Saturday, January 31, 2009

Memory is a Funny Thing: A Memoir of Masculinities in Reaganite Suburbia

It is a fact, but nonetheless has the quality of a rumor- something heard but never seen, known but not understood. The fact is this: my father has cried twice since I was born, 31 years ago. If there were other times only he is aware of them. I know of these two times only from the testimony of my mother who speaks about it only to trusted company as if she was the lone witness to some secret government experiment, as if to speak of it could be dangerous. My mother found herself the third angle of an obtuse triangulation. She stood between my proud father and I, his pugnacious progeny. She was the peace broker and thus bore the brunt of both of our own selfish tragedies.

The first time in my life that he cried was on the night before I went to school wearing my mother's concealer make-up. It was1982 and I was seven. A lot happened that year. My father’s father died after forgetting who everybody around him was - everybody, even his wife and his kids. My father’s brother currently suffers the same fate of forgetting, and so too might my father, so too might I. My mother, a nurse-in-training at the time, sat alone with my grandfather as he died. She knew death was close. In high school she had been a poet and her mother had been a closeted artist. So, using her words, my mother painted him a picture to die by. She described the lake house in Wisconsin that he owned. I have only a few faint memories there, but it was his personal Shangri-La. It was there that he smoked his pipe, went fishing, and loved his wife. It was also there that he watched his son, my father, do hotshot fly-bys with a plane owned by the United States Marine Corp. That was about 1961 and in a matter of months my father would stand at attention on an aircraft carrier for 12 hours next to that same plane. He was waiting, like the rest of the country, to see if Cuba and the U.S. were going to start a nuclear war. It may have been one of his proudest moments. History is complicated after all.

So, my mother described a lake, a boat, a sunset, and all the people who had joined my grandfather there. The doctors had been wrong about one thing. Yes, he was going to die, but he would not die without a memory. At that moment, this man who didn’t recognize his own son, much less his son’s wife, shed one tear. He probably couldn’t tell the difference between the picture my mother was painting and heaven, and truly, there may have been no difference at all.
I do sometimes wonder if that was the first time my grandfather ever cried. Even that night, my own father did not cry. However, he was not unaffected. One week later, whatever rivers of rage or sorrow that had been dammed up inside found themselves a chink. Stone and water rushed through the night with destructive abandon. I don’t remember the details of the argument we had that night. I don’t remember how it started, how it proceeded or how it ended. I don’t even remember his hand slapping my face. I remember my parents being alone in their bedroom afterwards and me, lachrymose and abandoned. According to my mother however, I was not alone in my tears.

In that house there was this gigantic brown chair that I loved to sink my small body into when watching television. After their time alone in the bedroom he came out and was noticeably calmer. He asked me to sit with him in that chair. I sat on his lap and he wrapped his arms around me. I remember this more like a photograph, without sound and without motion. The next morning my mother put her beige make-up over the fingerprints on my cheeks.
The other big event of 1982 was that my mother, finally pregnant after months of not conceiving, miscarried. I was the first to know that I had a sibling on the way, and the last to know that this little cosmic package had been marked “return to sender”. I remember very little about that event. One moment comes to mind however: at seven years old it was still my ritual to wake up, get dressed, and find my parents. I could see the glow of the bathroom light in their bedroom. I approached, eager to see whichever parent was in there. My mom, still in her nightgown, was on the toilet hunched over, her face red-hot with tears. Again, I remember this more like a photograph- without sound, without motion. Somehow, I later connected that scene with her loss, with our loss.

Eleven years later I found out that this was not just a sad fluke but a more permanent condition on my mother’s part. The way I found out was a tragedy too. I needed socks. All I wanted was a pair of socks and each and every pair of mine were dirty. My father would surely have some socks I could wear. Having just returned home from a flight, his clothes were still packed. I shuffled through one bag and found not just socks, but also a pack of condoms. A few weeks later I found my mother again bent over, her face red-hot with tears. This time she was not pissing out a fetus. She had angry suspicions and was beside herself with heartache. For reasons I still cannot understand, I involved myself. I told her about the socks, and the condoms. She became oddly calm and said only this: “Well, that settles it- we haven’t needed to use condoms in over eleven years”.

The second time in my life that my father cried was shortly after his mother died. I was in Mexico with a woman who I thought I knew, but barely knew. So it goes with young love. My grandmother, like her husband before her, also forgot who everyone was during the years proceeding her death. She however was apparently not satisfied with just losing memories, she created new ones too. One night, for example, she called her neighbor saying that men were robbing her. No evidence could be found that this was true. So off to the nursing home she went. A year passed and then we both got ready for our trips. I was going to Mexico and she was going to heaven. I think she had a better time but we still haven't talked or traded photographs. I wasn't with her in the moment she died as my mother had been for my grandfather. However, I was there very near the end. I knew this would be the last time I’d see her with any lightening at all in her brain. So, I told her what any grandson should tell his grandmother: that she was wonderful and caring, that she spoiled me silly and I loved her for it, that I was glad she had been my grandmother and glad she had raised my father… and probably some more true things that I don’t now remember. And guess what? Despite no longer knowing my name, she cried one tear too. I wrote down what I had told her in the hospital room and decorated it with a bit more eloquence and fact. This was her eulogy, to be read by my father at her funeral. So about two weeks later, while I was climbing the pyramids of my girlfriend’s ancestors, my father read my farewell, bit-by-bit, tears sneaking out between each sentence.
My mother has since read this story and her only response is, in a sad, hopeless tone, "memory is a funny thing". The implication was that she does not remember these events in the same way that I do. Maybe my grandfather did not cry on his deathbed. Maybe the Cuban missile crisis wasn’t my father's proudest moment and maybe he did cry more than just two times in the last 31 years. Again, this is only what I have heard but not seen, known but not understood. And yet, I still find it fit to call fact, at least in the mythology of my own life. What a subjective world we live in.


Blogger Shadows of life said...

So true! Memories are funny...You do have lovely, happy, sad and beautiful memories. Thank you for sharing!!!


January 31, 2009 3:02 PM  
Blogger Shadows of life said...

Strong images shows your different stages of your life: the way Christopher's present is walking by those moments of past, the way images build up and the way 31 years of life got lost in development and self growth....writing is good and memories are really awesome.

Read this again...I wanted to understand few thoughts!!

I was wondering about lost years in between....keep writing!


February 01, 2009 1:43 PM  

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