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“Memory reveals itself through imagination.” -‐ Joseph Roach “They are my documents. I keep watch over them… To reminisce and woolgather is negative. You have to differentiate between memories. Are you going to them or are they coming to you? If you are going to them, you are wasting time. Nostalgia is not productive. If they come to you, they are seed for sculpture.” -‐Louise Bourgeois
Good Words: A Mind is Forgetting
The wood creaks beneath my weight. A round table, four chairs cracked and rickety. I have been told this table and chairs crossed the Atlantic on a boat from Germany. It belonged to my grandmother before it belonged to me and before her it was her mother’s and so on until, at some point, the Black Forest pine was severed from the German earth and carpenters worked to perfect the round shaped top before fixing it to the pedestal base with brackets and nails now long rusted. This essay falls in medias res, in the middle of things, while I sit at my grandmother’s table. The particular thing I am in in the middle of is what some might call grief, others mourning, and some even melancholia. Being in the middle, I am not sure what I would call it. This is a story I have been circling for a very long time (warning: this is going to be personal, and perhaps, sentimental). The memories flood. (And often do not cohere). The funeral program says “witness.” I am witness. I am to deliver the eulogy, “good words” in her honor.1 But first, I must try to remember (let the memories come to me). Annette Kuhn writes in Family Secrets: Acts of Memory and Imagination, “Memory work has a great deal in common with forms of inquiry which involve working backwards—searching for clues, deciphering signs and traces, making deductions, patching together reconstructions out of fragments of evidence” (4). But as much as memory work is like a detective novel, it is also “indeterminable” mystery, “at every turn, as further questions are raised, there is always something else to look into” (6). My memory-‐work in this essay will inevitably be a form of forgetting just as much as it is an attempt to (re)member. It will be more mystery than detection. Even still, as Kuhn tells us, “memory work is a method and a practice of unearthing and making public untold stories” (9). As such, this is but one untold private story that I will (re)tell (as best as I am able). The facts: her name was Martha Abel-‐Solomon. Her parents were Walter Heinrich Abel and Mary Douglas Price. She was a schoolteacher. She was Methodist. Her grandfather was a German Jewish doctor with blonde, curly hair and blue eyes. No one in our family remembers when conversion occurred. She married E.L. Solomon, my grandfather (“Papaw”), on August 18, 1951. They were married for 1 Eulogy (etymology): eulogia, Classical Greek for “good words,” blessing (OED).
I have written about it in several forms.L. too romantic love story: Panama. one of whom is my father. Members of the Greatest Generation. They were married until E. (Were there more?) These letters are but two examples of the epic romance narrative that has become something of myth in our family. I resembled her grandfather when I had more hair than I do now and before hats were a part of my daily wardrobe (more on this later). was called home (a la Saving Private Ryan) to be with his widowed mother (and. He would turn off his hearing aid to watch Bye Bye Birdie. (This sounds sentimental. Meme and I are (were) the only ones in our family with blue eyes. J.L. When Martha died on September 27. written around 1951. This was E. but that was us. lived in Cleveland.. World War II interrupted things. and catty (because no other word will suffice) understanding of each other. 2011. E. the bad poem: Panama He climbed telephone poles for a living. After her death. was born in May 1927. E. we found the letters. I will never forget the following statement from her: “You (meaning me) think you’re cute but you’re not. of course. Their courtship was lengthy. Billy severely wounded and thought dead (the train he was conducting derailed. Walter. (She. (My brother-‐in-‐law figured this out at the cemetery. she would hum .’s death in February 2006. joined the army in quick succession after his elder brothers. (See images following). E. And this bring us to the story that I have been retelling for several years. Martha was surprised when she pulled on her brother’s foot and the foot belonged to another man’s leg. and produced two children. E. In my hands was placed the eulogy. she wore Chanel No 5. of course. but sometimes facts refuse any other rhetoric). she had lived only one day more in the number of total days than her husband: He lived a total of 28. (An uncle has blue eyes.L.. or “Pluto” as friends knew him. joined late. and Billy. When J.M.Solomon 2 over fifty years. She was a Southern belle: member of the rose society and all that jazz. all six-‐foot-‐two of him. leaving him without most of a skull and an exposed brain).M. was killed in Europe.” and the sobriquet fit.L.” Sounds harsh. she and I. We grandchildren called her “Meme. 348 days. 5. seldom without her string of pearls and Chanel No. a young queer kid. The roughly five years E. First. chose the spelling). but that’s the other side of the family).L. Mississippi. never feeling satisfied with what seems like a too perfect.L. Waking up Claude one morning. the year of her marriage to E. Perhaps because of her eccentricities and over-‐the-‐top appearance. strange. Claude. Two of them.L. Martha). Martha was born in January 1933. spent without Martha before she was born. She could be an extremely selfish and superficial woman.L. she lived 28. Martha spent without him after his death. was a childhood friend of Martha’s brother. Remember.349. probably out of boredom). never getting it right.L. always had an intimate. The story of their meeting is simple: E.
Bereavement might be my second career. She didn’t know how to ask for a bedtime story. And whisper sweet dreams. As he died. the next day she knew her name. demented and silent. As he laid in the rented hospital bed. In story after story. * Not Dementia. my mother fed him ice cubes when he forgot how to swallow. but as we closed the bedroom door she would start. fluids and antidiuretics. He was stationed at the Canal. as my mother washed his sheets.V. Not Alzheimers. I have killed my mother. trimmed his beard. Diabetic feet always elevated. sleep). At night. administering morphine. (Holding hands. she told stories to the empty air. that she had children. and told the story of Panama.” As he died. my mother helps people die.Solomon 3 “How Lovely to be a Woman. cupped his penis to change his catheter. we would tuck her beneath her favorite floral blanket. I have been to many memorial services. he came home to me. administered I. The poem “The Girl Never Born” is an example of late-‐night-‐emergency-‐room runs and fearing that my mother would not come back home. On top of that. her pearl-‐covered wrists rattling with each hand gesture. kiss her forehead. an MP during the Great War. poem after poem. As a doctor for hospice. Panama. and I (her grandson) could be her son whose name she could not remember. my mother has a heart condition (that I have subsequently inherited). switch on the closet light. But when his brother lost his skull in a train crash in Germany. Not quite. It should probably be mentioned that death has always been a constant presence in my life. she reclined. One day she knew your name. pull up the rails on her rented hospital bed. The Girl Never Born The sonogram showed a girl in 1986: .
nearly four years of forgetting before her literal death. E. (There is a short-‐fiction version of Panama as well. holding hands. cradle. and never miss the vein. in the last few years of caring for them along with the rest of my family.L. like her mother. Perhaps Katie would have called an ambulance sooner. never knowing what to do. administering morphine. she would have known how to thread an I. I not only see a gulf bridged.L. It was his. the riven mind torn from meaning and memory. What “Panama” as poem gives us is two deaths: a literal one where E. [like Inman in Frazier’s Cold Mountain or even Odysseus in Homer] walked. Maybe Katie would have known the technical terms for a heart of abnormal rhythm and flow: mitral valve prolapse.Solomon 4 Katie would have been her name. After being summoned home. it also presents us with Panama.L. But Katie is a different story. she would have worked with hospice. forgot all of his normal bodily functions shortly after forgetting how to talk and Martha’s social death. her right hand's fingers pressed into the rib cage's in-‐betweens. but a country cut in half. I used to see the story of Panama as a grand romantic metaphor for my grandparents’ entire marriage. and for one reason or another (so the story goes) was told to hitch it home. and let go. I look back at a poem like “Panama” and instead of seeing the problems with line and other .L. hitched it from Florida to Mississippi to be with his beloved. but it is too long for inclusion). Perhaps. Perhaps. But in that 1987 birth moment. supraventricular tachycardia. the grand romantic gesture of E. It was not Katie’s heartbeat the sonogram saw.V. and Martha’s relationship. In this version of the story. would have done more than hold. would have massaged the sternum to start CPR. Yet. peace. In this new version. Panama’s synaptic shape. E. the shape Panama takes is quite different. it was not Katie’s red hair that flamed as a little boy crowned. Now. Perhaps Katie would have known what to do every time she saw her mother crouch— head between her legs. docked in Florida. shoulders raising to a no-‐neck level. they loved each other so much that neither war nor gulf could keep them apart. known to memorize the numbers of the county coroner and the various funeral homes. a flawed son of faint heart.
But what of remembering. Yet. Why are the “good words” of a person’s life always what happened long before their dying? I can think of no greater beauty that Meme’s need to cling to Panama. build the structure? (Returning) My hat obsession started long ago. Figure 1 Martha and E. (He wore them all the time too). Papaw is wearing a baseball cap. What did Panama matter? All anyone seems to know about Panama is the canal (or at least that is all we seem to care about).Solomon 5 issues I cringe at as a pseudo-‐poet. but only in the sense that he knows whom he has lost but not what he has lost in him. and Martha. an artist of knitting and crocheting. My grandmother. Let me back up.L. issues with the brain must be in our genes. I wore it on the day of her funeral (before going into the church). my object.L. I wore it for years. (Martha's Graduation) Am I dwelling in melancholia. would this have happened had her mind not been slipping? Would the pearl laden façade have shown such clear vulnerability. the asterisk transfixes me. This would suggest that melancholia is in some way related to an . What were they forgetting? Why were they forgetting? Memory is a palimpsest. Meme forgot. And I have Meme to blame. made me a beanie. such clear ache? Which version of Panama needs representation? Which one asks for remembering (forgetting)? The country? The canal? The union? The splitting? Papaw forgot. Structures. There was a time when I had a baldhead after a craniotomy to remove a benign brain tumor. in hyper-‐cathected memories? Freud writes of the melancholic patient: “…the patient is aware of the loss which has given rise to his melancholia. Memory is neuroscience. metaphors: other Panamas. Memory is an archive. In the one picture I have of my grandparents from before their marriage. The asterisk is that gap. Yet I still did not know what exactly I would say. The asterisk is what was left of memory after Alzheimer’s or Dementia (that undiagnosed disease) ravaged both E. the processes that drive the metaphor. that canal which separates even as it connects. Although I seldom wear it now due to its fragility. forgetting.
James E. As I walk along the White Street Pier. How to interpret? What shape does this essay take? Fragmented flow? I lied in the beginning. (good) words her mind is forgetting.” I return to my seat. Another story written. The sleeveless shirt is my own creation: a synthetic navy sailor shirt with white cord details. Young tells us that “memory is never shaped in a vacuum. The table and chairs sit in storage in Mississippi. I placed the remnants. Is the fact that I cannot articulate what I have lost because it is “withdrawn from consciousness”? Why the failure to write the eulogy for her? Why the hovering fingers above computer keys? Why the hat? I return to the letters. (Another trick on (of) the mind). My mind is forgetting her (good) words. Another discovery. I am not sitting at my grandmother’s table writing this essay. and anchor buttons down the front. The mind is hers.” and perhaps my ripping off the sleeves serves as a symbol of my larger (im)pure motivations to shape memory in the physical act of writing this essay (2).Solomon 6 object-‐loss which is withdrawn from consciousness. I have been misbehaving […] (an ellipses of mystery. I imagine E. “The complex of melancholia behaves like an open wound” (Strachey 252).L. The good words are mine. How do I bear witness to mystery? I begin my eulogy: Sigmund Freud writes. in contradistinction to mourning.” pathological form of mourning? (242).” Everything depends on the colon. shoulder pads. It belonged to Meme.L. Desires changed. (Only 90 miles to Cuba!). Predicated on a lie. motivation defies description. the world must have seemed infinite. Yet. Is this perhaps what I am experiencing? Melancholia. “Good Words: A Mind is Forgetting. Canals and gulfs behind him. returning to Florida. Aunt Jackie (a new character) presents me with a journal: Meme’s from when we grandchildren were young. driving its length to the southernmost point in the continental U. We are all mysterious creatures. hitchhiking home to be with the woman he loved. Then she met E. this essay asks what is memory but the shifting ground beneath . They are far too unstable to make yet another journey across. “Where is the body?” Apparently Aunt Betty did not get the memo that Meme asked to be cremated. various people compliment me on my shirt. near the Key West AIDS Memorial. The very title of this “essay” returns us to “Panama” and that asterisk. took-‐in the seams. the ab“normal. creating something different. the motives of memory are never pure. when a mind is forgetting. in which there is nothing about the loss that is unconscious” (Strachey 245). I overhear my dad’s crazy Aunt Betty asking my mother. I cannot tell you everything I said because I do not remember it) I read Matthew Dickman’s “Grief. into a drawer. As I walk into the funeral home. Yet. I tore off the sleeves.S. I read of her desire to move to New York City and become a writer. the shirt is a refurbished hand-‐me-‐ down. * In the spring. More aptly. Hers had sleeves and was slightly larger. the sleeves and other memorial rags.
the canal waters rising and falling with the opening and closing of locks? What is memory but middle? I am reminded of a metal sculpture by Roy Tamboli near William Faulkner’s home. furry arms. Perhaps I am in an in-‐between state. snuggly in the middle of two purple. After all. as Dickman writes. Figure 2 Me in the Bardo of Rose (with hat) . melancholia). still. I find myself. is a “purple gorilla” (228).Solomon 7 our feet. grief (mourning.” Rose being a person who had Alzheimer’s and Bardo the Buddhist state of the in-‐between. It is called the “Bardo of Rose.
Solomon 8 Works Cited: Dickman. (228-‐229). Kuhn. Young. “Grief. James. E. New York: Bloomsbury. 2010.” The Texture of Memory.” The Art of Losing: Poems of Grief and Healing. “Introduction. Mourning and Melancholia. Annette. Strachey. (1917). 1993. The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud. Ed. Papers on Metapsychology and Other Works. Family Secrets: Acts of Memory and Imagination. Matthew. New York: Verso. 2002. Volume XIV (1914-‐1916): On the History of the Psycho-‐Analytic Movement. New Haven: Yale UP. The Letters: . Kevin Young. J. 237-‐258.
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