The memory-bearer

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Time sustains you, holds you, owns you, finally kills you. You consume and transform time, wear it on your face, show it in your frowns, fears, and fancies. You eat time like bread or bitter herbs to grow muscle, tendon, tumor. Time savages the bones of soul and body, leaving you a cripple, hobbling toward your home of dust. Time lights a match to your anger, makes you laugh though no one else does, and brands you with memories that singe and sear your heart.

 

 

 

Time chooses you to be the memory-bearer, calls you back into the darkness of the past, and shines its constellations of memories as if you knew how to navigate by starlight. Without a guide, you memorize the past’s patterned skies: the pinprick stars that cast scant light and the blazing suns that illuminate every detail. You have long done the work of remembering; but now, remembering is not enough. You must turn and face the darkness behind you, forsake today’s light and trudge backward. You must wake the sleeping dogs and steal their bones.

 

 

 

Though time has left you stumble-footed, you must cross terrain that shifts its shape with every passing. You must walk alone, by faith not sight in a moon-forsaken land, unsure what you are looking for, dragging broken shards of time back into today, unwrapping the remnants of time saved in secrets, believing that if you can find enough pieces to patch together, you can be free of carrying someone else’s memories.

 

 

 

The compulsion to bear the memories and to write the stories you carry, like the belief that you are called by a voice only you hear, is a form of madness. Both writers and mystics live outside the city, less by choice than necessity, hearing voices beyond the walls in the wilderness, so near the dark woods.

 

 

 

I didn’t choose to be the memory-bearer for my mother. For over thirty years, we kept a distance measured in silence. The day the words came, they scorched my throat and burned my lips; but the saying hardened them like steel, strong enough to span the pain. In all times past that place, we walked together.

 

 

 

Mother, eight years dead, comes to me these days, wearing the face of morning, sits beside my bed, and whispers me awake to remind me of my task. I have grown weary with my own reluctance. I hear the voice and have long walked in that wilderness, but oh, I fear the dark woods.

 

 

A shared childhood

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A shared childhood is a hidden language made up of gestures, glances, raised eyebrows, isolated words and uncalled-for laughter and tears; spoken only by those initiated into the years when memory draws every event in primary colors outlined with thick, black lines. It is a language that can never be translated into another tongue or life; it is time enfleshed in the child.

 

“How many brothers and sisters do you have?” may seem like an easy question to most people, but for me it is complicated and difficult. Mother had eight living children over a span of 25 years. I grew up knowing the oldest; she was 15 years older than me. I lived for a while with the youngest, my brother who is 10 years younger than me. And I shared my childhood with my sister, K, who is 18 months older.

 

 

 

She was the golden child, tall, pretty, and smart, who charmed the aunts and uncles. I was not.

 

We played together, sometimes peaceably. She carries small scars from times I scratched her; I suffer with writer’s limp because she broke my arm. She’ll deny it and say the earth broke my arm; she merely sent me aloft in a childish game of push-up. She has always had a problem with reasonableness.

 

When our father died, K was ten and I was eight. She left childhood then, although I didn’t know it at the time. K took responsibility for me while mother dealt with her grief. And once the grief passed, mother began barhopping in search of another man. All those years, I thought my sister was just being bossy, still pushing me, not up, but around.

 

We spent our growing years together parsing the world, trying to understand its meaning. And because our mother played the central role, our childhood is our mother tongue.

 

Just as we inflect words, or modify them, to express a change in tense or number, the stories we now tell are inflected with memories that signal to the hearer a change in mood or meaning, but only to those who learned the language with us.

 

The story of my broken arm is one I love to tell, but only if my sister is there to hear it or read it. In some other language of childhood, it could be parsed as blame, but in my own mother tongue, it is part of the grammar of love.

 

Happy Birthday, sister.

 

 

Keeping memories

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When I was five years old, we lived on Edith Street in El Paso, Texas. Most of the time when I walked out the door, I turned right. My best friend, Terry, lived in that direction and the road around that corner led to the convenience store where we bought candy bars, comic books, and the occasional cigarette. If I went bike riding or roller skating, I might turn left. Down the street in that direction, I would pass by two white ceramic ducks sitting in a neighbor’s yard.

 

The ducks sat there day after day watching me roll by until one day they got up and walked around. I remember it clear as day. It’s one of my special childhood memories that never happened. Yet the impossibility of it doesn’t stop me from remembering it.

 

Duck! Here comes the little dreamer.
Photo from http://www.poultryclubsa.co.za/wp-content/uploads/Duck-High-Flyer.jpg

 

I spent most of childhood outside; we all did back then. But on Saturday morning, we stayed inside to watch cartoons. I spent hours watching that naughty putty tat Sylvester stalk Tweety Bird, Betty Boop sing and dance, Woody Woodpecker stir up trouble, and the Road Runner escape from Wile E. Coyote. For years afterward, I had fond but vague memories of a character called Daffy Fuddlebug. Only when I dragged it into the daylight and showed it to my sister did I realize I had conflated three characters (Daffy Duck, Elmer Fudd and Bugs Bunny) into one.

 

 

Memories are the artifacts of the lives I have lived: the small child, the lost teenager, the young woman, the wife, the mother, the teacher, the dreamer. Like one civilization built atop another, each life was built upon the one before; and hidden in each layer, the memories, quite a few still intact, their dates carefully stamped on the bottom; others of uncertain date but recognizable; and many, many broken shards, some still sharp and dangerous, others soft-edged from being buried so long. I have built a museum of words and images where I keep these memories.

 

Sometimes I go there and wander through the quiet rooms, trying to understand the history of my life, believing it will help me live a better life today and in my future. I see that I have mistaken dreams for memories; those early ones often look alike to me. And I have mislabeled a few; the details and faces obscured by time. I leave them as they are; my misremembering is as much a part of me as my remembering. Memories are not facts; they are part of the story we tell ourselves. They may not be real in the way we define facts; but like all good stories, they are true. So I do my best to remember them; and try as I might, I cannot let go of my fond but vague memory of Daffy Fuddlebug.

 

When trees come back

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Trees believe in reincarnation. After they die, they lumber back into our lives as boards, books, and toothpicks.

 

Trees spend their lives holding out their hands to birds, calling them to perch or rest. In their second lives, trees come back as chairs, inviting us to sit down, offering an arm to grip, attending to our conversations without remark, and sharing in our silences. At night, we nest in tree-made beds, hatching dreams like eggs.

 

In their first lives, trees provide banquets for the birds: beetles, ants, and caterpillars. When they return as tables, we flock to them and find the food and wine that fill the house with love and laughter. And we keep their perfect splinters in a jar to pick our teeth.

 

 

Some trees become the bones of houses, use their strength to keep the roof over the heads of all who have forgotten them. Others are the doors of daily life, sliding, slamming, creaking, opening, shutting us in and out. They make a place of quiet for one and provide the lock that opens love for two. So many secrets hinge on them.

 


 

Trees write the world’s story on their leaves. In fall they send the pages down, though few will stoop to read them. They tell the tale every year as if it were the first time. Coming back as books, they do the same, waiting on the shelves, leaves and leaves of stories falling into minds who stop to read them. And every telling new.

Trees who spend their lives trying to catch clouds come back as poles to hold the wires words squeeze through. A hundred years ago or more, people spoke with patterned sound, tapping news of wars, births, deaths, and regrets, like birds tapping on the bark of trees.

 

When taps and codes were not enough and people phoned their voices, the wires sang and hummed with promises and lies, rang with jokes, the murmured shame, or disconnected lovers; a goodbye click, the end of every story.

 

These unleaved trees with straightened arms, stand without a whisper, yet call out to the birds, who return, like acrobats with wings, to balance on their wires. In that other life, when poles were trees, they learned the art of listening from crows complaining of the rain and winds whispering of angry clouds to come.

 

 

Fewer voices travel on the wires now, but these poled trees do not complain. They shoulder power to brightens our lives as they once carried the luster of sun on their shimmering leaves.

 

When trees return a second time, they hold us, shelter us, offer us a place to lay our heads, bear the words that tell our stories, give us room to live, shut out the world of noise, and listen, always listen. When trees come back, they yield to our sharpness and our desire to measure and control. In the quiet, when we leave the room, they dream of rain, wind, and bird song; each tear falling softly as a feather on snow, lost by a winter bird in flight.

 

 

The memory collector

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My small self

When I was small, I collected things I found: shiny objects, buttons, leaves, and feathers, especially feathers. I often dreamt I could fly and feathers seemed like a promise of that dream. Finding something of beauty felt like an accomplishment. My reward for paying attention. Somewhere on the road to adolescence, I lost every one of those treasures.

 

In my teens, I kept a drawer filled with notes, jewelry, stray buttons, foreign coins passed on from relatives, ticket stubs, a lock with a forgotten combination, and pictures of my friends and the boy I loved my freshman and sophomore year. One scrap of paper I saved until I was in my mid-twenties. The library in my high school sent out notes to students who had delinquent books. The notes were short and to the point; they had the student’s name on one line and the name of the book on another line, nothing else. I don’t remember if I was assigned to read Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment or if I chose it on my own, but I loved it and wanted to read more of his work. I kept that second book too long because one day in class the teacher handed me a note from the library. All that was written on it was my name and below that, The Idiot. I kept the note for years, my private joke with the universe.

 

 

I think objects might want to be found. Maybe a button works for months to untie the strings that bind it to a shirt, and when it leaps out into the unknown, it is looking for adventure. I want to see more of the world, it says; I’ve been manhandled enough, put in my place for too long. Imagine the pleasure it feels when a child or an adult picks it up, admires it, and carries it home as a treasure. At least, that’s how I would feel if I were a button.

 

My crown

I still have a box of small findings and remembrances, including a gold crown that was fitted for one of my molars but never put on. I could tell a great story about that, but unfortunately, I don’t remember much about it. My mother wore it on her charm bracelet for years and it has come back to me. Last summer I bought a wooden art box for my grandchild and filled it with some of the things I cannot throw away.

 

Over the years I have tried collecting things of value, but I can’t sustain my interest. In Japan, I started a collection of the holders used to rest chopsticks on, called “hashioki,” but I grew tired trying to find a place to display them and gave most of them away. I use two of them for brush rests when I do Japanese calligraphy.

 

For a long time, I collected dreams, and for safekeeping, I put them in my heart. When I was alone, I would take them out, whisper promises I thought I could keep, believing that some day every one of them would grow wings and fly. I never thought I could lose them, but I did. And now I know why: my heart is a pocket full of holes.

 

When mother knew love

 

 

Memories are the only thing I am interested in collecting now. These stories, like the flightless feathers I loved as child, or like the fallen petals that when crushed still give off the faint aroma of the rose, or like the empty shell left by a cicada who grew away from her old self but left a part behind for me to hold and remember, these stories are the only treasures I have.

Double exposure

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Double exposure: two lives in one world

Mother loved to read historical romances. She would find them at the Goodwill for ten cents apiece and bring home a stack. On almost every cover, a handsome, rugged-looking man held a beautiful woman in his arms. Sometimes the man wore a Civil War uniform and held a woman in a billowing dress. Other times he wore a royal crown and cape while he embraced his queen. Ripped bodices were optional.The historcial context varied, but the story never did: the search for love ended in someone’s arms.

 

She often sat on the gray couch in the living room to read. One summer day, I sat on the arm of the couch by her while she drank her can of beer and read. It must have been a day like the one in this photo. She was wearing shorts and a sleeveless blouse. I could see the blue spider veins in her thighs as she stretched her legs out on the coffee table.

 

I started reading the last words of each sentence to amuse myself and wanted to say something to her about it, but I didn’t want to disturb her. So I would read some of the words, then wait and listen for the soft slur of her finger on the paper as she turned the pages. I looked at her profile, her beautiful nose, straight and softly rounded at the tip; her lashes thick with mascara; and her lips, parted as if ready to sip from either her beer or her book; and I wondered if she even knew I was there.

 

Immersed in her book, she had no idea that I was  reading the words with her. Her books, I thought,  must hold some secret, one that she needed to be reminded of over and over, one embrace after another.

 

For the first time that I remember, I understood that we were completely separate beings, sharing the same space, our thoughts known only to ourselves. She knew nothing about the things my sister and I whispered while we were in bed at night, the forbidden sugar that I put on my cereal before anyone else awoke, and my fear of losing people. These and thousands of other thoughts belonged only to me. As I leaned on her arm and felt her warm skin next to mine, I realized that she, too, must have whispered things in the night to my father and done things in secret that no one else knew of besides her. Inside her head another world existed, one that I knew nothing about, that I would probably never know anything about.

 

I felt like I had just awoken from a deep sleep in a strange room, not knowing exactly where I was. Everyone lived a hidden life, unknown to anyone else, and words were all that we had to find one another. We stumbled in the dark, calling out, searching for the other, reaching out, always reaching out. And sometimes, if only in books, we found solace in someone’s embrace.

 

My head felt light and I wondered if I would fall off the couch. I leaned over, kissed mother on her forehead, and went outside into the sunshine looking for an adventure before the end of my childhood summer.