My LacunaeBy J.E. Fishman
December 03, 2009
Thirty-five years ago, when I was twelve years old, my mother died.
There was a service, of course, people crammed into funeral parlor rooms, embracing one another, sharing sorrow, then filing into the big cold chapel to hear the eulogy. I think I feel those things in my memory more than see them.
Of the funeral I remember only two things specifically. One: through tears exchanging embarrassed uncomfortable grins with a neighborhood friend, Gerry, who’d arrived with his family to pay respects. Two: my oldest cousin, Alan, clutching the edge of the curtain that half-hid my mother’s polished walnut coffin and weeping quietly into his knuckles until someone pulled him away.
That’s all I can retrieve today, and nothing comes to mind from the burial, though I’m sure I accompanied my father to the cemetery.
At the house, afterwards, I recall but a few things: the visitors striding in and out; the torn black ribbons we were made to wear, representing the rending of clothing; and the sturdy cardboard boxes with their tacky faux wood grain that the more observant in the immediate family chose to sit on, another of those ancient Jewish rituals made slightly ridiculous by modernity.
My most specific recollection is of my mother’s mother, Grandma Bella, crying endlessly and beating her thigh so raw with grief that someone had to put a pillow there. Esther, my mother, had been her youngest child.
The fragmentation of these memories seems explicable, there being no telling how a young mind will respond to immediate emotional trauma. But what’s more puzzling is that I have always seemed to possess many fewer childhood memories in general than other people I know. It didn’t help, I’m sure, that I fell out of touch with all of my boyhood friends — no one around to remind me regularly of that time we did this or that. And the age difference with my sister (who was a toddler when my mother died) is so severe that we were practically born in separate generations, didn’t really travel through life together until much later. So some memory aids were absent for me. But, still: not to recall more than a few experiences with a mother who took me nearly to the teenage years? To be unable to recollect more than a couple dozen events from my first decade of life?
Then, three years ago, I picked up Barron’s magazine and saw a profile of a man who had been my best friend growing up. So many years had passed — more than two decades, by my reckoning — that I had to read deep to confirm that it was indeed the same Michael, despite a half-page picture accompanying the article. I called him and we chatted for a long time. The reminiscences were not equally evoked, however. He did most of the talking about our shared past, reminding me of things we’d done and people we’d known, the majority of whom had faded to thin shadows in the recesses of my mind.
When I signed up for Facebook a couple of years later, I tapped Michael as my institutional memory. Someone who sounded vaguely familiar would offer to “friend” me, and I’d email Michael: How did I know this person? Were we ever close?
You don’t remember? — he’d write back sometimes. You played touch football with that kid every week for five years!
I wish I could say that prompts of this nature brought it all forth, but most of my recollections remained barely perceptible ghosts. Then, one day, I received a Facebook email from a guy named Bob who sounded familiar, though I couldn’t locate his story in my memory file. He attached a one-word note to his “friend” request: “Scribbler?”
I thought: I’m not famous. How the hell does he know I’m a writer? I called Michael. He had no idea what “scribbler” referred to, but he reminded me that I’d known Bob in elementary school, before he transferred to a private high school in the next town.
So I accepted Bob’s friendship request, and he immediately sent a follow-up that startled me. It said, “When I think back on my early years, you are foremost in my memories” — yet I could scarcely attach his image, now seen in a photo album or two online, to any of my recollections! He went on to remind me that we’d played a pair of mice on stage in the fourth grade. Bob was Nibbler and I was…Scribbler.
That’s when it flooded back: the little spiral-bound pad I’d held, pretending to jot notes as a mouse reporter; the big pink cardboard ears; the sweatshirt and sweatpants that made me gray; and the tail — the tail! I sat in front of the computer with my eyes closed and saw my mother like it was yesterday, bending the wire hangers that gave the tail body, sitting in our den and meticulously, lovingly wrapping that wire with electrical tape.
Maybe she reached up and tugged on my hood and said, “Let me look at you.” Or was that my brain playing tricks? No matter. I felt the tears welling.
Fourth grade — the two of us, I now conclude, alive in innocence. Not both equally innocent, of course, she being then in her mid thirties, but equally oblivious of what was to come. For scarcely two years later she would depart this world and leave her family behind. And, in so doing, she would create inadvertently not only a sense of loss but a loss of memory in her son, my mind apparently having blocked out the pain with great inefficiency, blotting away whole swaths of my childhood, as if they never happened, though I know that of course they must have.
There is a word, now used mostly academically, for gaps that we know must once have been filled. They call them lacunae, which shares the same Latin root as lake. It’s an association that made little sense to me before, but now it does. Having reeled in Scribbler, perhaps I’ll go fishing in the lake of lost recollections, see what else I can bring to the surface.
This is an amazing piece. I have experienced lacunae and tend to feel jealous toward other writers and their amazing memories of youth. Now I don’t feel quite so alone. I do hope you recall more of your memories and jot them down in an ongoing autobiography…
Thanks. I know what you mean about other writers’ memories. I can’t imagine writing a single book-length memoir, let alone the bevy that some of these people have generated. Perhaps that’s why I prefer fiction.
It’s sorta refreshing to read something positive about Facebook and old friends from days yore. Usually the storyline is much more horrifying. Like, all of a sudden you’re trapped in a long-winded, creepy confessional with someone you haven’t seen in twenty years, and they need a kidney or something. But the Internet, for all of its poison, does do some wondrous things when it comes to keeping us in touch, as your post points out. It’s sort of a mind-boggling storehouse for human memories and minutiae. Damn near infinite. I have a habit of thinking about it in an anthropological context. Five-thousand years from now, assuming human beings are still around, there is going to be an awful lot of data to pore over. Much will be static, but there is going to be a lot of gold, too.
What would Jesus blog?
I resisted joining Facebook at first, and the inanity can sometimes be legion. Then, as I’ve learned, there are those moments…
Thanks for your comments, Brad.
As I was reading about your attempt to piece together memories of your childhood I had the most vivid picture in my mind of a man treading water – moving his arms in a gathering motion, bringing the water to him instead of pushing it away, collecting the water in an attempt to make something bigger to keep him afloat. And then I get to the end and your root definition of lacunae and I was sort of blown away. Your words are so spare and raw. Just beautiful.
Thank you so much for your comment and for sharing that great metaphor.
A really moving essay. It brought tears to my eyes. As one who has tons of memories from childhood, I can only imagine how empty it must feel to have so few. Your piece captures this beautifully. You might be amazed at how deep your lake might be.
I’ve always thought, on some level, the absence of memory was a choice — or the result of choices I’d made. I don’t think so anymore.
Oh, wow. This one is a stunner. Really beautiful. I know it’s been ages now, but I’m still sorry for your loss.
Thanks. When I was a kid and people used to say, “I’m sorry for your loss,” I had a standard reply: “It wasn’t your fault.” Now I see that as another kind of defense mechanism, albeit a more conscious one.
The more writings of yours i read it kicks me in the face of similar experiences but the way you word things are unreal.. Thanks Joel, made me think of my mom as well.
Thanks for your kind comments.
What a remarkable essay! Beautiful and touching. Trauma does take a toll on memory, but all is not necessarily lost. That you were prompted to remember the school play and your mom means you have the well–it’s just more difficult to tap. It’s up to you to decide how deep you want to go now.
A few months ago, a friend from third grade found me on Facebook. We lost track of each other after fourth grade–he switched schools–but I never forgot him. It was wonderful to connect again.
Yes. It could be that the more frequently one taps that well, the easier it is. It’s weird, with the distance of years, that one finds in those depths not just pain but also joy.
I really enjoyed this piece. I’m one of those who has a film-like memory of childhood, mainly because my family moved every couple of years, and it’s easy to scroll back through memories when you have definite start and end dates for certain periods of your life. It also helps when I play 80s trivia games.
Facebook and the like are what you make of them. I’m glad you made use of the platform to reconnect to your past. Your memory of your mother was written beautifully. Fantastic job.
I was madly in love with a girl who lost her mother when she was fourteen, and she said that she couldn’t remember anything about the funeral except for the hair of a woman who sat in front of her. She apparently focused on the back of this woman’s head to point of voiding everything else, including her grief, which might otherwise have consumed her. We do what we must to survive.
Thank you. I do remember some things vividly. But it’s the spaces that are calling my attention.
Thanks much. I’m coming to appreciate that there really is a randomness to why we remember (or forget) things, yet I’m always seeking explanations.
Jesus. That image of your grandmother hit home.
I’ve been blessed (cursed?) with a wonderful memory. It’s great when I’m thinking about good things, not so great when I’m thinking about the bad.
Lacunae/. Great word. I’m going to be using that one.
Don’t forget, the singular is lacuna. Seriously, I have other images of my grandmother before my mother’s death. She came to stay with us near the end. I had no idea how momentous that lone fact was, until it was too late…
Neuroscientists have shown that we reconstruct memories, with the potential for slight alterations, every time we have them. That reconstructed memory of your mother, fragmented for all those years, was perhaps the purest form you’ll ever experience (interesting RadioLab episode on the topic: http://www.wnyc.org/shows/radiolab/episodes/2007/06/08). It enriches my own memory of Scribbler and Nibbler that they were able to bring her back.
It is amazing how we don’t simply remember, but we CREATE memories. This insight has implications for everything from reading the zeitgeist to appreciating the contradictions in testimony at criminal trials. Really cool. Thanks for the scientist’s perspective, Bob, as well as for the memory.
I am so glad that Facebook was good for something! Seriously, very well written and touching. I am looking forward to hearing about more of those memories.
My expectations for Facebook were low and were therefore easily exceeded.
I’m so glad you got back some piece of your mother. I can’t even begin to imagine…
I should note that I too played a mouse in a school play. Unnamed, though. Holding a kickball painted green. To represent a pea.
Our latest luncheon meeting prompted me to ponder more into probably reasoning for the sharing friendship that has developed between us. My story of the absence of mother is similiar in many respects to yours, except the gaps in memory were within her. She was institutionalized in a mentally hospital when I was four (two sisters born after me). All that I could amass in my years of longing to know her were in the short span from my remembering being a toddler of three to the time she left a bewildered me, and of course my sister. They however,have their own narrative. For the greater part of my young lfe I remember being different and pitied for that reason. There were visits from her us, and from us to her over the course to time became increasingly difficult for several reasons. No contact was even attempted until well after my father died, after which I searched until I found her, an elderly woman steadfastly claiming she had never birthed children. Photographs did not jar her memory. I was simply a nice young man who had given himself to her.
Whatever the reasons and perhaps causes of her lacunae went with her in death, though its result is part of my karma from which I developed a philosophy for dealing with stress or emotional situations.
Very touching, Harry. Thank you for sharing this.
[…] — J.E. Fishman […]
I’m really sorry I never read this when it was first posted. Incredibly touching, tender, and lovely. Thanks for sharing this.