I am reading into memory, Jeffrey Olick, Douwe Draaisma, Annette Kuhn, Susannah Radstone. I am collecting names like footnotes to add to my store of knowledge to protect myself from feeling ‘under theorised’.
Whenever I write, I dip into my memories, both recent and from the past. I rarely write about the present unless I am actually describing the process of the experience of writing at that point of time. Most times I write about the past.
Whenever I sit down to write it is the more recent past that comes to me first. Most often as I write first thing in the morning, it is the memory of a dream, a snippet of a dream, a fragmentary image from a dream from the night before, and then it becomes a thought about my most recent preoccupations. This morning I find myself thinking about the story someone told me recently about a film she had seen. A French film, she did not say the title, about a woman who dies and leaves her inheritance, her estate to her children.
This woman has left a beautiful country house filled with antiques and valuable artifacts to her children. She has tended to and cared for this house for a long time and would like her children to preserve the house as it stands. The children have other ideas. They have busy lives; their interests are otherwise. Somehow during the course of the film we come to realise why the woman wanted to preserve this house and its furnishings. It has something to do with a relationship she had with some man. It is the memory of this relationship she wanted to preserve. The memory of him, maybe because when they were alive, their relationship was not an open one. I do not know the details of this relationship. I am reading between the lines.
The children sell the contents of the house or give them away to museums. There are two memorable scenes: the final scenes in which the grandchildren – adolescents and young adults – are having a party, a wild party in the empty shell of the house, presumably cleared out ready for sale. Their grandmother, as the saying goes, might turn in her grave. The other scene: a group on a tour are taken through the Musee D’Orsay. They walk past a beautiful dining table that had once been in the dead grandmother’s house. The group of visitors walk by distractedly. They do not know anything about the history of this table. It holds no special meaning for them. One of the group takes a call on his mobile. We hear him say to the person on the other end, ‘We’re in furniture’. This table, this beautiful object that had once meant so much to its now dead owner has become what is in fact, simply a piece of furniture.
I think of the kitchen table here, a twelve-seater made of jarrah,and handmade for us by the man from McKay’s joinery many years ago. It was relatively inexpensive at the time. A Nicholas Dattner table would have cost around $3000.00 then. Ours cost around $1000.00.
We have loved this table. So many memories of meals. The ghosts of times past are etched into its surface varnish. A lived table. No need for French polishing. No need to protect its surface from hot objects. People have polished their shoes on this table, cut out patterns for quilts, ate meals, drunk wine, read books, held arguments, broken cups, plates and glasses (by accident) on this table.
Soon the history will be gone and it will take on another after Bill and I are gone. One of our children, presumably the one with the biggest house, the one most able and willing to take on this elephant, will add it to their store of memories. Our children might well fight over this table. It has not always been with us. It is older than Ella, though not many years older. Already it begins to feel ancient.
Memories. They are the stuff of our reveries and waking thoughts. Memories that feed directly into our future plans. What we are doing now and what we will do in the future is predicated on this notion of the past. The past informs the present. How often in conversation do we find ourselves saying these two words, ‘I remember’. I remember a time when… I remember a time when we did such and such… a time when as Bill jokes, ‘pies were threepence and we used to swim in dams’. The past we remember is often a simpler past, at what seems a simpler time, when even if things were difficult, problematic, even traumatic, they seem simpler in retrospect. Why is this?
Is it because in remembering, we take up only the salient images, the most pressing thoughts about the time? Our awareness does not extend across the details of a crowded room. We tend to focus on some specific detail within that room – conversation, a feeling, an incident. All the rest becomes incidental and in describing it we might simply say the room was crowded or cluttered or some other adjectival description that takes away the complexity of what it was actually like to be in such a room at such a time, in this foreign country of the past. We can never recapture it exactly as it was and every time we revisit it again, our images and reflections shift and change.