, his acid-dropping hallucinatory nights, the way he drove as though he desired to push the car through into another dimension — to bring all of us with him to that place he longed to find, me crying or quiet, I don’t remember — these things were enough, and she fled.

In the pictures, taken after he followed her to Nashville, there is no hint of the darkness. I reach for him and he laughs. He looks as though he loves me. Everything is green and pink and white and orange and rich and filled with something lovely. But my grandmother is letting go, the cancer spreading through her. My mother is reaching for him, and he is looking elsewhere. And I? I am laughing, laughing, petulant in one of the pictures, spoilt, loved, oblivious.


I feel disloyal, writing about Mum. Don’t speak ill of the dead, right? And anyway, what I say could be misconstrued. I don’t mean anything to be a judgment on her. She was wonderful in multiple ways. When she died, people who barely knew her, who had met her only once or twice, stopped me to say how she had touched them. She lived lightly, easily, after the struggles of her difficult past. Horrendously difficult, really, if I add up all she suffered. She overcame.

Was it the “Right Speech” facet of Buddhism that taught her not to speak ill of my biological father, though there was much she could have said about him? I didn’t know Dad wasn’t my father till I was 12. My last name was changed by court order to my Dad’s last name, as was Rachel’s, so that we wouldn’t be recognized as illegitimate in a country that forbade divorce till 1997. When I found out Dad wasn’t my dad it was a relief for various reasons, but my mother said little about my biological dad. She could have said plenty: Drug dealer, alcoholic, abuser. Her reticence made a difference. Right speech. Am I not speaking right now in recalling my biological father? I am talking facts about him, but there are other facts too. His mother loves him. Perhaps he is kind to her. I cannot take it further; I have not talked to him since 1988.

I  wrote more about Switzerland yesterday, about my mother after her mother died, but I can’t hit “publish.” She loved all of us in the best way she knew how. It was a complicated love, shaped by her ambiguous relationship to her parents. What surprises me is how parallel our lives have been, in a way — though mine was far easier than hers as a child. But later, her diagnosis, then mine five weeks later. Treatment at the same time; her mastectomy the day before mine. The hope that came afterwards, when 2000 rang in. We were living the fantasy that both she and I would be in remission for the rest of our lives. I got lucky. She didn’t. Maybe if it wasn’t for her dying I wouldn’t be here now, but there’s no point speculating. When her mother died when she was 24, when mine died when I was 38, we both went crazy in our own ways. Dad waited for Mum to find her way. Greg didn’t. That’s the difference. In fact, Greg was finding his own way long before I met Nada, before we knew that Mum’s cancer had metasticized.

What I saw when my father spoke, before I knew about Greg’s lover, was that my father and Greg had their parallels, ways of being in the world that Dad pointed out to me. What I see now is that my life and my mother’s also had parallels. Our lives ran down the same road for a while, but they have diverged. Both my mother and I went crazy at the deaths of our mothers. But Dad waited. Greg didn’t. Dad loved Mum till the day she died, and loves her memory still. Greg was carrying on a secret correspondence with a former student long before I met Nada. He filed for divorce and three weeks after I signed he told me he was getting married to his secret love.  It’s the way things go.

I don’t even want to publish this. I don’t know where it’s going. Stella wrote about repetition some days ago, and what am I doing now but repeating parts of what I knew before, but only dimly. Finding my way through to a new place, recognizing on the way the signposts. This I knew. That… oh that is new. That tree. That moment of connection.

To be continued… maybe.

Swiss hippie days

She sits astride her little moped, white when she bought it, now painted in intricate flower designs. She wears long skirts and flowered tops, and her hair falls straight down to her mid-back, the color of honey.

We arrive in our old green van at someone’s house, out in the country. Rolling hills, wildflowers, a spill of sunshine. A bearded man pulls francs out from behind our ears. We picnic on a white cloth, wicker basket and wine, the taste of strawberries on my tongue. There’s a lake. We swim. My mother is lean and tanned. She smokes with her head back, watching the sky.

We sleep at our friends’ house, in a dim smoky room lit by candles. Someone plays the guitar. His name is Henrich. Ulla, his wife, leans over my father. She has children too. The house is full of people, of tangy smoke, of music.

I don’t understand any of the conversations. I just remember the guitar, the smoke-dimmed candle-light, the people who come and go. Sometimes my dad takes us home. (Is this what I remember, or what is imprinted on my brain from what he told me later?) Sometimes we sleep on the floor, and Dad isn’t there. The music fills the house, singing, laughing, my mother in the centre.

Years later, after she died, my father says, “I couldn’t stand that charade about the medicinal p*t. That’s why I always left the room.” I had always thought he disapproved of her smoking p*t for the chemo nausea. (Prescribed, with a doctor’s note, but illegally gotten because it wasn’t legal to grow it. The doctor sighed, handing it over. “I don’t know where you’ll get it. But it’s legal for you to possess it.” My sister said, “Don’t worry. You live on the beach, after all.”) After he told me that he didn’t disapprove of p*t, though he wasn’t interested in any kind of drugs himself, I realized that his anger was at Mum’s “I’m a junkie now” act. She was no stranger to mood-altering substances. And when I remember back to that time when I was a child, I see her as a hippie, long hair down her back, flowered moped, living half her time in a commune in Switzerland. And everything falls into place.

Her mother had just died — of breast cancer. She went nuts. My father said he spent a lot of time baby-sitting the three (and later four) kids, the two she’d had by another man, and his infant child. My mother got pregnant again, had another child (four in five years). She went to parties at the commune, sometimes stayed there overnight. Sometimes she took us, forming my memories of those smoky rooms. Most of the time she didn’t. Maybe that’s when Dad’s resentment of me began, the child he had met on my mother’s hip as an infant, just before she knew was pregnant with Rachel, when she had just given up trying to work it out with my biological father who, after all, loved ac*d and was freaky crazy.

My father, the steady man, loved her from the instant she showed up at his office door at Vanderbilt, light spilling down over her honey colored hair, me on her hip, asking for a job in his physics lab. She was his lab assistant, and after a while her second daughter was born — my sister Rachel who didn’t meet her father (our father) till she was 17 (Actually it’s more complicated than that, but it’ll have to do).

My mother began seeing my dad, and got pregnant again. Her mother’s cancer got worse. When my father was offered his job in Switzerland, she fled with him to a new country where she didn’t speak the language. She learned French, gave birth to Leah, went home for her mother’s funeral, got pregnant with Ruth May. And in the midst of all of that, she spent half her life with her hippie friends at a place I think of as the commune, while my father babysat us. I see her on her moped, smiling back at us, then sputtering away to the life we didn’t know she had till months after she died.

To be continued…

Changing dreams

“I’ve figured it out,” I told Mum that day 27 or so years ago. “I want to be a vet.”

I was the one who looked after the goats and the donkeys, who took the cats to the vet, nurtured the puppies, nursed the geese when they were sick. The vet knew me well. I’d show up with dying birds and sick abandoned dogs, and he would fix them or put them down or whatever he needed to do. Once I found a rabbit with myxomatosis when I was out riding my pony. I saw a piece of tattered fluff deep in a tussock of grass, then saw the ragged ears, the swollen face with puss-seeping blind eyes. I slid off my pony, looped his reins over my arm, and looked for a rock, a big one. I found it and stood over the rabbit, who lay so deep in his suffering that he didn’t realize I was there, or didn’t care. I swung the rock down hard, fast, and pulled out at the last minute. I couldn’t do it, couldn’t bear the crackling of the skull breaking, the blood, my own role in violent killing, even though I knew the rabbit was dying, and worse, suffering terribly in the process. In the end I wrapped him in my sweater and rode three miles to the vet, as fast as I could, where the vet slipped in the needle and the rabbit’s life slid away without a sound.

One day, a donkey was hit on the road outside our house. I sat with his head on my lap while someone called the vet. When he came, I held the donkey as the vet did his thing. Once again, the life force slipped quietly away, leaving behind the dead weight of a lifeless head in my lap.

Eventually, I began hanging out at the vet office, not to participate in bringing about death, but to give shots (lift the scruff and make a little tent, push in the needle quickly, no hesitation, and then it’s over, vaccinations given, illness averted). I helped at surgeries, held equipment, caressed the foreheads of deeply sleeping dogs as they lay with tongues out on the stainless steel table. I wasn’t afraid of blood. When my friend’s horse needed twice-daily penicillin shots, I rode my bike to her house and jabbed. You rub the area with rubbing alcohol, thump three times hard with your fist, then drive in the needle. Pull back to make sure you haven’t hit a vein. If there’s no blood, you push it in slowly and steadily. It’s thick stuff, a big needle. Horses are usually pretty good if you don’t hesitate, if you are matter-of-fact about it, and you talk to them. You change sides, places, every time, and after a while you don’t think about it. You just do it.

So the vet asked if I wanted to be a vet, and I said yes, and then I told my mother. She said, “You can’t be a vet. You’re no good at maths and Latin.”

That was it. Dream over. I guess it was just a little, hard idea in my brain, something self-contained, a cancer that hadn’t gone invasive. It wasn’t spread through the fibres of my being, hadn’t metasticized till excizing it would mean killing me. She cut my dream out neatly with her words, left nothing behind, barely a scar. I just gave up.

Loren suggested I change my dream after I wrote about my visit to my dad. It’s something I’ve been mulling over, something that has haunted me for years. In a sense, every day, every moment, is an attempt to change the dream. Most of the time I succeed….

To be continued…

Getting close

“We’re getting quite close these days,” I said, about my father, to a friend. I would never have predicted that possibility, and it’s happening, as these things always do, at the end, when so little time is left. He tells me about growing up in English boarding schools, always surrounded by boys, about going to Dartmouth Naval Academy at the age of 13, about being in the English Navy. “Maybe,” he says, “That’s why I’ve always found women hard to talk to.”

I type his stories up on my computer, making up his biography so that when he’s gone, we won’t have to rely on silence and fuzzy remembrance of hints dropped in other conversations. I brainstorm questions to ask him. “What’s your favorite book?” “What’s your best memory of Mum?” “What was your worst moment?”

It seems imperative that I do so now, not later. His sister has Alzheimer’s. His memory is going. Something slides away into darkness every time he loses a memory. I want to tell his story. I want to say that he worked in CERN in the late 60s and early 70s, exciting times for physics, that he left there with a glory about him because of the research in which he’d been involved. I want to tell my memories of going down into the depths of CERN, where the underground atom splitters are, and have him fill my memories in with descriptions of what exactly did go on there, in that vast purgatory. I remember an underground room filled with a computer the size of a boat; I remember reams of tractor paper spitting out calculations. I remember puddles of harsh light, and shadows. But perhaps it was all just my own projection, the mystery of what was happening encased in my fear of it. Why be afraid? I want to find out.

“Does anyone know what this picture is?” he asked one day a few months ago. “I’ve asked the others and nobody knows.” He had been scanning old pictures into the computer. I knew immediately. “It’s the rock outside the canteen at CERN,” I said. “We used to climb on it after we’d eaten there.” (I remember sometimes we got little sausages there, and I hated the texture, hard little bits of gristle embedded in the meat. CERN was my first impulse towards vegetarianism.)

His face lit up. “Of course,” he said. “That’s right.”

I am top of the rock, looking out at the building that houses the canteen. Has it changed, I wonder? The old blue Volvo 144 is in the parking lot. The sun shines. In the basement, the computer spits ot its calculations. My father’s  memory wavers.

This weekend, I will ask him. It will be my birthday present to myself.