There are many things before our first memories. There are things that happened to me and which I witnessed, but aren’t available for my tattered scrapbook of recollection. There are emotional landscapes that predate our ability to express them through words, though they were foundational and mountainous. (They’re the voices speaking when we don’t know ourselves.)
There are also things that happened before we existed (in the way we usually understand) it but are an inextricable part of who we are.
I begin to understand this as the experiences people in my family had before I was born. They’re in some cases people I never met, or knew only through the shaded keyhole perspective of a child’s blind self-interest and inchoate perception. Alternately, I knew them through the vast clarity of a child’s unfiltered access to the absolute.
But however you want to look at it, there’s no real sense in which I exist without them. They unfold and cast shadows with lengths and dimensions impossible to measure.
Both of my parents’ fathers died suddenly, in the presence of their children. Neither my father or my mother were close to adulthood when these things happened. In the impenetrable mystery of how these two young people (my parents) came together to create me, this has always stood out as a significant singularity, coincidence, and parallel. Perhaps, in a very real sense, the two premature and sudden deaths of two men who I never met lead directly to my own existence.
Willard, my father’s father, stares out from photographs from beneath a mop of thick hair and spectacles that give him a professorial air. He was well loved, artistic, clever. He was overseas during World War II, after which he promptly fathered six children with Charlotte, my grandmother. Despite this impressive run of fecundity, by the time I became self-aware his impact was marked by his absence from existence, his death at 35, and the shattered family that he left behind.
Years of poverty and alcoholism. A parent disappearing for days and leaving school-age children to ask friendly neighbors for food. Six children responding to their circumstances in six different ways, defining their future and that of others in their orbit. Their six ways of coping multiplying through time in opening circles that intersected with other experiences. Death and reverberations.
My mother’s father, Everett, is harder for me to see. He had a wife and two children in Kentucky when he met my grandmother, Nettie Thacker, who was a good deal younger than him. Nettie had grown up with roots in rural poverty, and had a stubborn and rebellious streak. She met Everett in Lexington when she was little older than 18 and left Kentucky for Central Ohio, where she lived in the same small house for the rest of her life (as the urban neighborhood around her declined alarmingly).
Nettie resisted her family’s attempts to contact her for the remainder of her days, a choice that was never explained. Her brother Calvin, many years after they had last seen one another, drove to Columbus and stood knocking on her door, wanting to reconcile with his sister. He was almost 18 years younger than her, and he had never really known her. She refused to answer.
It was unfathomable to me why she would do such things. She had been beautiful in her youth, redheaded and fiery — I could still see these things in her as she grew old. Perhaps she was vain — I remember her refusing a free social service because she didn’t want to tell an administrator when she had been born. In the 1940 census where she is immortalized, her occupation is listed as “new worker.” I never knew her to work at all in all the time I knew her; she seemed to me to be suspended in time, a spirit I loved who I watched slowly disengage from the passing of time, watching me as I also aged with a wistfulness in which part of her remained fixed in time.
Everett built an addition to the small house on Souder Avenue, a house where I spent countless long afternoons. He added a family room in the back of the lot, as well as two bedrooms upstairs for his children. When I was a boy those bedrooms had inexplicably been left dusty and untouched for years (my grandmother had a chronic bad knee and difficulty with stairs); they were like a dead zone, with childhood possessions and small beds still stacked and arrayed. I found the rooms terrifying and could only bear to go into them for seconds at a time; even now and much later in life they sometimes feature in my nightmares.
Everett was older than Willard when he died, but he exited his life in the same fashion: without warning, his heart failing, felled before his family.
For many years, when I was alone, I thought of them both, and what it had been like for them.
These two pivotal moments were experienced as unimaginable despair by both my parents when they were children, and they have a frozen and mythological feel to me then and now. I never directly discussed it with either of them, sensing a core and primal injury, something too painful to expose.
For whatever reason, I’ve always felt an intuitive understanding that events before our existence define and dictate our own. Though we concede to a consensus reality in which our individuality is taken as a given, with borders and parameters and the timelines of our biography, the silent voice within us knows better.
I have no existence independent of that of countless others.
This has sparked a range of emotions and internal experiences at different times of life. It can and should be liberating, like that sense of the sunshine on a summer night filtered through the mist of a sprinkler.
When filtered through the limited prism of the lonely self, it can feel claustrophobic and desperate. For me, much later, it taught me the road to feeling free, even though the detours and missed turns were as troubling as they could be.
There’s no point where the ones who are gone, and those to come, end and I begin, in other words.
Two men, in far gone moments, their time ending without ceremony in moments like a stone thrown into an endless pond. And not just them: everyone they knew and loved and disliked, everyone who impacted them with their thoughts and ways of being and emotions and demands and patterns. All of that turned into new people who weren’t actually all that new, because none of us are. And those people became my parents, the center of my universe.
The ones who I thought were unchanging monuments, until I learned better and then learned to love them for their own vulnerability and impermanence.
Then there’s the other center of my universe. My self: petulant, loving, devoted, impatient, ambitious, petty, expansive. I have clung to the feelings and memories of him when instinctively looking for a map of the terrain of who I am. These feelings have always seemed real, but also something else, not exactly genuine, and that’s been almost impossible to articulate. Rumination on all of this has caused me despair, a need for escape, and a recurrent pattern of fear and anger. Those feelings didn’t feel terribly different to me at 5, 15, or 45. They felt like ghosts, or demons. They drove the worst in me but also shined the light that has been my best.
There’s no escape from others; they’re within you, interlaced circles moving through time. And there’s no need for escape, not when you’re trying to awaken from the dream of pain and suffering.
Because, in a very real sense: they are doing the remembering.