Thursday, December 1, 2016

12/1: Susan Neville, On Memoir

I remember small things: a red vinyl recording of my mother playing the piano, an aerial photograph of bombs exploding over Germany, the way light hit the brass of my father’s trombone as he practiced for a concert. I remember my father’s climbing roses and my grandmother’s Tiffany lamp and the texture of my other grandmother’s horsehair couch. I remember the texture of her curly hair. I remember the teal green of my first bicycle, and I remember my father standing on a ladder in our detached garage as he put in wiring one autumn. I remember the iridescence of a soap bubble freezing in the winter air, fascinating my infant son. These memories, including the recording of my mother, are all simple stop-action photos. I have no actual photographs of those moments, just the images I carry with me.
     I tend not to remember sounds. I would give anything to have a memory of my grandmother’s voice that I could call up when I miss her, which is often. My brother says he can recall her voice, so our memories work differently. My memory is visual, textural. I remember the satin around my childhood blanket, the roughness of the horsehair couch. The couch was royal blue. I remember that. The living room in my childhood home was a pale blue and my bedroom was pink. I remember colors distinctly, though not vividly. I may simply be remembering the word ‘blue’ or the word ‘pink’ or the light reflected off of pastel vs saturated colors. For instance, my parents’ bedroom was a deep green, in contrast to the pale blue of the rest of the house. Do I actually picture those colors? I could get close to picking them out of a line-up, I suppose. But mainly it’s the word that I remember, and all of its associations. Though sometimes I’ll see the color of a dress or wall in a movie—a purple or orange—and the color itself will conjure feelings, sometimes pleasant and sometimes not, though the memories attached to the color and the feeling would take days to untangle and acknowledge.
     Sometimes my memory calls up actions, something as simple as my mother washing dishes. I can picture her doing that, though she’s long dead. In the case of actions, my memory consists of a very short clip with nothing preceding or following: a wire, say, pulling an Easter egg, now lavender, out of a cup of water. I remember that. Eternally, the dye fizzes in the bottom of the cup. Eternally, the egg rises up through the purple water as though from baptism. It joins with other, similar, moments and seems to move through space and time. The memories I recall as actions are simply repeated rituals, all of the moments joining together like a flip book, creating the illusion of movement.
     And so, I remember picking dandelions and threading them together to make a rope that was then braided (by me? a friend?) into a crown. Several actions there, but they’re separate, time-lapse. My hand reaching toward the dandelion. My fingernail puncturing the stem. I know that was followed by threading a second stem through the eye of the first, and so on. And I ask of my memory ‘why’ and ‘what then’ and come up with the image of a crown. But I don’t, in truth, carry an image of the crown. All I really remember is my thumbnail piercing the wet stem. From there on, it’s story-telling.
     There is no reason for me to recall these particular moments and not other ones. When I look for memories, the childhood ones come first. I force myself to bring forward more recent ones. As I do so, I push away ones that exist in photographs. Unreliable. Perhaps it’s only the photograph I’m remembering. And so, there is no photograph of my infant daughter in her bassinet the first morning I brought her home from the hospital, of my husband planting irises, but I remember those moments. The more recent the memory, the less memory-like it seems. A memory-like memory surprises me. It is submerged and rises up unbidden.

When I ask my imagination for memories I receive pleasant ones. A form of self protection? Revision? Traumatic moments from my adult life I remember clearly if I search for them, or at least I think I do. Though I’ll discover in talking to family members that much of the dailiness surrounding the trauma I’ve completely forgotten. Remember we worked that puzzle all through those troubles? No. I do not remember, I say. The puzzle has been utterly erased. Only the troubles remain.
     Traumatic moments from my childhood—and there were many—I can recall in words, but in my memory there are few clear images. A hymnal dropping on a floor in a quiet church, the cracked lacquer on an ebony grand piano. The pictures of the moments themselves are blurred and gray, the way children’s faces are blurred out in photographs of their infamous parents on the evening news. In order to recall those moments I have to find the black hole of feeling associated with the moment and somehow press images and words against the dark space to contain and define it. It’s something like throwing a sheet over a ghost so you can keep an eye on its passage through the house. Or the pearl enclosing the irritating grit. Memoir is that pearl.

I write nonfiction but seldom memoir. This isn’t because I’m less narcissistic than other writers, as this essay proves. But I can only recall the ghosts when they take me by surprise and threaten to consume me or when I take a broom and bring them out of their hiding places. And then I’ll look at them but only for a bit, enough time to bandage them in a couple of sentences, to stop the bleeding. If I look directly at them, I’d go blind. I can feel those painful moments, though. They’re located someplace below the diaphragm. You’ll notice I mentioned the blue of my childhood walls and the dropping of a hymnal but I was not specific about the source of pain.
     I remember the license number of a car in front of ours as we drove my delirious beautiful and kind mother once again to the acute ward at the state mental hospital. This is a repeated action. There I’ve said it. The number of the license plate of some random car was 49T9220. I do not remember my mother’s face, or my father’s, or the specific days that preceded or followed that drive, but I remember that the car in front of us was blue. And I remember the tomato color and puffed sleeves of a dress I made to wear to the hospital to visit her on the intensive care locked ward of the locked unit and I remember the locked cell of the locked ward and the wildness of her eyes as the orderly brought her out to see me. I remember the absence of windows. I remember peeling paint. I remember a man chained to his bed. After that, my memory shorts out as though the shock treatments she went through scrambled my brain as well.
     So I understand repression and forgetfulness. And too, my impulse in nonfiction is more lyrical than narrative. There’s repression there, of course, but in the stopped moment, my first impulse is to praise. My mother’s beautiful gray hair. Her smile. A blue gingham dress. Her hands around a cold bowl of potato salad. It’s only in the threading of one moment into the next that I remember. Even the most painful moment, in stop time, can be filed with the lovely ones. There is no fear preceding the moment or sickness following. The trap door does not open in the floor of the world.

The midlife crisis in the process of a long marriage, the crisis of faith in the process that is coming to believe, the simultaneous corruption and renewal of idealism that result in revolution. History consists of processes that repeat themselves through time. Are memoirs the same? The choices are limited once the process begins, but the outcomes result in a strengthening of what is (the marriage, the country, the religion, the family) or in the destruction and replacement of the same, at which point the processes begin again. It’s hard for me to believe in straight lines and epiphanies that lodge like a hook in the body and yank the writer into a new world. I imagine the story beginning again. Different setting, different characters, same story.
     In his book Standing by Words, Wendell Berry explains that when you buy a new house or leave one marriage and enter another, you’re thrown back into the chaos that existed before the first commitment and so you choose again and begin at the beginning. He likens it to the purchase of a house. This beautiful and perfect house! I will be so happy here! And then the new roof, too, begins to leak and the work begins again and so on. Destruction and creation, good and evil, the rough beast slouches toward Bethlehem.
     It’s like the process of disease. (And here, I’m being yanked back into the story.) The mother becomes someone else and then reforms into the person you remember. Other mothers may have been easier, less volatile, but this is the one you love and cannot refute, the one that set your life in motion, the one you must work all your life to understand, the one whose story you will tell over and over again.

I did not intend for this essay to be about my mother, but this morning there was an article in the local newspaper about a corporation that has turned the administration building at the long-closed state hospital into apartments. They are charging a dreadful price. The apartments themselves are beautiful, but the hallways are dark and creepy, according to the article. Ghosts. Insane asylums are always haunted. By the uncanny, the not-quite-human, “the empty gourd, reason dazzled,” by the fear that no benevolent power has made a reasonable world. There are only demons. In my memory of the place, there are the moments. The man chained to his bed. The frozen corpse when a broken window (green paned, iron mullioned) broke because no one had bothered to repair it. (The ‘why’ is conjecture. The eternal moment is the jagged mullioned window, the frozen girl.)
     The walls of the asylum were not white. It did not look like any movie set. It was brackish, green, and dark. Rooms within rooms within rooms. Chains. The insane did not look like the movie insane. They looked human-not-quite-human, as I’ve said. Husks, leaving you with questions. What is a soul? What is a spirit? What remains when all else goes? Is there an arc to one’s life or only endless repetition?
     Oddly, I would say that in my mother’s case love remained. Recognition, usually. The hand that touched mine was too moist, the smell of her body too sweet, the things she would say to me too horrifying, but it was her hand, recognizable, touching mine. Behind the mask of madness, she was there. Wherever she’d gone, part of her remembered that she loved me. To feel that love was painful. To remember it now breaks my heart.
     And so. Green tablecloth at Christmas. A doll with yarn hair. My brother, head thrown back in glee, sitting in a red wagon. Sugary divinity on a white plate. Red plastic bells in the window. Later, white candles, yellow flames. The hymnal open to “A Mighty Fortress.” Or was it “The First Noel”? I don’t remember. But I remember my young mother standing in her black choir robe at the front of the church, asking to be anointed. She had a rich contralto voice. My father was a tenor. I believe my mother whispered to the minister, something like ‘I’m ready.’ It was not part of the ritual, but she had seen the signs. What were the signs? The green flash at sunset. A red carnation. It didn’t matter. The signs were always waiting to be recognized. They became part of her process of disintegration, like the tapping of an unlit cigarette on an ashtray. She believed herself that day to be the one true bride of Christ. But what day was it? What season? Was it at Christmas or Advent or simply Ordinary Times? That I truly don’t remember. I would have to make it up. All I remember, clearly, is the sound of my hymnal as it dropped to the floor. Memoir. I would give anything to have understood the other characters in this drama, anything to have had the ability to see the larger world outside of my terror. But then, I looked through a lens at the rest of creation and couldn’t see a thing. Even now, the reflection of my own eye keeps getting in the way.


Susan Neville is the author of four collections of essays, including Fabrication and Sailing the Inland Sea. ​Winner of the Flannery O'Connor Award for Short Fiction and the Richard Sullivan Prize, she has had two stories appear in Pushcart Prize anthologies. She lives in Indianapolis, Indiana, and teaches at Butler University. 

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