“Memory is man’s greatest friend and worst enemy.” ~ Gilbert Parker
A year ago last week, my son asked me, “Dad, what did you do to celebrate Father’s Day when you were a kid?” I literally blanked at the question. Keep in mind, my memory has been like an old book. One I drag out and open up periodically to leaf through till I find a mark where the recollection ought to be. I had nothing to offer my eldest.
If memoir is not you’re thing, no worries on skipping the following. Regular programming returns tomorrow.
It doesn’t happen often, and put forward why I have come to consider long memory, which I inherited from my mother, as something distinctly bittersweet.
You could surmise that either a) I’m finally losing my memories through age, b) I’m suppressing them, or c) none were bookmarked because they’re simply not there. Believe it or not, answer ‘a’ would have been the least troublesome to me. Primarily, because I know the latter two are closer to the truth.
In the past, whenever I’ve been asked what’s the earliest memory I can recall, I’ve told people of the time I crawled out to the stoop of the small house my parents rented from my mom’s parents. I subsequently rolled down its short steps. I’m sure the memory took because it hurt.
When I mentioned this to the aunt who witnessed the exact event, she near the backdoor of grandma’s house at the front of the property, my mother’s sister said I could not have remembered. I was around eight months old, she said, certain.
“Really?”, I asked once. “What about that Fourth of July when the next-door-neighbors were doing fireworks in their backyard? I wanted to watch, and was physically lifted by someone on our side, over the fence, and handed to waiting hands just so I could.” Not possible, she surmised. “You were still a toddler, less than two years old.”
I do not have a photographic memory. Never did. But these long-term impressions are real, ingrained, and selective. The kind of event I remember the most. Then, there are those I don’t. The aforementioned aunt, the youngest in my mother’s immediate family, on the day she died, being one.
She had been diagnosed with terminal colon cancer a year before. Yet, that awful memory lays right next to a caring one. One of my fondest, really. Seeing my aunt, worn down by this time with the truly terrible thing, sitting happily at the family Christmas Eve gathering. Her last, in 1995. Catching sight of her as she cradled my two-month old first-born in her loving eyes and arms that night.
I’ve recalled it often as he’s grown up — these things get burned in.
She’d disappear from our sights come ’96, as some similarly stricken do, during her last months. When I’d see her next, it would be the final visit. Came byway of a cousin’s call to my home on some seemingly mundane weekday evening. She pointedly telling me the hospice nurse said if I wanted to see Olivia one last time, come to her house, and make it quick.
Most in the family knew this was coming, but still it landed with a shock when it arrived. Naturally, I went. Writing this, I tell you in all honesty, I hardly recognized the woman. A feeling, as opposed to the memory, clear as day. A horrible and hated blasphemy in my mind as I think of it. Cancer a fate she did not deserve.
This same woman, who’d bestow in me an appreciation of film, stage plays, and music concerts as I grew up during the 60s, had withered to a ghastly nothingness. The teletype in my head may have dispatched a frail, skeleton-like figure there in her room, but little else.
I cannot, for the life of me, form in my consciousness how my aunt actually looked the night as I came to say goodbye. I know this. She still exists in my mind, just not the figure who lain there. Cannot open that image in my head, even when I’ve dared to try.
The mind, somehow on its own, has applied protection, I guess. A small mercy not recalling a love one, which I am most grateful for. The last time where my memory had purposely interrupted the register. The first occurred decades before.
My mother loved recounting her memories. She constantly related her’s of yesterday, and other’s, to her two sons. We came to expect them, like old pals. A steady ticking of an old clock.
They were dusty with age even when she handed them over to us all those years ago, but they retained a vibrancy. She stoked and tended through the years. Most placed a smile on this boy’s face, then and now. Mom would repeat some, yes. Yet, I’d love to hear them come back for a turn.
Except two, told solely to me, and only once, which I’ll relate.
Before I turned teen, on one of my daily visits away from the house where I bedded. She and I talked about why I’d come to live with her mother, my grandmother. “Your father left us…”, she’d say, “…and I got sick and had to go into the hospital.” We all had to split up, the result.
One child each to the grandmothers with a stake in the game, till she was released from medical care, she’d confide. I readily recalled those days, of course. How I got there, not. I think I said I didn’t remember. “It was harder on you as you were older than your brother“, came her reply.
“For the longest time, right after he’d left, you’d wait outside for your dad to come home, not wanting to come in till he got there.” Mom admitted she had to bring me in, cold and crying, each night for the first couple of weeks.
Only my brother would form back up with mom after the family split. I’d become the satellite moon, having latched on to my grandmother for dear life, in the process. Mom watched the one rotating in-between her and her mother (who clung to her grandchild like her last son) from a distance.
Her pained expression, one I’d never forget when I told her I couldn’t recall any of that, said it all.
She then confided a time her oldest living child stepped in-between his arguing, belligerent father to defend his mother he’d backed into a corner. Deflecting the target of his anger. This, too, I couldn’t recall, or even imagine. Perhaps, it had the intended effect.
The result rocked whatever world in my head. Changed my outlook, for sure. Causing a shift, this last realization directly circled back to my son’s question that began this outpouring from the memory fortress I’ve built around myself.
There were no childhood Father’s Day memories I could relate to him. None. We didn’t celebrate my dad. I tried to explain all of this to my son that day. He was seventeen then, and I guess he needed to know. Today, he’s going through his own travails at eighteen. Hopefully, he’ll never have to truly relate. At least I sincerely hope so.
My dada has been one of my prime examples of manhood in the years since. Just not what he’d have expected, I suppose. Sons of divorce collect father-figures as a byproduct. Those whom we learn from. As I’ve stated prior, the hardest job I’ve ever loved, without question, remains being a father.
The above reveals I came to this parent-thing from what’s best described as an inverse role model. I’ve asked myself from the time mom recounted all this, “What would dad do here?” I’ve instinctively then did the opposite. Confessed this to my oldest a year ago. Conceivably, he still recalls this recollection.
It’s funny, strange, what comes back from memory. Not the least of which was I began blogging, an archive in sooth, on a day such as this. In its entirety from six years ago today, titled Father’s Day 2008:
“It’s 6:50 in the AM at a desert resort, and it’s Father’s Day. My wife and kids are still asleep — typical. Well, except for my 8-year old daughter, the fierce one. Her allergies have been giving her a bad time while here. The desert is no friend to her. Well, when all of the kids are up they’ll be clamor for going to the pool ASAP. My turn for that this morning — yesterday was my turn and I played golf (typical).
I wish I could come up with something more dramatic for my first blog post, but there it is. Up in the dark, typing and reading by the laptop screen — damn typical. However, I love being a dad, love my kids and she-who-must-be-obeyed (and if she reads that, I’m in so much trouble…). Hope all the fathers out there have a great day, especially Tiger down in at Torrey Pines for today’s final round at the U.S. Open. Go Eldrick!”
While I am envious of those who’ve had a normal father-son connection, these memories shaped me to be the dad I am today. No matter how I got here, I can only hope I’m preferable for my kids, compared to what I had. I pray they understand why I’ve entrusted myself to hold them, the children I love, so dear.
Happy Father’s Day.