“In these memoirs or recollections there are gaps here and there, and sometimes they are also forgetful, because life is like that.”
– Pablo Neruda, Memoirs
A writer is someone who wants to remember. Many people don’t. But a writer will stand in front of a storefront on a rare visit to their hometown and remember the antiseptic smell of what was then Angel’s pharmacy. The writer looks through the window to the corner where Santa Claus waited for an unwilling child to sit on a creepy stranger’s lap. The resulting photo year after year shows the child’s distain while her four siblings seem oblivious.
What is this need a writer has to unearth and record the details of the past? They become known as the family memory keepers. Your fathers favorite color? Blue. Your mother’s least favorite time of day? Dusk. How did your grandmother and grandfather meet? He came to her door selling brooms.
Sometimes there’s a price to pay for remembering and the memories pull the writer under in a tsunami wave of emotion leaving them gasping for air. Friends and family ask why stir things up, why think so deeply, why not just let the past go? Writers need answers, even to questions they forget to ask.
Not all remembering takes the writer under. There are times when the writer is lifted with the memories of love and kindness. Of making homemade peach ice cream on a sweltering Long Island summer day. Of the old man on the train giving you the blessed roses he carried in his wallet his whole life because you are seventeen and life isn’t worth remembering in that moment, and then it is, and the blessed roses become one of your most treasured possessions. Of the moment in a tiny chapel at the end of the Old Santa Fe trail when a four-year-old nephew objects to your marriage and the air is filled with so much laughter.
Memory is an ambiguous thing. As Marcel Proust said, “Remembrance of things past is not necessarily the remembrance of things as they were.” For example, as an adult you ask your mother why she made you eat frozen dinners so often as a child. She looks at you like you are crazy. “Are you kidding me,” she says. “That’s all you’d eat.”