Sunday, December 8, 2013

Memory's layers; memory's hallways

Veronica is the person in our family who reads the most speculative fiction, so last night I asked her, while we were getting ready to make tea to drink in front of the newly-decorated Christmas tree, if she could think of a work that had a doorway opening to the past that could only be opened on certain days or certain times of the year.  Certainly, I know about the doorways to other worlds in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe or The Root Cellar, but I wondered if there was a literary precedent for what I experience this time of year.

"Would you like to try a new kind of tea?" I asked her.  "I bought you too many stocking stuffers."


"Then hand me my watch."

Veronica laughed.  "That's a non sequitur if I've ever heard one."

My mother was the queen of the witty, whimsical non sequitur.  So it was as if I had just opened the doorway to find her going about her life in a kind of timeless space that the dead occupy.  Here they simply hang around obligingly, waiting for us to stumble on them again to remember something we had forgotten or had not given its proper place in our portraits of them.

Most times of the year, memory seems to be like a lake--in winter, like a frozen lake.  You look down through a layer of thick ice that distorts what's below, but if you concentrate you can see the fish moving about slowly, see the weeds waving in an invisible current.  You know that below this there is the sea bed; on the prairies, which was twice an inland sea, this layer of sediment can be quite thick.  And beneath that is the earth's crust, though you can only say the words:  you can't quite describe what it is.  

Occasionally, in the weeks leading up to the solstice and to Christmas, for example, or in the anniversary of Kennedy's assassination or in the days after Nelson Mandela's death, this metaphor seems to turn ninety degrees, so that memory is at  not a lake but a hallway with many, many doors.  In 1985, I saw James Dickey at the Modern Language Association Conference in Chicago, which is always held between Christmas and New Years; he looked like a large workman and had an impressive set of keys dangling from a chain fastened at his belt. Though that was twenty-eight years ago, I remember thinking that all those keys were just right; he seemed to me to be a kind of guide to the underworld, someone who had the keys to rooms we might--or might not--like to look into.

I don't think our memories are on high alert just because of the archaeology of the boxes of Christmas decorations, though that was in play again this year. Veronica pointed to two tear-drop-shaped glass decorations with turquoise liquid in them and said she couldn't remember any Christmases without these on the tree.  These and a couple of glass balls come from Christmas in Boston, when my first husband and I searched the shops around Harvard Yard for decorations for our tiny tree.  We left it for a couple of days to make a quick trip to Michigan and returned to find it contorted and misshapen for lack of water; I still find the memory disturbing.  I'm also very aware of the absence of a large glass ball given to me by my mother:  one year we didn't have the tree solidly in the stand, and Bill and Veronica stood in terrified paralysis while the newly-decorated tree slowly lurched forward, breaking many--but not all--of the glass ornaments.  I have no memory of this; I must have been cooking.

I think it's the darkness, the short days, that prompt us to reflect and remember, as if sunshine and warmth are for living and long dark evenings are for re-living.  The picture above is my attempt to capture the yard light on snowy trees through a frost-covered window.  I haven't quite gotten it right. Like memory, it is layered, though the layers aren't quite in sync.  And we never get memory quite right either.  As often as not, there's a shadow in the corner that we're not paying attention to.  Or the clarity with which we suddenly see someone is overwhelmed by our own shadows.  

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