Something about rainy mornings makes me turn inward. Maybe our hearts and souls subconsciously react to rain in the same way we do when we choose to stay indoors, put on the tea kettle, stare out the window from our cozy nest of comfort. Sometimes the outside world isn’t as welcoming as the inner one, the one always there like an old photo album on the shelf, always nearby, quietly waiting a turn with our attention. It is a world without time, what essayist Scott Russell Sanders once called “the perennial present of memory.”
I’ve thought about memory this week while trying to help my thirteen-year-old great-niece Emma with a project for her U.S. History class. She needed information about our ancestors and their daunting journeys as immigrants and believers in “manifest destiny.” Somehow I have ended up the family historian, which is fine with me, but I don’t know everything. My mother and all but one of her siblings are gone now, taking their memories with them, whole lifetimes of memories, along with the bits like unraveled threads, of the memories of their parents and grandparents before them. I know some of those stories, but with each generation the threads show more wear and threaten to crumble into lint.
From here in Tacoma I called my mother’s first cousin, a woman in her eighties living clear across the country in Massachusetts. We hadn't talked in a few months. Like me, “Doris” is the historian for her own branch of the family. I could count on her to add another perspective to our story, a view from a different window. Things started out well, and then the truth began to seep into my awareness. Doris was a little confused. Doris and her precious, valuable, irreplaceable memories were starting to slip away from me.
Helping Emma makes me more aware of my responsibilities to myself, to her, and even to her unborn children. I want to keep those threads of memories going, spin new fiber into the twist of them, make them strong. I want her to know who she is and where she came from. Those are the family memories.
Then we have our own private ones and our own secrets. I’m in the process of transcribing my mother’s five year diary, 1933-1937, turning those five years of her life into a computer file we can all share. Last Monday was the fifteenth anniversary of her death. I looked at the entries on that day of May 4, 1936 and the day before. Two weeks away from her wedding day she writes “No one will ever know, not even Howard, how I felt the rest of the evening” and “I feel terrible today. I have cried so much . . . I’ve never been so disconsolate.” By the next day she seemed much better and her usual happy self after that.
As a writer I know each of us carries volumes of stories inside. I have mine and you have yours. If the past is indeed, perennially present, did whatever happened on May 3rd haunt my mother for the rest of her life? I will never know. In some ways I never knew the real “her” at all and she never knew me. I have come to realize the truth of this, that no matter how we share our love, our days, feelings, thoughts and joys, no one else can ever know us completely. We all have these secret places in the heart. A precious few others may share some of the same memories: a certain moment on a certain day, words spoken so heavy with meaning, a look, a touch, a mutual joy or grief.
I sit here with my tea growing cold and the rain still falling. Forgive me if I haven’t informed or entertained you today. It’s the fault of the rain and the way it makes me feel. It isn’t sadness, or regret, and I’m not at all depressed by it. In fact I greeted it as I opened the curtains, like an old, old friend come to visit, one as familiar as kin. No, I’m not unhappy, just spending a quiet, rainy morning in “the perennial present of memory.”