Tomorrow, my parents’ church will vote on a series of renovations that if completed, would erase the location of my earliest memory. There would be no reason, really, for me ever to go back there, other than the funerals of my parents’ friends and eventually, we hope not any time soon, to bury my father.
I have tried to stay out of the discussions. Like the old, like those becoming old, I cling increasingly to the past without wanting to, without believing in it as a productive strategy. Some remnants of the past are merely curiosities. Let the dead bury their dead, and in the Lutheran tradition, tradition itself is contentious and increasingly an obstacle. A childhood or a youth suffused only by memories of the past may not be entirely productive and every generation deserves at least a piece of the canvas to write on for itself.
Raised with the words, “do this in remembrance of me,” I am suspicious of memory. I am suspicious of my own memories. A scholar has recently suggested that Jewish memory leads to eternal war. The things people fight about. And yet. That communion rail.
At home, dad and I continue to pick slowly through things that have accumulated for forty-five years. In the middle bedroom, aside from hundreds of hangers from mom’s clothes, donated two Christmases ago, three things are still in the closet: his late cousin Darlene’s polka sax, which I played in the last two years of high school; my brother’s trombone, which hasn’t been touched since probably 1988; and the checkerboard surface of a table dad made out of monkeypod wood while they lived in Hawaii.
My cousin the Architect messages me to ask me a question about the spelling of our grandmother’s name and the rationale behind it. I ask her about a story we saw in the local paper about the local yeti. We agree that we both ended up as history professionals because of this past in our family we can’t escape.
I feel like my nieces are at least somewhat unaware of all of these things — because my brother is taciturn, and my sister-in-law doesn’t know, and they are both busy. I used to save things that I think they would want, but lately my mood has been to discard. Why burden them with the story of Darlene and Reinie, for instance, what possible purpose could that have? When A asked me, at mom’s funeral, who that man was lurking in the corner, I said, “That’s … oh. It doesn’t matter.” I, too, erase.
And then I think that hardly anyone remembers Darlene anymore. I think that I hardly remember Darlene anymore. She died when I was in third grade, presciently leaving me the saxophone. Which I have not played since 1995.
I try to write, and I think these things are disappearing and I think they should disappear and then I hear a fellow writer say, I need to keep writing just out of loyalty to my characters. To keep faith with those who sleep in the dust, וּמְקַיֵּם אֱמוּנָתו לִישֵׁנֵי עָפָר. And then I realize how the truth still poisons. It does not set me free. These disappearing things can only be stories, cloaked in the fiction of fiction. They can never be people and things again. I have thrown away their things and I cannot keep their faith.
Let the dead bury their dead. Let the stories bury their stories.