I sat on my mother’s couch, posthumously chosen during a sisterly round robin. Sun salved me and honeyed the couch so like her: sturdy on its legs, densely pillowed, and reupholstered between young children and adolescents, between marriage and widowhood, between midlife and elder status. I meditated briefly, letting the nubby white sofa hold my back as she would have loved to do, even if we would not see one another for my birthday tomorrow, or on her birthday, eight days later. I know, but cannot tell by feel, that outside the temperature has dipped to one degree from a rare Polar vortex. Some people have succumbed in the Midwest due to precipitous drops of thirty degrees below zero. As a native Ohioan, she would have empathized and searched her memory for cold times in her childhood.
My body remembers her, my mother, sometimes keenly as a blade’s edge held between my ribs, sometimes like clinging to a rock face where only death lies below. Today, like the blanket draped around me, I hold her image diffusely, softly—porous enough for light.
Poor Tara Condell, who offered her suicide note to everyone in the world online: “I often felt detached while in a room full of my favorite people; I also felt absolutely nothing during what should have been the happiest and darkest times in my life.” An emotional cataract blinded her to events she recalled with such poetry. She could recall, but not re-member, could not glue together the parts with enough love or indigestion. Nothing gnawed. Nothing compelled. No abject longing propelled her to tomorrow.
From the worshiped cocoon of alcohol or drugs or sex embellished with an ‘X,’ the faithful resurrect with hangovers or broken heels and empty wallets. Tara lived her twenty -seven years in a silk casing of disappointment, beyond the measure of her hope. How odd it must have seemed, to court all the pain that others shucked for moments of blessed numbness. And no one, no one left behind, no one who had cradled or loved her had the least idea how to infuse Tara with the joy of her own presence.
Lili places the preschool dance class stickers on the backs of her hands and shiny tap shoes—Elsa and Anna and, at Christmas, the koala bear climbing a candy cane. I buckle her into the car seat, each limb between the intersecting straps. She remembers the road to my house, which is also, for the most part, the road to her home, and the road that adjoins the few streets linking us to the dance studio.
The cloudy sky patches itself to the roof of my car and we notice and remember what we will see along the road. The familiar farm sits to our right, but today a horse stands by its fence with a navy blue coat on its back. We make history today, watching a few ducks wading on a still unfrozen pond to our left. And a noisy truck lumbers in behind us from a side road. We sing, “The wheels on the bus go round and round.” We stick with each other as inextricably as the ink in a tattoo attaches a design, an idea, a symbol, a talisman, a lover’s name, something resonant to its bearer’s arm.
Sad, beautiful Tara. “Tired of being tired,” she wrote. The drab exile from those who loved her and from the prongs of desire, were her dismembering. She could not re-member herself, though she had photographs of places traveled and meals consumed. These markers on a journey could not, as for others they do, bind her to life. And today I remember Rachel, who came to speak with me seven years ago. Her father shot himself in a room at the Red Roof Inn, after an unremitting bout of depression. “Rachel,” he said, after she had taken him to a movie, tried to cheer him up with an ultrasound of her nearly born baby, “the lights are out. The lights are out.”
Blood clots the way barnacles stick to rock. The protein tentacles knotting, scabbing, clinging. Inextricably entwined, all attempts at detachment blur, like the terminus between day and night. We don’t sever our attachments easily. Marks remain. Trophies. Scars. Gravestones.
Forgetting, like dying, scatters loose the once remembered failures and exaltations. They roll under the furniture as if they had never hung together. Even if one or another is found, picked up, rolled smoothly between thumb and first finger, it seems strange. And those, estranged from family, homeland and language, or from safety and support, feel like strange beings, unremembered and un-remembering.
A woman called me the other day, called for her mother, Suzanne, who is eighty-four-years-old and seeking a new therapist. The therapist she has seen for ten years has a memory problem now. Suzanne feels sad, sympathetic, but unremembered conversations won’t help her connect to her own past or project for her the future possibilities. She won’t feel known. Or storied. At eighty-four she still wants to put together the chapters of her life in a meaningful way with another human being.
To bear witness to Suzanne’s stories, so long cached inside shame and isolation, a listener must remember. Stories live inside other stories, even multi-generational, migratory ones. Bearing witness for those, living and dead, whom holocaust, diaspora, or trauma have dislocated and disoriented, means remembering.
The City of Cambridge once hired me to teach their administrators tips on remembering. The nightmare of downtown parking notwithstanding, the class went well because, really, remembering is simply a matter of familiarity, trickery, or love:
Do something, say something, watch something ten thousand times and it will mutate your genetic structure and, like playing the piano or riding a bike, every cell in your body remembers for you. The smell of your favorite meal gets your salivary glands going. As Pavlov discovered, and you all know from Psych 101, even the sound of a bell or the clang of the cast iron frying pan will whet the appetite.
But if you, like me, have a place you like but visit infrequently, with a name like the Moncrieff Cochran sanctuary, then you need a trick to remember it, even if in spring thousands of headstrong rhododendrons run the place. See it here—(Moncrieff Cochran) Mount-Grief-cock-ran—an old rooster hustling over the pinnacle of a sobbing mound of granite. Or, if in geography class the names of the Great Lakes escape you, then think of the acronym “HOMES.” Then Huron, Ontario, Michigan, Erie and Superior swim to mind like palm tree leaves.
And then love. Sweet love is sticky, tentacled—sometimes even like quicksand.
Love is sticky, wait for it: The Carole King musical, Beautiful, brought to mind the folk chanteuses of her heyday—Joni, Joan, Judy, Laura, Carly, Buffy, and Janis. And just now, on the elliptical with the pressure setting one point higher against the foe of another year passing, I open Google Play and tread hard to Judy Collins singing the Beatles’ song, “In My Life.”
“There are places I remember all my life
Though some have changed
Some forever, not for better
Some are gone and some remain
All these places have their meanings
With lovers and friends I still can recall
Some are dead and some are living
In my life, I’ve loved them all . . .”
Back in omphaloskepsis mode, cross-legged on the couch, I dial back the monkey chatter—a random spackling of to-dos, small replenishments for fridge and pantry, an oil change, a condolence card for Karen. Afternoon sun installs its fading light on my lap, feeling like old denim, which I’ve been known to wear around the clock.
Honestly, I drifted out of language for only a few moments, then vivisected trespassing thoughts to float in the timeless and thoughtless now. Unnamed sensations raze the self, and defuse angst. Say the word, ‘apple,’ over and over until it snakes into ‘lapel, lapel’ and then melts buttery as those tigers circling their black stripes into an orange blur.
Centrifugal forces spin meaning into the black void Tara sought when she hung herself. Herself herself herself . . .her selfer selfer selfer. But I come back to the story: I miss that Tara is not in this world, though I never knew her personally. I will remember her letter, on the Internet for all to read. As today I hold a picture of my mother, and remember her stories. And particularly, because it’s my birthday tomorrow, her story of me, her oldest daughter of an oldest daughter of an oldest daughter of an oldest daughter.
© Lisa Friedlander
[This piece was selected by Sommer Schafer. Read Lisa’s interview]