Every memory has an agenda to either comfort us or settle scores. We post pictures of ourselves when we were young to remind people that we were once desirable. In nursing homes, residents tape up photos of themselves in their combat fatigues or wedding gowns, slim and young. Maybe they want to be thought of as fully human. Whether or not they are accurate or true (whatever that means), the memories we choose to harp on, the stories about ourselves that we choose to tell over and over again, are a kind of identity formation, a way in which we construct our own narratives.
When my father was dying I was overwhelmed by nostalgia; everything reminded me of an earlier time. When I read Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde to him in the nursing home, I thought about how he had read David Copperfield to me when I was a little girl. When I drove to visit, I remembered the way Dad had made car rides fun by playing “Let’s get lost” with me. And New York City—every damn street in the city was one he had biked on or walked with me. I couldn’t look at a building without remembering some encounter we’d shared. Dad had been the Master of Ceremonies at Grand Central Station for several New Year’s Eve celebrations when it had been set up for Viennese Waltzing. There Dad had stood in one of his many tuxedos, one arm outstretched, the other holding a microphone as he charmed a sea of couples waltzing across Grand Central. He owned my memories of Grand Central, for God’s sake, and of everything else.
Because he had a degenerative disease, it took him many years to die, and thus I had time to make slow-motion comparisons between the robust, charismatic, bike-riding, tuxedo-wearing, caricature-drawing, trombone-playing man that he had once been to the slowly atrophying man in a wheelchair in front of me who could no longer read, could no longer walk, couldn’t wash or feed himself. My desire for an earlier version of him when everything had still been possible for us both was met over and over again by the brick wall of reality. No matter how fervently I remembered Dad-the-joke-teller, I was met by the Dad-who-could-no-longer-stand-up. Boom. My fertile younger self collided with the middle-aged childless woman I had become. Boom. So much promise crashed into the brick walls of mortality and reality. Boom. Boom. Boom. Boom. BOOM!
In this case, then, nostalgia provided an escape from the present diminishments, a way to linger on better times. Were those times better though, really? Memory is slippery. The more often we remember an event, the further it strays from the original, like a crayon drawing of a Xerox copy. So remembering riding my bicycle around the mountainous terrain of Westchester with Dad is both true and false. “When you’re going up a steep hill,” he used to tell me, “don’t look up at the top of the mountain. Look at your feet on the pedals.” So I remember that, but it’s not the whole reality, of course. Those rides were difficult, and summertime was filled with mosquitos and poison ivy and potholes, and Dad was often a real pain in the ass. So why didn’t I include the nuance of his awfulness in my memories of him? Why this imperative to rewrite history so that the bad stuff be expunged?
When Dad finally died it was a huge relief. We were exhausted from worrying about him every second. With the relief brought by his death, and the letting go of my worries about his care and comfort, I also let go of the nostalgia. It was like a raft of balloons had been tied to me, their strings tugging and cutting into me, and the very day that he died the cords snapped, and I waved bye-bye as the balloons lofted into the blue sky of the distant past. I didn’t need them anymore.
Memory is not a fixed thing. I remember something one way today, and another way tomorrow, and you remember the same thing differently than I do. Memory is a construct meant to prove something. For instance, an ex of mine remembers me throwing a Christmas tree down the stairs twenty-something years ago. I have no recollection of that, can’t even conjure up what could have upset me so, and yet I believe him. He doesn’t ask me what I remember of our relationship, but if he did, it would be more flattering about me and less flattering about him, probably. Is he remembering my bad behavior because it shocked him, because it hurt him, because it helped mitigate his own iffy actions, or because it helps bolster some fixed image that he has of me? Do I not remember it for the same reasons? I don’t know.
One of the best things about having a sister with whom I am close are the shared memories. We can turn to one another and say, “Do you remember that fight Mom and Dad had when they broke a dish?” and the other one immediately remembers. “Yes, yes that happened,” we seem to say to one another, confirming our foggy memories from so long ago. But I wonder sometimes how much I remember of my childhood, and how much I remember because of stories from my childhood, around which I have constructed a feeling of remembering something. I wonder too if my sister’s memories have become my own in some way. She remembers Dad being terrible to me when I was three. I don’t remember it at all, but she does, and because she does, it is there now as part of my own narrative, lodged in there only because she remembers this thing that happened to me but that etched itself on her memory.
The past is a giant ball of tangled yarn that I simply do not know how to untangle.
About a year after his death, I began to think about the rotten stuff about my dad. It was not emotionally charged the way I’d thought about the bad stuff when I was a teen, say. No, it was a time of reconciling, or reconstructing the actual man. The nostalgia balloon had floated off, and that seemed to create a void that the bad memories rushed in to fill. I was not remembering his derision about boyfriends, how he made fun of people for speaking badly (which caused some of us to shut up or move away or become English professors). I was now remembering how judgmental he could be, how the family’s life often revolved around him, how he would go off on rants that scared and infuriated me.
An odd memory burbled up that is representative perhaps of the kinds of memories that were coming to the surface for me during those few years. I was twelve or so, and was watching TV in the kitchen. I had decided that during commercials I would make ice (there were no ice machines back in the 1970s, or if there were, we didn’t have one). I dumped the ice out of each little tray into the larger ice holder and filled each tray back up and put it in the freezer, careful not to spill a drop. I remember feeling helpful, like I was doing something that was good for the family. There were six of us. We always ran out of ice. It seemed like a way to make watching TV kind of useful. I was pleased with myself. I remember the quiet happiness of feeling productive.
But then suddenly Dad was in the slammed-open kitchen door, in his pajamas, haggard, furious. I had apparently woken him up (although it couldn’t have been past ten). He was a radio announcer with an amazing voice, and when he was angry, that booming voice could be forceful to the point of terrifying. He yelled, his face contorted with rage. “You’re selfish. What the hell are you thinking? What’s wrong with you?” I’m making up the dialog. I don’t remember what he said. But it went on. And on. Or so I remember it. I remember physically quaking, my stomach souring. I remember standing there blinking while he stormed and ranted. His voice and his fury and his size and the way he was leaning toward me and the way his spit hit my face as he fumed was menacing. It was shitty and terrifying to be on this man’s bad side.
When I finally got into bed that night, I felt sort of ruined. I was furious at him (as I so often was, I now was able to remember) because I could never defend myself adequately with him. He didn’t care if I was trying to be helpful, or that I was trying to be quiet. I remember lying in bed in the dark (after this and other such outbursts) feeling ill, my disappointment in the precipitous loss of a nice evening palpable in my body, rage bubbling up inside of me that he was such a selfish prick who stormed around and ruined happy moments. I was able to reintegrate the fact that I’d hated him as much as I’d loved him… sometimes more.
So I wonder at the preponderance of the good memories filling my consciousness as he lay dying. Was it a biological response meant to ensure that I care for him, despite the complexities of our family dynamics? Was it also that I was very much an adult who by that time had also been a jerk a billion times and could see Dad as a fellow, flawed human being? Was it the fact that, as he slowly died over the course of many years, he had apologized to me a thousand times, had begged my forgiveness for terrible things he’d done, had told me over and over how proud he was of me, how much he adored me, how much better I was than he was, how much smarter, how much funnier, how much happier? Was my own adult happiness a kind of bulwark against having to hold grudges?
I think it was an essential part of the grieving process for me, years after he’d died, to take stock of the man, this remembering of the bad stuff, a post-cremation reintegration of the parts of the man. My eulogizing on the heels of his death, the extolling of his virtues had given way to a different kind of eulogizing, which was a taking stock of his darker side as well. Was this remembering more real? It felt like it.
The memories of the negatives didn’t erase the good memories, they mitigated them, and made my childhood recollection less utopian and more concrete. He had been great, but he had also ruined important moments, had been unforgivable sometimes. To be able to hold both sets of memories side by side, and twist them together into a braid, is what thinking adults do, right? Neither strand could stand in for the entire story anymore. Separately they were meaningless now. Together they felt useful. It was important to remember, for instance, that there had been decades when I got as far away from the bastard as I could, and important too that he and I had read together as he lay dying, that he had tried to make us all better human beings than he was capable of being (a wish he articulated over and over again), and good too that he and I had been able to come together as adult friends (although we continued to drive one another crazy right up until the end).
This allowance of the good and bad of the man allowed the saint to mitigate the sinner, and vice versa. By a few years after his death, Dad had become just a guy, albeit one who had influenced me more than just about anyone else. The emotional charge had leaked right out of the relationship.
It was about four years after his death, when the see-saw of memories had leveled off, that I remembered something he’d said to me in the nursing home just before he died. I’d said, “Dad, I worry about you every second that you’re here. I think about you all the time.” Although his body was atrophying, he always knew us. That never faded, and he looked up into my eyes as best as he could from his wheelchair and said with a beatific smile, “West, it’s time to stop thinking about me. I should have been dead years ago. Your life is a masterpiece. It’s time for you to stop thinking about me.” It was the most selfless thing he ever said to me.
(And do I even remember that accurately? Did he really say that my life was a masterpiece, or is that itself some sort of embellishment I’ve added to comfort myself, to win some argument with God-knows-who to prove that Dad loved me? I don’t think he said it, actually, but I know that he meant it, the part about my life being a masterpiece.)
I am a fiction writer, and I know that to make a character three-dimensional I must include their strengths and weaknesses. A character who is pure good comes off as prissy and annoying. A character who is completely evil comes across as boring. If we get to know our characters well and are able to allow the good guy to have faults, let him litter or admit that he once cheated on a test or on a lover, we give our readers the chance to love him for real. It’s in these contradictions that characters become real. And let the villain be nice to his dog, because even villains probably are nice to their dogs, or to someone. I mean, no villain thinks of himself as a villain, right? And yet the world is full of them.
Nostalgia is only cathartic, I find, if you ride through it. If you get stuck in it, ruminating about the same events year after year, or believing that there was ever a time that was either entirely perfect or oppressive, then the memories are dishonest. It’s being stuck in the past that’s toxic. Looking forever backwards is like turning into Dickens’ Miss Havisham. After being jilted at the altar, she stopped all the clocks, freezing her life in its moment of highest injustice. It is no way to live, with all of the clocks stopped at a particular remembered moment.
My mother remembers specific details of her early childhood: rolling down the freshly cut lawn at Anna Johnson’s farm in summer, her father drunkenly falling asleep in his dinner plate in their Washington Square Park apartment, his Melachrino No. 9 cork-tipped cigarettes, the Monday night dinners of leg of lamb with mint jelly. Here, memory acts as a kind of legacy. She has handed down her childhood memories to me. I’m a writer and I love her stories. I ask her to re-tell them to me, over and over. By remembering her memories, and my father’s, and my sister’s, and my own, I have become a kind of memory repository. But I have no children, and no one to pass along these stories to. They stop with me.
I specifically chose to be a writer when my husband and I decided to stop trying to have children, and it seems that a prerequisite of being a writer is an obsession with narrative. I see now that I turned to writing because, without children, I needed to find a way to fix my memories. My memories, in the form of stories, are my legacy now. It is through the writing, through putting my memories down on paper, that I’ve found a way to let go of the past, by making sure my memories are, at least, expressed, that they are put somewhere permanent, and publication is the best way that I can ensure a permanent home for them.
It took those years for me to be ready to stop thinking about Dad, but here I sit, looking out of my attic window. It dawns on me that the danger of nostalgia is that it keeps you from living your current life. The good memories, the not so good ones, are all, ultimately, distracting from the work at hand. I don’t mean that history is unimportant, but the present matters too. I’ve waded through the past, taken stock of the great and rotten parts, and I find myself now not so terribly concerned with the past. It’s all fine, but it’s a little bit boring, to be honest. I’m here, now, on the second or third or twentieth draft of this essay. I am wrapped in a blanket that I won at a local fair, and the snow is falling outside my window (or it was when I wrote draft six, but today it is sunny).
In my window is a little brass figure of Ganesh, the breaker-down of barriers. Memories matter, until they become barriers to living one’s life. I sit at my desk, which used to be my father’s drafting table. Now it is mine. He is folded into me like a scar in the trunk of a tree. I have digested his creativity, as well as his team of warring horses Mighty Hubris and Mammoth Insecurity. He was just a guy, after all, but he was my dad, too, and so his story is my story, or it is the point from which all of my stories commence.
As Dad said to me, it’s time to stop thinking about him, and it finally is. The thread of my own story spools from me like an endless ribbon. It says to me, “This is my life. This is my life.” And it is. And I know it to be true.
N. West Moss has had her work published by The New York Times, Salon, McSweeney's, The Saturday Evening Post, Brevity, River Teeth, and elsewhere. Her first book, The Subway Stops at Bryant Park was published by Leapfrog Press in 2017. She has received three Faulkner-Wisdom gold medals, as well as winning The Great American Fiction Contest from the Saturday Evening Post. She has completed an illness memoir that is being shopped around by her agent, and is at work on a novel. She is also currently studying Narrative Medicine at Columbia University.