He sat by the burning logs in the open hearth of our parlor, in a wing chair. I think it was upholstered in patterned peach silk. This is the only memory I have of my maternal grandfather. He had paid this brief visit from Montreal when I was ... what? Maybe three years old. It was shortly after the death of his wife, the grandmother I never knew at all, except by her name, Charna. My aunt Lillian had a daughter who died in infancy, named Charna in honor of this lost forebear. The surnames of Charna’s mother and father were likewise omitted from my childhood album, or scrapbook, in any form, word, image or mention. Until ... Lillian passed away, her husband, my uncle Leonard, remarried and ultimately suffered from Parkinson’s disease and a kind of dementia.
I visited him, a last time, and he greeted me at the door in a wheelchair and confided a secret, hallucinatory, haunting tale. “I have been getting telephone calls from somebody named “Lily Eisner” and from a “Lily Abron” from Toronto ... what do you think this means?” I knew exactly what it meant. Lillian must on some occasion have told him her family history, the roots and branches of the tree, like one of those strange, enchanting, mystical mangroves that somehow get up on the tiptoes of their tendrils and “walk” from place to place. (I visited one of those sacred wonders, guarded by an iron gate or fence in Hong Kong.) In his guilt for outliving his wife and finding another lady, he somehow summoned up her phantom.
Charna had moved from Rumania to Quebec, Canada, and the only visual evidence of her wandering soul known to me was the cameo which Lillian wore and stored in a safe deposit vault. From which it disappeared, vanished into the void! Perhaps fancifully, or merely metaphorically, I confused my memory of the profile on that pin with a single sepia photograph of Charna in a portrait for which she stood with her husband and son in a stately studio setup.
I could narrate the autobiographical chapters of my life with such blurred souvenirs, especially from the very early years, even before kindergarten. Snippets from the visits with my mother to the new parlors of her friends, serving tea. Drives in my father’s grey Dodge sedan to watch our house on the East Side going up, the tapestry brick chimney rising, with its gable curves and its tall straight smokestack, an abstract design at its center.
My father had determined to establish his independence from the wider dimensions of family and clan through creating a “store,” a small business dealing in household furnishings and the basic bedroom and parlor sets required by homemakers under private roofs. Whew! To be safe from troubles in Europe, to be able to pay one’s modest bills, close your doors, turn the flue and keep the warmth. He brought home the necessary items for his business venture – leather-bound ledgers, the typewriter and mimeograph machine, staplers and fountain pens – and rented a showroom with large windows on a major town street. On the day of the grand opening, I was invited, as a small boy, to crawl underneath the mahogany legs of chests of drawers in order to drag out the rats in the traps! I remember – vaguely – my pride at accomplishing this icky task successfully!
From the years of the Great Depression I guard and hoard such minor anecdotal scenes. The front window of our new house, broken by the violent winds of the Hurricane of 1938, and the lamp that fell from the table. Whenever I suffered from a boyhood fever, I would relive the panic that the nearby bedroom floor lamp was collapsing onto the floor. Fact and fantasy, dream and anecdote, hope and fear – they mix and fade and blur before grammar school gets to you. Could I really fly uphill or was it only the invention of insomnia?
My father’s former life before my birth was summed up for me by the quick visit of his friend from the time of my father’s sojourn in New York City. He was an adventurous person who brought, to that brick fireplace, a jeweled Arabic dagger, curving and sheathed in an embossed goatskin case, a gift from the Holy Land and a symbol of the great, exotic, wild and dangerous world beyond the little street to which we had come as a nuclear family. This treasured object was stolen from my house during a break-in, but when you lose the thing, its ghost haunts you and belongs to the inner life you possess in perpetuity.
Brothers, cousins, neighbors, classmates – they remember other events of your past. Some things you might rather forget altogether. Others you prefer to design according to your version, to yourself or over candlelight and a glass of wine. Like some of the art styles of the experimental 20th century, the blur is as much a gain in poetry as a loss in accuracy. The embarrassments, the humiliations and disappointments, the thoughtless, heedless words and gestures, yours or theirs, those we sweep up and dump into the dustbins as best we can. Phrases from the lyrics of old songs may bring back the lost names and faces, the magic moments of memory: “These foolish things remind me,” and “The angels ask me to recall...” and “I’ll remember her that way.”
MIKE FINK (firstname.lastname@example.org) teaches at RISD.