Perhaps like me you have stood staring at faded photographs of unnamed people—aged farmers, small children, or Civil War soldiers ready to march to war? Bright-eyed children, stooped, weary old men and women staring down the future, boys whose eyes glow with dreams of glory—I ’m always filled with sadness that I did not know the people in the photographs. Not their lives, per se, but the pivotal events of their lives, their hopes, their dreams, and the tears that may have fallen in the darkness of night. From such things come tales and novels, and I always wonder— should I tell their stories for them? Should I try and recapture the unclaimed memories of these lost and forgotten lives?
Loss comes to everyone, for if we live long enough we will all have lost someone to death or love destroyed. I’m no exception. In February twelve years ago, my mother slipped away from us after a four day illness. She had a long and eventful life, a daughter, two grandsons, and she knew of one adored great grandchild. Even so her loss was a tear in my heart.
On that winter day
Hungry birds pecked at the sill
Outside her window.
I know of only one way to combat loss, and that is to remember. When I say, “I remember the time when Mom broke into song on the top steps of that restaurant,” I can still laugh out loud. And in my mind my mother stands beside me, smiling.
So she is still real and alive to me. Not so my aunts on my father’s side whose faces used to stare wordlessly out of sepia photographs. Margaret—the lovely, dark-haired aunt with serene eyes—died in her thirties from peritonitis. She and Aunt Catherine were gone by the time I was born. Genealogical charts may give me their names and dates of birth and death, but these aunts’ memories were never shared.
On my mother’s side there was enigmatic Uncle Raymond, who took the Siberian Express to get from his home in Yokohama, Japan, to Switzerland. There this only son of the family fell in love and swore to his bride that he would never again set foot in Japan. He broke his mother’s heart, and in that heartbreak lies an untold story and many questions. Was his bride so beautiful? Was he so weak that he didn’t care about his parents’ feelings? Mom was too young to know more than the bare bones of that story, so I’ll never know the whys that lay tangled about a decision that affected so many lives.
Fortunately, my mother was a mine of information about her own life. She told me about her growing up years, her large and wooded home on the Yokohama bluffs, and her many adventures. She described the rickshaw man who ferried her to school on rainy days and the irascible rooster that lived next door and which lay in wait for her each day when she came home.
“It knew,” she would say, darkly. “That miserable bird had a sixth sense. No matter how I tried to creep past or run past, out it would come, flying and cackling, its beak was as sharp as a pair of scissors.”
Regardless of her feathered nemesis, Mom was a defender of all animals, birds, fish, and even snakes, for she was on good terms with Willie, the garter snake who each season shed his skin near her beautiful old nandina bush. Once, when she was visiting us in the States, she arose one morning to calmly announce that there was a snake in her bed. “And don’t make a fuss,” she commanded, “it’s just a small snake and I don’t want it to be frightened. But I think,” she added judiciously, “that it would be happier outside in the garden.”
I’ve taken to telling my grand children some of my own growing up adventures. I share my mother’s reminiscences whenever I can. It’s an important task, even a duty, for memories are unique and make us what we are. I don’t want our memories to be unclaimed.
The nandina bush
Grew just inside the old gate…