Photo by Christina Schmidt
by Joan Connor
As I am aging I note that my memory is changing. No, I am not becoming more forgetful, rather I am remembering differently, compulsively; I am remembering more.
Some of the compulsive memories involve expiation. I rehearse every small wrong from the past–baby-sitting sins: an electric teapot I set on fire); a pencil sharpener I stole; and a lip gloss I lifted from a family who rescued me in a blizzard. Teen sins. I had long forgotten them. Now they make me cringe, and I cannot shake them. Clearly, I am in need of absolution.
While I was married, raising my son, I did not rehearse the litany of sins. I did not even remember them. But living alone with time to brood, my self-loathing has time to breed. I lose sleep.
This is unhappy reminiscing, and it may oddly involve self-love as well as self-loathing. I doubt that I even feature as a minor cameo, a walk-on, on the mnemonic stages of these people I have wronged. The need for forgiveness may be a selfish one.
But wherefore could I not pronounce Amen.
I had most need of blessing.
The unrehearsed memories, however, do not involve a need for atonement. They simply occur. They present themselves to me as a hermeneutic puzzle: you figure out why I surface now.
Anamnesis means reminiscence. But in Christianity it involves a memorial prayer of remembrance. Do this in memory of me. It is almost a liturgical exegesis of itself.
These unrehearsed memories desire explanation rather than expiation. Why am I remembering this? What does it mean? They require an exegete. Nobody. I myself. No other.
A recently recurring memory: Thirty years ago I taught at a Friends School in Philadelphia for a year, after one year teaching at a boarding school in western Massachusetts. While teaching in Massachusetts, I worked with a woman, Lisa, who taught me how to laugh, how to think, and how to write fiction. She left to teach in Michigan. I left to live with the man who would become my erstwhile husband and to teach in Philadelphia.
My recent sudden and vivid memory is of a man with whom I worked in Philadelphia, Roy. Roy worked with the middle school students. He was the only faculty member who had an energy to match the chaotic excitability of seventh and eighth graders, who knew how to guide that energy to discovery. The students always seemed happy verging on ecstatic–as did Roy.
His face gleamed, beatific, the color of chestnuts about to split. He wore bib overalls over bright white T-shirts, wore his hair cropped, and always seemed on the verge of leaping as if his body could not contain its coiled energy.
He once said of Quakers, “They are the meetingest people I ever knew.”
Roy was one of the few African Americans on staff. Perhaps that highlights for me one of the paradoxes in my thirty-year old memory of teaching in a Friends school. Friends were leaders in education, insisting on a diverse curriculum and student body, and progressive on social and spiritual matters. The school had an African-American curriculum but few staff members. And jeepers were they stodgy. A string of S-words. Serious. Sententious. Somber. Solemn. Sober. Scrupulous.
I did not hear much laughter in the hall. In retrospect, that may have been one of the most humorless years of my life. But not for Roy and me.
The school maintained a gift shop to raise scholarship money. In front of the shop entrance stood a dress form, a headless mannequin. While I do not recall why, I do recall that Roy and I were undressing the mannequin. She wore a string of shabby genteel pearls and a Talbots dove-gray suit with rose piping. We were snickering and giggling until the mannequin posed dishabille with only a vintage gray pillbox hat nestled on her headless neck.
Did Roy want the suit for a costume drama? Did he want me to try it on? I do not remember; I remember only that the activity was silly, co-operative, and a little sexy.
We became friends. I told him about Lisa, about wanting to write. Roy wanted to be a dramatist and actor. But he was raising children alone, two boys abandoned by their mother. Drugs, I think. And I had a husband. Commitments oppose dreams.
I asked him why he didn’t socialize with his colleagues. He said because he was always afraid of serving the wrong cheese. We sniggered. Wrong cheese. Indeed.
We worked together for just that one year. So is this memory about an unfulfilled infatuation? About race? About class?
Just now I searched the Internet for Roy and located an article about him giving a poetry reading during Black History Week. But it dates from 1997. He no longer teaches at the same school.
Perhaps writing an essay about a memory is its entification?
Lovely Lisa full of laughter, my mentor and friend, was coming to visit over spring break. Roy invited us to come visit him while she was here.
What I notice with the unrehearsed memories: they concatenate, and one memory links to another links to another. The personal essay is a form of memory.
In philosophy anamnesis is a rediscovery of knowledge, a recovery of what you have forgotten from other iterations or incarnations.
A priori knowledge precedes experience. A posteriori knowledge follows it. Is the memory then a priori and the essay a posteriori?
The second half of the memory. Lisa arrived in March and stayed in the guest bedroom of our Spanish Tudor in Bucks County, a rambling 1920’s baronial manor with a fountain and pool on the front patio, the yard surrounded by a brambly hedge.
On the appointed day we popped into the car and followed Roy’s directions to his building in Philadelphia not far from the school. The neighborhood deteriorated block by block, ramshackle tenements, crumbling stoops, boarded windows. We located Roy’s building, a paint-blistered clapboard row house.
Lisa and I glanced at each other–well, okay. We entered the unlit hall and groped to the stairs. The newel post finial came off in my hand. I replaced it, and we climbed to Roy’s floor, knocked, and he let us in.
My sensory memory is of the commingled odors of frying chicken and of stale urine from the boys’ soaked and stained mattresses.
I have never eaten fried chicken, nor have I ever cooked it. But I can testify that it smells great. Lisa was a vegetarian, but it turned out that Roy was frying the chicken to refrigerate for his boys who were at their grandmother’s. He did show us their room–bunk beds the only furniture, no sheets, just pilled and rumpled blankets.
A 1950’s chrome and vermicular Formica table with unmatched chairs centered the kitchenette. A torn poster of Huey Newton fluttered on the wall. Floor pillows furnished the front room, the only decoration aside from a water cooler bottle, tempera painted in day-glo mosaic, the paint flaking from the glass, a relic from a decade-and-a-half ago, the era of incense and beaded curtains. It was a sad place.
I cannot replicate the conversation, but I can recall the mood. This was not the bouncy Roy from the halls at school. He was sullen, suspicious, even angry. It was as if he were two people, Tigger at school, Eeyore in his apartment.
End of the road. Nothing to do and no hope of things getting better. Eeyore.
Lisa’s mood: She was always buoyant, but she would have read the ambience, and, like me, she would pretend to overlook it. But I recall that later in the car she said that there were few things sadder than something ten years out of date.
When I inquired about his boys, Roy did show me a Polaroid of them, huddled with their mother’s family.
I said something about the beautiful boys and the attractive apartment.
I recall Roy staring at me, saying something to the effect that, when you take a photograph in an ugly setting, you are not likely to pose it against the ugliest backdrop.
I suspect that all of the conversation proceeded like that–testily.
Then we smoked dope, and Roy’s mood brightened. He served us some nosh food, some frozen Asian food, I think, egg rolls? Something involving shrimp that Lisa could not eat.
We’d been hungry earlier; now we were ravenous. We listened to James Taylor and chatted in the desultory silly way of potheads. This and that, not worthy of memory.
I scrambled a lyric, “Deep greens and blues are the colors I choose.”
I sang, “Beet greens and booze are the somethings I choose.” I really thought they were the lyrics.
Some reefer giggles, then Lisa and I hit the car.
As we tried to find the highway, I am certain that we discussed the strangeness of the visit–Roy’s mood, the poverty of the place, the racial issue, and the lack of food. But I do not recall the conversation in any detail. But we were unprepared when we arrived; that was certain.
We were also stoned and starving. As I bungled down blind streets, we spotted a sub shop and stopped. It was after midnight. It was also evident that our whiteness was about as welcome in the sub shop as last January’s blizzard. We blundered and bluffed our way through the order, ignoring the hostile stares until the cashier, taking pity on us, said that the neighborhood for us was not safe and we should hightail it.
Hit the road, Jack. And we obligingly did, the neighborhood buzzing electric, ganja day-glo, neon neural. We were happy to be back in the car, wolfing down our sandwiches, and headed back to Bucks County.
There the chain of memories chinks. I do not recall what transpired in my relationship with Roy after that visit. The following year I taught in another school. Then I moved to D.C. with the quondam husband, pregnant with my son.
I lost touch with Roy although a former colleague assured me that he was doing well, had completed his Master’s, and had remarried. By now his children likely have grown children of their own. How time passes.
And at some point, more recently, I fell out of touch with Lisa although I know where she lives. I simply stopped sustaining contact. Her daughter, too, must now be grown.
So why do I write about Roy, about this episode now? Is it simply a song of encroaching mortality? “A song that they sing of their home in the sky?”
I understand that the impulse is to understand, clearly to understand me rather than Roy since I no longer have a context for Roy, to take some measure of my present self against my past self.
The essay serves as touchstone, also lodestone, and millstone.
Yes, I suspect that the memory of Roy represents my class and racial anxiety, the anxiety of white privilege. I realized that I did not really know Roy until I saw his home, or, more precisely, I knew only a version of Roy. One Roy in the hall, and another in his home. But this is true of us all. We all have Chekhovian public and private selves. Did I have a crush on him? No doubt. And did it reveal uncertainty about the wisdom of my recent marriage? No doubt.
So I write to understand. Anamnesis in all three senses. Does the writing help? It helps. Does it solve or resolve? No.
Eeyore said, “This writing business. Pencils and what-not. Over-rated, if you ask me. Silly stuff. Nothing in it.”
And that old gloomy Gus is partially right. It is silly stuff. Beet greens and booze. But nonetheless, nonetheless, we need to write that silly stuff. We must. We must because we live in time.
But back in time, Roy, Lisa, how I loved you.
Won’t you let me go down in my dreams,
And rockabye sweet baby James.
And so we write on.