I believe in memories. Memories are proof I exist. Memories are random. Memories feed my darkness and my light. Memories are a buoy and anchor. Memories add to my life subtract from my days. Memories are part of my life without Donna. Memories drive, support, and reinforce my love for Donna.
Donna, A Photo Memoir of Love and Loss was started as an exercise in examining my pain and grief when Donna died. I became an active participant in my grieving as I gathered my memories of Donna and us.
As a child, sometimes I sat on a workbench in the metal plating plant where my father worked in sales. One day I found a vial of mercury, opened it, and poured it on the bench. I played with the mercury, my fingers gently pushing around these shimmering reflective drops like silver Jello. The drops touched then suddenly embraced to create a bigger drop. Each drop grew as they touched until there was one large mass of silver bouncing on the bench ever so slightly. I picked up a screwdriver, struck the mercury, and watched it splinter and scatter in hundreds of little drops. Then I repeated the entire exercise, building up one large reflection, over and over.
Those shattered drops are my shimmering strewn memories of Donna, my wife.
Four years after her death and eight years after her brother Jack’s, an envelope appeared in our mailbox, handwritten, addressed to Donna from Berkeley. It was from a friend of Jack’s last girlfriend, Brenda. Brenda had died and this friend was cleaning old boxes out of her basement. He’d found a carton of photos and documents from Donna and Jack’s childhood. Would Donna like them?
A couple of weeks later the box arrived. It was beat up and taped haphazardly, like it was shouting, “All yours, good luck!” I placed it on the stainless steel kitchen island, wondering, why bother? Do I want to see what’s inside? Donna didn’t. She had exerted control over her world precisely by shunning this stuff. That’s how it ended up across the country. Would any of it add to my memories? Do I care? WTF?
Inside this battered brown box were photos of Donna. Standing in our kitchen, I picked up faded pictures of a little girl at a birthday party, a little girl with a brother, a little girl with her grandparents, a little girl posing, a little girl with her dad.
They were just images, standing alone. Without her voice and memory, they were mute. What is a photograph without the story behind it? If Donna were here, would she have shared memories as she looked at these, told me more, given me the context I longed for?
Each photo felt like a piece of a jigsaw puzzle. I had no reference, no box-cover. I held each photo carefully by the edge and rotated it slowly, savoring each angle to see more clearly the person and place in each.
I knew her for thirty years. Maybe I could reverse engineer the thirty before we met. Maybe I could guess my way into discovering more about her.
Donna's ashes and memories continue to race through my personal solar system. “All we are is what we leave behind.” I am left behind, your memory is not.
The Science of Memory
Malcolm Gladwell’s podcast ‘Revisionist History’ is a wonderful listen to and learn. The most recent one is part II of a two part podcast on memory. This second one is titled Free Brian Williams which is very enlightening because it addresses the idea of Flashbulb memory.
Flashbulb memory is a detailed, very vivid snapshot of a moment or event when something surprising or consequential was heard or witnessed. Data regarding Flashbulb memories demonstrate that though we are very confident in our memories specifics can be forgotten. The difference between Flashbulb and autobiographical memories is that Flashbulb memories are personally important, consequential, emotional, and a surprise. Regular old autobiographical memory can be accurate and long-lasting if they are distinctive, personally significant, or rehearsed.
As a friend pointed out "What is real is what you feel. Period. Memories are past and present.” Let them be what they are.
In Defense of a Shrine
A neighbor and part time realtor started asking me about selling my/our apartment a year after Donna’s death. She would present the following logic:
- Your loft is too large for one person.
- You can make a ton of money and use it to rent a studio. Perfect for one person.
- The market has never been better to sell.
- No woman wants to be in your loft with all those Donna memories.
The last point was piercing. Not in a hurtful way as much as a consideration. That is true I guess but, I don’t give a flying rats ass. Or do I? Why haven’t I stripped the loft or moved?
The realtor neighbor is correct, the house is littered with items that evoke memories. The space was designed and art directed by Donna. It was her eye that made this space what it is. The pieces all perfectly placed and aligned. The colors all work together to create a single palette of hue and tone. A simple pleasing balance. Each piece or the entire space are memories. Memories that lift me or crush me.
I can, as if I have the will, remove, destroy, or place everything into storage. There we go no Donna in the loft. Who does that serve?
While Donna was alive spring or fall would present itself. “Time to change the comforter.” Donna would announce. That was my cue to get ladder. It would be taken from the hallway positioned under the shelves of the closet. Boxes, heavy boxes, would be hoisted on my shoulders and brought down. Move the ladder again to the transom and get other boxes. Finally I would open the chest and take out more blankets, duvets, shams, pillow cases, blankets, etc. I am not talking about a few items. Donna had over the years amassed a sizable collection of bedding.
Donna would walk in and say while pointing, “That, that, and that.” And leave. I would then reassemble the boxes and put them one side waiting to receive the contents of the previous season after being dry cleaned. Slowly I would assemble the new bedding attire. I would step back and look. A smile of realization came to me, she was right. It was the perfect choice of colors, texture, and design. Done in minutes.
Donna died in August of 2011. October 2011 it was time to change the bedding season. ___________________________!!!!!
That space above is the best way to communicate my bewilderment, fear, anxiety, and design crisis. There was sadness that day. I took the boxes down and opened them. I looked and waited for Donna to come in and make her selections. The reality was different. I searched my memory, what was there last year? I barely remember what I had for dinner last night let alone what was used a year ago. Add to that her accelerating decline due to her illness and death.
I slowly lowered myself to the floor in the bedroom. Pulled items from boxes and looked. Was this a winter item? Does this duvet go with this sham? Blankets mmmmm? I sat and sat surrendering to some phantom hunger and walked to get a snack. Came back to see the items on the floor on the bed all waiting for the “This this and this.” It was now holding a duvet up with a sham and wondering if it works. I’d squint my eyes in an effort to imbue myself with a design sense. All the while my gut in knots, my mind racing to Donna’s funeral, to wondering why I am paralyzed. I know. No taste or skill.
One or two hours later I’ve made the change and step back to admire my handiwork. Not so fast. It is not the same or if it is its not. With Donna cremated there is no sense of pride on my part. No sense of sharing. Two times a year for seven years I do this. It gets easier but not better because it reinforces what I can’t do and what I can do.
Extrapolating To An Entire House
Here I am in house with items chosen for its art and design. It all works together. It worked for Donna, for me, and for us. I can remove all items that are Donna related. I replace that which is removed with those of my choice. My taste is okay but not finely tuned. I do not have an artists taste. I can remove all memories and not have a shrine or as my neighbor says. "No woman wants to be in your loft with all those Donna memories.” There are problems with that statement.
Do I want to find a woman? In short yes. Do I want to replace or replicate Donna? No. Consider the reality of dating. All my women friends have shared stories of dating and the efforts it takes to meet someone. As a bartender said to me once “Dating in NYC or anywhere is like grazing at an all you can eat buffet. It is scanning what’s there and moving on.” I will post later my thoughts on dating etc.
In the end. All that is in the loft are memories. Memories serve me well. They don’t hinder me. They are reference points for my life. My love of my memories are not living in the past but carrying my life forward. I am not stepping into footprints in the snow of someone else to find my way. I am navigating a direction based on what I know and love. It is my direction. Absentia is real. What remains is a world that I love.