The Way We Were?
As I drive down the main street of the village I pass through every time I travel between our farm and the rest of the world, something seems out of the ordinary. It takes me a moment to realize what it is: A house has disappeared. Between the small graveyard and the post office, where the day before stood a big, old Victorian, there is now a bare patch of earth. The entire building is gone, not a scrap of it remaining. It’s as if it was never there at all.
Despite having seen this house hundreds of times, my immediate thought is that maybe I’m mistaken. Maybe it never was there, at least not where I remember it being. I look around as I continue driving, thinking perhaps I’ll see it somewhere else. But I don’t. I’m not wrong. It was there. And now it’s not.
When I get home, just to be sure, I confirm with my sister that there was indeed a house in that location. “It’s gone?” she says. “I drove through there an hour ago and didn’t even notice.”\
I’ve always been interested in memories. How they’re formed. How they’re stored in our brains. How they can change over time. Since living with the experience of my mother’s Alzheimer’s, my interest has only deepened. As hers are taken from her on a daily basis, I find myself wanting to understand how our brains work, how they catalogue the experiences of a lifetime.
In February of 2008, my mother and her sister (my aunt DiAnne) came to visit me in San Francisco. I hadn’t seen my mother in eight years. Now that she had begun experiencing memory issues, my aunt thought it would be good for her to visit before her condition made it impossible for her to travel.
Already, she was forgetting things. One night, while driving them back to their hotel, my aunt and I were talking about a child my mother had lost before I was born. The story I’d always been told was that he was stillborn.
“He wasn’t dead,” my mother suddenly announced from the backseat, where she had spent the entire ride in exhausted silence. “I held him. He was alive. Then I went to sleep, and when I woke up, they told me he had died. But we never talk about it.”
Not wanting to upset her, we didn’t press for more details. I did, however, call my father when I got home. He and my mother had been divorced for more than two decades at that point, and he hadn’t seen her in some time. I explained what was happening with her, then asked him about the baby.
“That didn’t happen,” he said.
My sisters, around eight and ten at the time of the events, confirm my father’s version. Of course, they might have simply believed whatever they were told. But nobody remembers anything about our brother having been born alive. What everyone does agree on is that my mother is correct that nobody ever talked about it afterward.
Memory is a slippery thing. For years, I had very specific recollections of where I was when my mother informed me of my paternal grandfather’s death. I clearly remembered sitting on my bed in my room in our house in Africa, where we were living at the time. I could even describe the strange pea green chenille bedspread, and how I ran my fingers over it while my mother told me that grandpa had died and we wouldn’t be seeing him again.
When I mentioned this recently to my sister, she said, “That’s not what happened at all. You, me, Nancy, and mom were flying home for a visit. We stopped in Amsterdam first for a few days. When we got off the plane in New York, dad was there. He wasn’t supposed to be there, but grandpa had died and he’d flown back ahead of us.”
I don’t know why I rearranged the facts of these events in my mind. As a professional storyteller, perhaps I thought my version was more interesting, or poignant. Nor do I know why my mother remembered her baby being born alive. Was it more comforting to remember it that way? Was having her child alive in her arms, if only for a moment, less heartbreaking than never getting to have him at all? Or was she right, and everyone else involved has remembered it differently for their own reasons?
In the three years that my sister and I have lived together taking care of our mother, it’s become clear that we actually had different mothers. There are 11 years between us, and we lived in the same house for only a short time. What we remember about our mothers is vastly different. Nina’s mother was anxious, but also funny. Mine was controlling and frightened of everything. Nina recalls enjoying spending time with hers. I remember feeling trapped by her rigidity and judgement. Recently, my sister said to me, “I had no idea it was so bad for you. I didn’t have that experience.”
My first thought upon hearing this was, “Maybe I didn’t have it either.” Maybe, like my faulty memory of our grandfather’s death, my memories about my mother are clouded by the feelings of the person I was at the time. Or maybe I’ve rearranged them over time to create a more dramatic story arc. I don’t think so, but there’s really no way to know now.
I spend a lot of time these days wondering who my mother really was. As her story winds to an end, I realize that there are whole chapters that I never got to read, that maybe nobody got to read. Now, almost everybody involved in them is gone, taking the stories with them. One day, like the house that was there one day and gone the next, she too will have disappeared. When I look at the spot where she once stood, I wonder what I’ll remember of her, and how much of it will be who she really was and how much will be what I’ve turned her into in my own memories. The real her is in there somewhere, just as the real her is currently locked inside the person she’s become, but I can’t see either of them clearly.
Or maybe I never could.
Michael Thomas Ford is happy that the fireflies have returned for the summer. More Michael Thomas Ford