08 October 2007

Lasting Memories

A few months ago, I wrote about the challenge of identifying the value in the objects and information that wash over us every day. The volume of these “artifacts” can be overwhelming, which makes it even more important to evaluate them, to work hard to save that which should be saved, and where possible, to let go of those things that seem less relevant. Making these distinctions ourselves, in the the present, might result in a different set of artifacts preserved than if the historians of our lives were to evaluate us after the fact – but this only reminds me of how fragile our lives are in the first place.

Since the arrival of our baby this summer, the whole subject of history, memory, artifact, and ephemera has taken on new meaning. How do we attempt to capture – in word, sound, or image – the amazing milestones of our child’s firsts? Can we realistically catalog a child’s growth by taking pictures of those special moments, by marking down in a book when something happened? At times, it seems like all we have: little facts and markers defining the outline of a person, into which grows the consciousness, the spunk and spirit, that makes us human. Then we match the person to the markers, and we say “Oh, remember when you...?”


It is the unpredictability of it that both enervates and frustrates me. My father’s recent cruise through some family archives turned up a letter he sent to my grandfather almost 30 years ago – a letter that was, itself, a marker for what would have been the 50th birthday of my aunt (who was killed at Auschwitz as a teenager). The letter is beautiful, eloquent, and deeply moving because of its subject: not only the survival of our family, but its robust continuation and accommodating the memory of loss. It is a letter about parents and children, written by someone who was both a child and a parent, sent to a parent – and passed on to someone who is now also a parent, in addition to being someone’s child. It is exactly the sort of object one wants to preserve.

The letter also refers to conversations that my father and my uncle had about the subject before my dad wrote the letter; the content of those conversations is lost, otherwise unrecorded. Perhaps if there had been wide use of e-mail back in the 1970s, we would know or be able to unearth some more information – or maybe not, buried as it might be under the thousands of messages that would surely have followed. One assumes that my father, writing for both people (as his letter begins, “My brother and I have discussed...”), was reflecting their shared views, and I have no reason to think otherwise – but we will never know.


So, we do the best we can. Thus far, with our daughter, we have been good about some things, less so about others. We capture – one way or another – the things that seem to matter to us now; and we add in many others that don’t: because our judgment is fallible, or because we’ll never know, or because the whimsy of a moment might, in the end, be more valuable than the official milestone. We try also to add in the things on the margins, the letters or e-mails or other captured conversations that help define who we are, and what we were thinking and feeling. As a new parent, as the son of parents and the grandson of parents, with memories of my own, the best I can hope for is not so much that I will have made the right decisions, but that I will have made the decisions that were right at the time – and that maybe, if I am lucky, I will remember why many years later.


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