He’s sitting in my den watching basketball on TV, the sound turned down out of deference to me. He’s twirling a toothpick in his cheek, a habit he’s had since adolescence.
“Remember when you and the boys in the neighborhood turned our backyard patio into a roller skating rink so you could play roller derby?”
He doesn’t respond.
“And you were always the fastest skater.” My brother was fearless in those days. I can still see him, jeans cuffed at the ankles, flannel shirt fanned out with the wind he created as he skated by. “And Princess used to nip at your pant legs while you skated? Remember?”
“Princess? We never had a dog named Princess.”
“No,” I say, “remember, she belonged to our neighbor, but everyone loved her, that beautiful black and white collie. Remember how she used to roam the neighborhood with that much smaller mutt we called Romeo who kept trying to mount her?”
“What are you talking about? Are you making this up or do you really remember all this crap?”
“And once Paul made me feel the bump on the back of Princess’s head and the bump on the back of my head and told me we were soul sisters, and then she got killed?”
“Oh, please,” he says. “I don’t know what you’re talking about.” He turns the volume up.
I can’t seem to stop myself. “She got hit by the motorcycle near the corner by the side of our house. And the neighbors lined up and watched as she struggled to right herself. You have to remember that at least.”
Uh-oh, there’s the trauma again. Even so, this may be one of the more benign memories I have tried to engage him in. I know now to stay away from our father’s rampages and remorseful gift-giving sprees afterward while our mother seethed. I don’t mention our fundamentalist Christian neighbors’ persistent attempts to convert the only Jews they’d ever met. I steer even clearer of our father’s eventual decline into psychosis and shock treatments.
“You’re obsessed with the past,” he says. “Can you just let go of it? You’d be a whole lot happier.”
I can’t let go of it and I can’t even seem to stop asking him to remember — which is even worse because my attempts are met with so much hostility. Maybe, I think, the world is made up of the letters-go and the holders-on; the rememberers and the forgetters. He claims to be among the latter, boasting that he remembers almost nothing about his own childhood and adolescence, not even the good stuff. He says it is healthier. Move on, live in the present, don’t think about it. That’s his philosophy. A therapist might call my brother’s stance “repression,” and deem it decidedly unhealthy. A therapist might say that those experiences he can’t recall consciously are still taking an unconscious toll. But after many hours lost on therapists’ couches in rumination, many hours dissecting the past and then even more recasting it in memoir, I cannot claim my way is any healthier. I’m not even sure that I choose it, this continuous mulling over, reclaiming, reinterpreting the past. Memories from childhood, even of seemingly insignificant events, frequently float to the surface of my mind. And who is there to help me make sense of them, other than one of the few remaining living witnesses? My brother. He was there. He was older. He could give me a different perspective. But it’s as if he wasn’t there.
For me, dwelling on the past has become a habit of mind. Even more than that, it’s become the material of my work. My drive to make art out of the miserable, the glorious, the confusing material of my past, seems deeply embedded in my creative DNA. If I were a different kind of writer, my past might become merely the trace elements underlying my fiction; if I were a different kind of writer, I could have the multiple “I”s of the lyric poet without being held to any one of them as the absolute autobiographical truth. Instead, I seem condemned to the limited material of my own past.
I gave a reading recently where I read a piece about the adolescent sexual exploration that my first cousin and I engaged in the night my grandmother died. Two days later at her funeral, I took one look at her body and realized that she had become an object. Worse, if I were to keep going the way I was — if I were to grow up, to have sex, to get married, I would become an object too. I vowed to do neither, to freeze myself in time, to make everything just stop. Yet, a few moments later, I was entranced by the sound my first high heels made as I walked across her tombstones. I would grow up — a part of me stronger than fear compelled me forward.
I’ve always thought that I’d renounced that impossible wish to stop time, but maybe not, maybe that remains the wish behind memoir.
My brother refused to attend my reading. Never one to miss a corned beef sandwich — eating the food of our childhood an unconscious form of reminiscence he’s happy to engage in — he did come over for the post-reading supper.
“How could you write about the night our grandmother died,” he said, “and read it to strangers?”
In his mind, the way I expose myself is unseemly. Exhibitionistic. Not only do I reveal family events best kept secret, I do so with humor rather than reverence. How could I possibly have found anything funny about my grandmother’s death and funeral? And sexual hijinks the night before with my first cousin? What was I thinking then, and worse, what could I be thinking now?
Even if my brother is right, I can’t afford to feel guilty because guilt would get in the way of my work. Shame is OK; sometimes I think all memoir is an act of following the shame. In memoir I confess feelings I can’t even tell my best friends; it seems easier to blast them publicly until the shame is overexposed right out of them.
Hearing the other guests talk over supper has made my brother curious.
“I don’t remember Grandma’s funeral at all,” he says. “Was I there?”
His words are dumbfounding. How could he have not been there? Of her four grandchildren, my brother was the oldest and the closest to my grandmother. He was the one who spent hours bent over a card table on Sunday afternoons playing Canasta with her. He was the one who went to visit her many days on his way home from high school. He was the one who drove to her house on Friday afternoons to pick her up before sundown so she could spend the weekend with us and not violate her observance of the Jewish Sabbath.
Then, tentatively, for the first time, he tells me that he was also the one alone with her at the King Solomon Rest Home when she died.
Her two sons and their wives, exhausted and thinking she might have more time, had left for the night. He, a teenager still, was the one who held her hand, observed her final breaths, heard her last words. Words he’s felt the need to keep secret for forty years, imagining they might have calamitous reverberations in the relationship of her two already rivalrous sons.
Even though my father and uncle have been dead for years, until tonight he’s uttered those words to no one.
Apparently, my grandmother called out the name of one of her sons and not the other. And then she died.
My grandmother’s final words don’t seem all that incendiary to me. She was delirious; dying. I can’t imagine those words having had the disastrous consequences my brother feared — constituting some kind of final proof of her favoring one son over the other. I do see the consequences that carrying the burden of this secret has had on him. Could he have so magnified the importance of those words in his head that they wiped out his memory of everything else that happened in the days immediately following my grandmother’s death, including her funeral? As he’s been admonishing me all these years for trying so hard to remember the past, he’s been plagued by the one thing he could not forget. Suffering under a self-imposed compunction not to tell, what must it feel like to have a sister who blabs all?
“What happened at the funeral?” he asks again.
I remember exactly what he did and said; he was sitting right next to me. I’ve thought about my grandmother’s illness and death a million ways, forwards and backwards, the night she died, the days leading up to it, and the days and months and years that followed. In our family myth, my grandmother’s cancer diagnosis was the inciting event for my father’s mental downfall. He’d wanted to take her to the Mayo Clinic as soon as he was told her condition was terminal. He could not accept the reality of her illness, and after she died, he could not recover from losing her or forgive his brother for not helping him seek out more treatment for her. After she died, he could not let go. Instead, in protest, he sedated himself on whatever prescription drugs he could get in the daytime and paced the floors of our house at night, railing against god and nature, calling out to his mother in her grave. He was clearly not one of the forgetters, not one of the letters-go. Eventually he developed a paranoid fantasy about his brother and my mother who he believed were plotting to kill him. Not knowing my grandmother’s final words certainly did not save him from this fate.
Though I have written about my grandmother’s death, I’ve held back from writing much about my oldest brother. I’ve censored myself, respected his sense of propriety. I’ve understood that his grief was too deep, too private and still unexplored by him, for me to violate it. It belonged to him. Apparently, though, a big piece of it has been missing. Now I wonder, as he asks if he was at her funeral, if he really wants to know, or if it has been healthier as he’s always claimed, for him not to remember?
When I quiz him about our shared past, I brace myself to hear anything, the benefits of repossessing a piece of my history, of my material, outweighing any fear. I am greedy for all I can get; I will use it. By not telling him what I remember now, am I robbing him of something that rightfully belongs to him? Would knowing give him a sense of greater peace, of closure? I look into his eyes and see wariness, read warning.
“I don’t remember exactly,” I say. “It was so long ago.”