When Memory Overtakes You

Where I was born. Where my grandparents’ ashes are scattered to a wind that whips up the dirt in fallow fields, sending great clouds of dust into the air. Home.

A friend of mine just got back from her first trip to the Philippines in 16 years. She visited her elementary school, her childhood home, her friends’ homes. “And none of it was the same,” she said. “Everything had changed.”

You can go back home. But it’s never really there. Not the way you remember it. Even if you never left.

When my brother and I were children, my grandparents would load us into the white Crown Victoria and then drive around Kennewick, point out places that didn’t exist anymore.

This is where they had that Olympic-sized swimming pool during the war.

This is where the government housed families that worked out at Hanford during the war.

This is where Walt got married.

This used to be the house where I grew up. Nobody takes care of it anymore.

And my brother and I, not ten years old, would push ourselves off the plush blue seats and stare out the windows that opened like portholes on an otherworldly landscape. Because the Second World War sometimes figured in the setting, and because the places pointed out were either derelict or reduced to rubble, I often imagined bombs had fallen over Kennewick and obliterated my grandparents’ history.

I think now that sometimes they must have felt that way, too.

For a long time, I didn’t understand these drives. I still don’t completely.

But I do understand that feeling of panic, when a wave of memory seizes you and lifts you from the beach of the here-and-now. The first impulse is to share the memory—the hope that maybe if you share it, the heave and violence of the wave will be diminished. Maybe if there is someone else to remember it with you, maybe if someone else can look at that spot, too, pluck that seashell from the sand, and think what you are thinking—maybe then it will turn out okay.

And I think my grandparents had been together so long, sweethearts since my grandmother was 16, that as far as memory went, they were one person. Especially after my grandfather’s stroke, but even before that, their memory was informed by one another and remembered collectively—so that they could not satisfy that impulse for one another; almost everything they had lived through, they had lived through together. And so they turned to their grandchildren; they turned to others who would outlive them and planted those memories in us and urged them to grow.

I do understand that. And I think each one of us must have someone to tell, or a way to communicate those stories–those memories, collected and catalogued. My grandparents had their grandchildren.

I have my writing.

And you?

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