I just read an article in The Times about the subject of ‘serial’ memoir-writing that names author Kathryn Harrison, who has penned a number of autobiographical works over the course of her life. At one point she is quoted as saying she knows she needs to write yet another memoir when a perspective on her life becomes ‘an obsession’. For example, she writes, “It was only when I was on the phone with the funeral director out in Los Angeles, asking him to dig my mother up, burn her up and send her to me, that I thought to myself, ‘You’re behaving weirdly now. Perhaps you should start taking notes.'” The result: The Mother Knot, a book in which she finds peace of mind about her challenging relationship with her parents by scattering at sea her dead mother’s ashes.
This topic of trying to figure out – and write about – what happened to you really hit me as I read about it just now because it’s what I have been doing for 40 years: namely repeatedly beginning upon – and repeatedly not finishing – a memoir of my own, filled with the often dramatic turns that both my life and the life of my parents and grandparents took over time.
I myself have never once thought of having my mother’s remains disinterred. Far from it. I like thinking of her in that old cemetery. “Oh mom! You love that pale violet suit that you’re wearing still! ” I think even now, more than 30 years after she left us in such haste. I picture her there and recall how, on the cold winter day we left her on that little hillside, I bent and scooped up a handful of the dirt that had been dug from the open grave. My cousin saw me, sidled over and said, “WHAT on EARTH are you going to do with THAT?”
I didn’t know the answer to that. I just know I needed it and I have still, in a slender glass vial. It is the more dear to me because it is dirt from the same grave where my grandfather has lain since 1958, with my sister and I looking on in our little Mary Janes and our new white gloves. It is dirt from the same grave where his bride lies, the young woman who was my grandmother, though neither of us had the chance to enjoy that bond since she died in the impossibly long-ago year of 1910.
Having this vial of earth comforts me yet, as does the fact that I still have the bright blue blouse my mother was wearing, all dressed up and feeling fine, when she died in my living room in at her own 80th birthday celebration. I still have the little purse she was carrying that December afternoon. I still have her cane. So much happened to her, both as a child and as an adult. So much happened to her two parents. How can I not wish to get it all down on paper, and say how it affected me, and how these effects have played out in my own life?
One day last year when I told two dear-to-me 16-year-olds only a part of this story their eyes widened in near-incredulity I suppose because truth really IS stranger than fiction and who among us, when young, can believe all that will happen to us in life?
Will I ever get it all down in words then? I have less energy than I once did so I have begun to doubt that I ever will, and maybe it doesn’t matter. I had a dream shortly after my mother died. In this dream, the two of us were trotting down a wide set of stone steps together, creating that rhythm people fall into when, sure of foot, they take on such flights of stairs. Halfway down, I looked over at her in surprise and said to this woman who in life saw most poorly and could walk only with a cane, “Mom! You’re running!”
“I know!” she called back, still mid-trot. “I’m not old anymore!”
It was a dream so vivid I’m not so sure it even was a dream. Maybe the idea of linear Time is a clumsy fabrication, the best we could do with our tiny minds. Maybe there is no Past but only an eternal Present, in which case why write your rueful memoir at all?