Tuesday, November 14, 2006

Memory Tricks

In my post the other day about the month of November I wrote that I couldn't remember any other anniversaries of import for the month. While composing that post I found it interesting that I could come up with nothing for that month for literally decades. I was wrong. It's interesting what we "forget".

One November, I really have no clear memory of the year, my maternal grandfather died. He was young all things considered, though I actually have no real idea of his age at his death, but I suspect it was around 56. We had already moved to Brooklyn so I was at least nine, but I think I was more like ten. Really clear huh? What I do remember is my grandmother came to stay with us and the mirrors where covered. The morning after my grandmother arrived, I was in the kitchen with Fran, my stepmother. Looking up at the lighting fixture I spotted a delicate, small, light gray spider. I pointed it out because I was relishing it's fragile beauty and Fran told me not to say anything to my grandmother for fear it would upset her. The idea that a spider could have any impact after losing her husband was confusing to me.

Harry worked in a dental lab making dentures. He also had great dreams of striking it rich with stabs at "easy money" schemes. I have no idea what any of these ventures involved as it seems he had mostly "retired" from his side businesses by the time I was around. It was much later on I learned about this and other darker stories about him. As a child I experienced him as distant and angry a lot, so when he died I was very unsure as to how I should feel, how I was expected to feel. My parents were honest and open with me in telling of his death, that he threw himself from the eighth story of a building. At least I remember as being the eighth floor, and I seem to think or maybe assume, it was the building where he was employed. Really all these years later, those details really don't matter too much.

Many years passed, and as best as I can recall (though I am less sure about my memory and it's tricks right now) there really wasn't anything. Until 1993. This time I was old enough to be called and to be pressed into duty. Again, some details are fuzzy but I am sure it was my mother who called me at home in Massachusetts to tell me there was a death in the family. This time it was a peer, Robert, my first cousin - one of two that I had. He was a little younger than me, but again I have no idea if it was one, two or three years difference. We had not been close for a long time as our lives drifted far apart as I existed on the fringe made up vaguely of arts driven existence and non-profits jobs while he continued down the path of petty crime, drug and alcohol abuse with periods of steady employment sprinkled between lies, stealing from his father, and other edgy occupations.

I rode Amtrak from western Massachusetts to New York City in a fog, stunned at his death and the upcoming events, including the prospect of attending my first funeral. From Penn Station I took the subway to Brighton Beach remembering other times I had traveled to see my grandmother, like the year or so I went to her home every week to give my mother a break and how then her home had seemed magical in a way that only a grandmother's home can seem when you are young. The jewelry boxes overflowed with what only later I would realize was mostly hideously cheap trinkets. Staying up late, watching Saturday Night Live during it's early glory days when Belushi, Radner, and Ackroyd ruled. She had moved since those easy days.

My mother buzzed me into my grandmother's apartment and we waited for her. The apartment had a small balcony which overlooked a stretch of the Coney Island Boardwalk. It was surreal to watch a few people stroll the beach front in the brisk and chilled November air, knowing I was moments away from telling my grandmother that her grandson was dead and by his own hand. Robert was in a hospital, again details are unknown, missing or otherwise forgetten, I have no idea which hospital or how he got there. The story was that he was there, waiting to get a bed in a rehab setting. Either the wait was too long, or the pain of what was to come too overwhelming, or the reality of his life wore him down. He hung himself. The recollection of telling her exists in soft focus, with the sound way down. I cannot remember if we sat her down first, but I suspect we did but that she quickly popped up after the news was delivered.

Later, when we were getting ready to go to the funeral my grandmother said we could wear any of her jewelry that we wanted to, and to keep it. Memories of those boxes came flooding back along with my decades of obsession with her cameos. In the midst of the grief and the surrealism of the moment some glee bubbled up that I would finally get to wear those pins of which my fingers had memorized every ridge and crevice. I attempted to only sauntered to the overstuffed boxes on her crowded dresser top when I heard her call out, "Except the cameos!". Even in her dumbstruck state she was able to remember the "good" jewelry was not to be even borrowed. I laughed to myself thinking, of course not, she's still Helen, grief be damned. It reinforced for me also her strength of character - she survived her mother's suicide, her husband's and now she would find a way to meet this too. It's true she moved through her life largely by using denial, but really wouldn't you?

So why did these events not make my other post? I gave it a lot of thought. For a very long time now, probably somewhere in the years following my grandfather's death it was my mother who had trouble with the shifting light of mid-autumn. After my cousin's death it became even more of an issue, my eye cast in her direction to watch each year for after shocks. Though we share this family history of loss it seems that I had arranged things in my head so that it was only her who would remember the anniversary directly and I would survive the memories by thinking there was a way to keep my mother safe from our battle scars.


heather said...

denial. gotta love it. or at least, as the co-queen of it, i have to look like i do. ;-)

i know the reason behind this post wasn't great, but that was all told well. vivid. far more vivid than my version of *anything* when i was 10 years old. or 20, for that matter.

Wyatt's Mom said...

I'm glad you're able to trip down memory lane. When memories come, it's better to face them, talk about them. Um, this from one that does neither, unless pushed by you of course.

Another reason to love you, your strength.

Anonymous said...

Reading this post brought back some painful memories of my own - maybe I'll write about them too. Thanks for sharing.

wen said...

hey dharma--tgf is right--blame blogger b/c this wasn't here when i last read you!

thanks for sharing, and hello to heather, co-queen of denial. (: