On memory

Photo: A photo I shot of Monticello after the tour. The sun was about to set so I captured this photo before our group dispersed and got into the van. The home was built by slaves and their children.

Dear W_______

Sometimes, I worry about the way I remember things.

Last November, after the election, D and I drove down to Charlottesville with a friend from Canada. It was a blustery autumn afternoon; we walked across empty streets stepping on orange and yellow leaves. Shops had closed downtown. There was a nip in the air. We went down to visit Monticello, Thomas Jefferson’s plantation mansion.

I know little about American history — history texts about North America bore no meaning half way across the world — but I can tell you this. Standing on that pathway with Jefferson’s home on one side and a sweeping view of the plantations on the other made me feel out of place. I felt torn between two worlds, two realities.

Photo: A view of the plantations from the pathway leading to Monticello. (credit: Meera Vijayann)

A guide took us through each room on the property pointing out Thomas Jefferson’s favourite paintings and the rooms he reserved for his guests. Soft beds, tall cabinets of books and beautiful wooden cabinets lined the walls.

“It is here”, the guide repeated more than once, “that his enslaved staff waited on him.” Around me, families with young children and tourists from out of town nodded and listened. He talked at length about Jefferson’s love for art prints and the financial troubles that wore him down. What struck me was how he spoke of Jefferson; almost as if he were a soft-spoken nobleman who cared deeply for the people around him. But it was the way the guide consistently referred to “enslaved staff” that particularly bothered me. The term was used in an attempt to preserve the dignity of the people it concerned, but the words seemed hollow, as if they were carefully coated to soothe public imagination and free listeners of the burden of history.

Photo: Mulberry Row (credit: Meera Vijayann)

And suddenly, standing in front of Monticello, that yesteryear romance of American life gently lifted. When I walked past Mulberry Row, the earth I stood on felt dry and lifeless. I found myself looking around and wondered how I might have felt; being chained to this house in servitude without a chance to enjoy the warmth of the sun or the fragrance of fresh air.

It made me think for a long time. There is a dissonance in the way we remember things; the way we are introduced to relationships, to people and the world around us.

Nostalgia serves us well. It softly obstructs any attempt our minds make to question memories we hold dear. But now, I push myself more than ever to close my eyes and ask if those smaller details have a different story to tell.

When I was young, I had an art tutor who sat surrounded by a ceiling-high pile of freshly painted landscapes. He was thin and bony and he taught me how to paint trees and capture light beautifully on paper. I don’t remember his name, only his technique. The way my pencil had to be held while shading in the details of the leaves and tall tree trunks. His office — a small room filled with the intoxicating scent of oil paint and cheap kerosene — was not exactly close to where we lived. But my parents had a driver drop me off for an hour of art tutoring and would send him again to pick me up after. The man never once looked up from his work; he focused so intently on sketching that all other details of his life seemed entirely immaterial to me.

I neither cared for his untidiness nor his indifference. As a student, I became intently absorbed in the language of his world; how a spot of blue tempura in thick Chrome yellow made a beautiful green. Or how 4B pencils allowed for shadows to fall in a gray vignette. It wasn’t until many years later, in my adulthood, that I realised that he was poor. No matter how much I tried, I couldn’t think of a time that I had asked about his day or if he had a place to call home.

When I got on the flight to Dubai last week, an elderly couple seated near me and chatted for a bit. I asked the man where they were from. Near Charlottesville, he said. I nodded politely and told him that I had visited Monticello with D and a friend a few months ago. How was it? He asked.

“It was okay.” I said.

But nothing more.

More soon,

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