Tag Archives: memory

Angels Among Us

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My students and I recently finished reading Milkweed by Jerry Spinelli. The book’s narrator, Misha, is a young boy of indeterminate age – probably 8 or younger, we decided – who has been living on the streets and thieving for so long that he has no recollection of his past otherwise. His innocence provides moments of humor but also confounds us. How could a child lack memories? How could a young boy exist without knowledge of birthday cakes, baths, and medicines?

Intrigued, I asked the students about their earliest memories. I was surprised that many of them cited memories from age two and three in some detail, while others, like me, were older when their first memories formalized. They recalled sensory details: the fur of a brother’s Halloween costume; hiding in the back of a closet, skin brushed by low-hanging clothes, dark shadows around them. I made my best case for memory’s lack of specificity; they returned with the observation that one person’s memory rarely matches another’s, so an individual’s memory is specific to him- or herself. I suggested that sometimes the stories families tell create a mental image that then supports a family-centered reality. Some agreed; some didn’t. The discussion made me wonder if and how the acquisition of knowledge nudges certain memories to the periphery while other memories remain static and dependable.

*

My first memory dates back to age five. Like my students, the details dwell in the senses. I lay in my bed at the house on King Street, tucked under a Holly Hobbie blanket. It was night, and a small column of hallway light fell across my bed. My grandmother, who at the time was undergoing treatment for a cancer she didn’t conquer, sat at the edge of the bed, stroking my forehead. Her sapphire eyes shone in the dark. She wore a velvet robe and turban to match her eyes. Before I fell asleep, I imagined that all angels must look like my grandmother.

*

Misha gives significant thought to the presence of angels. He polls others: do they believe in angels? Some do; others scoff at him. A kind doctor convinces Misha that angels exist, and Misha eventually comes to think that we each have an angel who lives within us.

In the book, Misha is something of an angel himself. He begins life with no one to guide him, yet he intuitively senses right from wrong. He pilfers food wherever he can, but he shares it with those he cares for. He doesn’t have to share any of it – the book is set in the Warsaw ghetto, and everyone is sick with starvation – but he does anyway. I have read Milkweed several times, for pleasure and in preparation for discussion, and Misha is one of the unforgettables: the characters we adopt as real, for whom we root, worry, cry, and laugh as if they were one of our own. Misha made me reconsider the nature of angels.

*

Misha has no recollection of his life before orphanhood. When the book’s big brother-figure, Uri, bestows him with an elaborate personal “history,” Misha’s response is nothing short of jubilation. He loves his story and recounts it to anyone who will listen. His memories evolve over time, altered by oral embellishments.

I identify with Misha in this regard. I never knew my mother’s parents or the details surrounding so much of what made up her story. I have only her journals as a window to her past. Instead, I embraced my grandparents’ rich history growing up. My grandfather completed his autobiography shortly before he passed away. I love to share his stories: finding thieves searching his bedroom in pre-WWII China; coming face to face with water buffalo on a hunting expedition in Tanzania; developing a hospital built on education for those afflicted with leprosy. My pride in their legacy of accomplishments is an integral part of who I am. Like Misha, too, I’ll tell my story to anyone who will listen.

*

A couple weeks ago, my father gave me a collection of china that belonged to my grandmother, noting that it was one of her three “most prized possessions.” She carried it everywhere she lived during her missionary career. The set contains twelve of everything – plates, salad plates, teacups, saucers, bowls, soup bowls, and a pitcher, serving bowl, and cream and sugar set – a simple bamboo design in immaculate condition, despite many years of traveling abroad.

I had no idea this collection existed, much less that my grandmother treasured it. Dad supplied these details. I have few recollections of my grandmother; she died right around the time of my first clear memory. Sometimes I speculate whether she might have been an actual angel.

I know from what my grandfather has written that she was instrumental in sponsoring my mother’s passage into the States. If not for her, I might be one of thousands of Julias scrapping for money and success in the Ukraine. My grandmother’s drive made my life as it exists today possible. I held back tears when my father, eyes sparkling and mustache twitching, said, “She would have been delighted for you to have them.”

Dad left as suddenly as he came, and I attended to the collection, hand washing every piece, holding very tightly, and then towel drying each one. In an hour and a half, I had built neat stacks, each dish separated by a paper towel buffer. My palms tingled, as they do whenever I feel excited. This was a treasure I never anticipated, but will cherish. It represents something much larger – a tangible connection to the lives my grandparents led in service to the Lutheran Church, and to a woman I remember, if only a little, adoring. If Misha were with me, I would have told him that often angels live within us, but sometimes they like to travel.

© Julia Moris-Hartley, 2014

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Forgetting

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A violent flurry of words blows through my mind before finally, after several perplexing minutes, stilling on the word I want: kachun, the heart. Google Translate tells me that this is not the literal translation for ‘heart’ in Russian or Ukrainian, but it was the word my mother used when she cut vegetables down to their very cores, trimming away leaves, florets, and fibrous layers to reach that special center piece of certain lettuces, cauliflowers, and broccoli.  I’ve eaten plenty of kachun in my day, but lately I’m finding it more difficult to recall the word.

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I recently read The NeverEnding Story, a task that’s been on my bucket list since I first saw the movie in 1984.  I was seven.  My mother took me to see it at the cinema on Fairview Avenue in Boise: the burgundy velvet seat soft under my legs; the air redolent with the scent of buttered popcorn; that one splotch in the upper left corner of the screen that marred Noah Hathaway’s smooth, tan face. The movie made quite an impression on me. I’ve since watched it dozens of times, and am planning to host a theme party in which all my NES friends can geek out.  My children are approaching the age where I can share the movie with them, an experience I eagerly anticipate.  I don’t know if they’ll respond to the movie the way I did, but I hope they’ll at least enjoy some of the characters: Artax, maybe, or Morla or Falkor.

In the novel, which continues far beyond the movie’s scope (the movie ends roughly halfway through the book), Bastian enters the world of Fantastica (or Fantasia) and experiences many adventures alongside his good friends, Atreyu and Falkor.  Bastian wears the AURYN, a necklace that grants him his every wish.  Each wish he makes, however, costs him a price that is surreptitiously exacted: he loses a piece of his memory.  He forgets his bearings – his life as a son in the human world, as a wimpy student frequently picked on by others.  He begins to forget himself, even as he becomes stronger, more respected, and more essential to life in Fantastica.

If you forget something but don’t realize you’ve forgotten it, was it something actually worth remembering?  This is what bothers me about kachun.  If I lose the memory of this word that I heard my mother utter all my life, what else have I forgotten that I can’t remember?  I still remember mom’s face: the prominent inverted black ‘v’s of her eyebrows; her almond-shaped brown green eyes, which, like mine, turned deep olive when she’d been crying; her pale lips and small, straight teeth; the white shock of her hair, sprayed into a pouf on top of her head.  I remember her voice.  She loved to sing.  (So, too, do I.)  I remember how much she enjoyed playing with my children.  But I remember her most when I see my friends with – or talking about – their mothers.  Oh right, I think, my mother is gone.  And with her, the thousand little memories and details I no longer remember and can never retrieve.

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Some memories beg to be forgotten, while others fester resolutely despite all efforts to be rid of them.  Which of my memories have disappeared unawares? Am I better off without them?  What was the last conversation I had with my mom?  I can’t remember. Yet the image of her propped on a mattress in the Bellevue SICU – purple eyelids swollen shut, bandaged head, the hiss and suck of the ventilator – is seared into my memory like a cheap, ugly brand.

Worse still are the memories that don’t belong to me at all.  I see my mom walking home from a Valentine’s Day Dance at the Ukrainian Senior Center in the Village, heading north by foot on Second Avenue.  In her purse, she carries birdseed and a half-eaten sandwich. She starts down the crosswalk at 23rd Street: gray concrete sidewalks, shop windows caked with old sale signs. Cigarette smoke wafts from the teens standing, haphazardly and with vacant stares, on the corner.  As she crosses the crosswalk, undoubtedly with clearance to “WALK,” the white pick-up truck with the blue plow attachment, fully raised from clearing snow at city bus stops, turns left.  Mom screams before being stricken down, to the horror of onlookers.

I wasn’t there to see any of it, but I can’t un-know that mom saw her death coming.

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I’m not sure if the man who killed my mom was released from his job at the organization that employed him.  He was not charged with any crime, because the police determined that the incident lacked criminality.   Two of the organization’s representatives visited mom as she lay in the hospital dying, though whether the driver was one of them is up to speculation.  The organization, which I can not name for purposes of legality, placed a very low estimate on the value of my mother’s life because she was retired – therefore not “contributing” to the local economy – and because she didn’t have children young enough to be deemed “significantly bereft” of the loss of their mother.

Three years have elapsed since her death. My sister and I have yet to receive a single word of apology.

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Several of my students questioned my sanity when they caught me, during structured reading time, absorbed in a book titled How Did They Die?  It is a tightly composed collection recounting the deaths of celebrities and notable historical figures. Isn’t that a little macabre, Mrs. Hartley? Why are you reading that book?

Strange though it seems, reading about the deaths of others provides a measure of comfort.  No one eludes death.  Eventually we all experience it, even über humans, in gradual and sometimes tragic, sudden, crazy ways. We all occasionally face challenges that we must try to forget.  The trick is to hold tight to memories that uplift us and bolster our spirits so that the world remains a tolerable place, so that hope remains.  I will not give sorrow much room to grow, though sometimes its fierce will to survive incapacitates me. I hold on to joys, like my daughter’s incandescent smile and my son’s owlish compassion for others.  As the anniversary of mom’s death approaches, I once more remember the strength I derive from within: kachun, kachun, kachun.

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