In addition to fretting over lost memories, I’ve also grown distrustful of collective memories. Their malleability. The tricks they play. I swear Nioki Sanada convinced me to throw rocks at the wasp’s nest during recess, but my friend from elementary school swears it was Brad Barty. The last time I remember seeing my grandmother, at Halloween, in the large brown chair in her living room, a scarf covered her head to keep her now bald scalp warm. But my mom says we visited her much later, closer to Christmas. Though we both know the last viewing was in the casket, we’ve managed to forget what she looked like that day.
I fear I’ll end up like my grandfather—wheeled about a nursing home from room to room, each day another series of lost actions.
“What did you have for dinner last night?” I ask him when I visit. The question isn’t really fair. He doesn’t always remember who I am. He stares at me without response. But I hope if I ask enough questions some memory will rattle, drift to the surface. As if enough questions will yield a response. I ask, “Was it a special meal like you get sometimes, one of the turkey or steak meals, or just a regular meal?” Nothing. “It doesn’t matter anyhow, does it?” He nods.
Even those lines, quoted with the authority of truth, are only approximations. I said something very much like that to my grandfather one day and he responded with those actions, but perhaps I’m off a word or two, I can’t remember. I wrote those exact lines in my notebook, but I jotted them down as I left the nursing home, maybe ten or fifteen minutes after I originally spoke them. It seems the best I can do is paint broad strokes of memory, estimations that seem accurate when I back away and look upon them from some distance.
The only shred of hope for my memory is that I’ll live long enough to remember the distant memories, those that emerge from the past. Although Grandpa may not remember when I visited him last, he still recalls what he wore the day he began work at the Benedictine factory in Fécamp, at the age of twenty. He may now struggle to summon the English words to say, “I love you,” but he can still reconstruct the tales of how he evaded Nazi soldiers in France during World War II. It takes some time, but he’ll tell how he lay, belly down, in the wheat fields when surveillance planes flew overhead, weaving his body through threads of grain. Although the strokes have weakened his face, he still manages to smirk when he tells me how he threw a rock at a German soldier and shouted for him to get the hell out of France. I find solace in the thought that yesterday’s dinner may be darkened forever, but I will be able to command the memories that define me into light.
My dad says the whole family is nothing but a bunch of liars. He says no story from his parent’s past ever remained the same. Over his lifetime he was told that his grandmother died from complications of pneumonia, a gunshot wound during the war, suicide, and some other muddy memory that involved an affair. I asked him how you could die from an affair; he said he never bothered to ask. He says each story from his parents grows more convoluted with time, full of gaps and holes that make no sense. His mom used to tell him that the Hemery family had Viking roots. When my dad asked her what evidence she had that we were great warriors, she told him never to question what she said. He now believes we’ve always been poor fishermen who died at sea.
Other memories remain forever silenced. My dad believes his Aunt Simone may have been a prostitute—“She did what she had to in order for us to eat,” Grandpa always told him. When my dad asked what she did, my grandfather would shake his head and say, “You don’t need to know. No one needs to know.”
The last time I saw Simone was at a dinner party in Cleveland when I was in elementary school. She was in her wheelchair eating caviar, bubbles of black eggs trailing down her chin. She waved me to her side and said, “I remember when you used to come over after school and play dominoes with me. Do you remember that?”
I’d only seen Simone a few dozen times, but always in the company of my dad. I was never allowed to be alone with her, because, as my dad said, she was “loony.”
I didn’t say a word but smiled at Simone.
“Do you remember, Michael?” she asked. “You’d sit on my lap and we’d play dominoes and drink wine. Do you remember?”
I looked around for my dad but found him on the other side of the room talking with one of his cousins.
“Michael,” Simone snipped. “I asked you a question. Do you remember every day after school for two years we’d play dominoes and drink wine together? Do you? Do you remember?”
I chewed on the inside of my mouth, then nodded my head.
As a child my dad would walk with his mother up the hill each week to an unmarked grave, say a prayer for the dead, and march back to their tiny upstairs apartment. One week he asked his mother whose grave it was; she said a friend. The next month it was a niece, while the following year a neighbor. When he asked what the dead person’s name was, Grandma answered, she never had a name. When he asked why not, she said she didn’t live long enough to get one. When he asked why his dad never came with them she said he doesn’t know about her.