My sister has sent me a copy of WS’s Remembrances, a photocopied volume in a plastic binding. There are a few photographs but mostly the volume consists of transcriptions of W’s memories. WS, my only living uncle, is my mother’s brother. The stories in Remembrances were compiled by W’s daughter J from taped conversations that she had with him around the time of his eightieth birthday. Collecting the stories of our elderly parents is something that many of us wish we had done, and, perhaps, we should have considered collecting those stories before our parents were elderly and their memories had faded or begun to merge into confusing strands, more twisted bits of frayed string than actual stories.
As I opened W’s Remembrances, I felt wistful about my mother’s unrecorded stories and also a little jealous. The jealousy was the sense that someone else was telling stories that I might have wanted to tell. That sounds odd, I know, and there were no stories in W’s old man’s memories that I would have wanted to tell. The jealousy passed quickly, the wistfulness did not.
I have no memories of WS from my childhood. I know only that I met him six years ago at my mother’s funeral. He was a tall, bent old man, who came in with a couple of women, and sat in the family section. I had no idea who he was—my sister, turning red with fury, said, “That’s W. I want him to leave.” I walked over to him, shook his hand, and introduced myself.
I knew little about the source of my sister’s anger at W’s appearance. W had been unwilling to communicate with my mother for decades. After receiving Remembrances, I called my sister, who is much older than I am and continued to live close to our mother, to ask what she knew about the disruption between W and our mother.
“W and K [another of the siblings] were farming with grandpa and grandma,” my sister said. “Grandpa and grandma wanted to reinvest the earnings back in the farm. W and K didn’t—they wanted to spend the money.” W and K would then have been young men in their twenties or early thirties. Investing in a farm with their retirement age parents must not have been what they wanted. “Mom and dad got involved in the disagreement,” my sister said. “They sided with grandpa and grandma.” Then with telling hesitations, she said, “Dad . . . even though he never said much . . . you know the things he could say when . . . I think he got into it with W.” This must have been in the late 1940s or early 1950s.
It was only at family funerals that my mother encountered W. At their sister R’s funeral in 1985, my mother said, “I’m going to try to make it up with him.” She walked slowly and unevenly to him. “W,” mother said, “I have a photograph I bet you’d really like see.” W turned away, stepped away without speaking to her.
When their sister A died in 1998, my mother paid her respects the day before the funeral. She told A’s children that she wouldn’t go to the funeral. It was very difficult for her to get around, she said, but she remained deeply hurt by W and didn’t want to see him.
As a death-seeing vulture is how my sister must have seen W when he came-in to our mother’s funeral. It was an arrogant reunion of the sort the living can have with the dead, and W, by virtue of late birth and, surely, some luck was the last survivor among his siblings. I opened W’s Remembrances with anxiety because the last survivor could have chosen to damn the others. He could have told a story of his satisfaction at going to their funerals, attending to deaths with the same power that he had ignored lives.
Ignoring lives has its own power. In his Remembrances, W hardly mentions his parents or siblings. Only his elder brothers, F and B, 15 and 10, respectively, at W’s birth, have made an impression on him. As working-men doing road construction when W was forming his first childhood memories, they must have been out-sized as brothers. His eldest sisters go unnoticed, although he remarks generally about country families that “some girls were housekeepers in homes for room and board.” Indeed, two of W’s elder sisters had that experience of moving while young away from home, where the new offspring kept coming in the 1920s—P in 1921, A in 1923, W in 1925, and, finally, K in 1927—and into the homes of others to clean and care for children, but that experience as something intimate to his own family may have made no impression on W’s memory.
In what W has remembered, two things especially struck me. The first was that most of the stories were everyday occurrences, recalled with shimmery imprecision but with knick-knack details. The second was the contrast with my mother’s memories. My mother looked at things in her own home, and she looked outward only through the kitchen window. Her outlook was, perhaps, willfully, fearfully narrow, shaped by a childhood on farms and in small, rural towns, by educational limitations, and especially by coming-of-age as the Depression hit. Her short outlook reflected also, I think, a disability she suffered as a toddler that severely limited her mobility for the rest of her life. On the other hand, W looked and went outward; he writes in Remembrances about his travels to Central and South America, Asia, and Europe. I wonder as I look at his Remembrances not only about relationships between gender and outlook, and how those relationships could be shaped by culture and the economy of home, but also about the relationship between estrangement and looking outward. Many forces impel our outlooks.
In the family genealogy on the final page of W’s Remembrances, the year of the birth and death of each of his siblings is listed, except for my mother. He gives a wrong year for her birth, and the year of her death is not listed. It is as if she, among all the rest of his siblings, although not remembered, has not yet died in his mind. At R’s funeral, the photograph that mother wanted to give to W was an image of him as a small child tending pigs. “W,” my mother had said to me, “loved to tend the pigs. They were his pigs.” All memories must be pigs, the way they root around in us.