Unclaimed Memories


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…

Remembered garden.


About Maureen C. Wartski

I’m Maureen Wartski, writer, artist, wife, mother, grandmother; you can see that I have many of the bases covered. I was born in Ashiya, Japan, a (then) small town which lay cradled between sea and mountains. In the evenings, we would walk along the road that ran past Osaka Bay, and a great moon would rise out of the water to turn the world to silver. I’m told that my first words were, “Big moon!” All my life I have felt the tug to write something, draw something, put together something with fabric, string and color, and the urge to create has grown through the years. I suppose, then, that it’s a natural thing that this blog be full of the things that so many of you enjoy doing…drawing, making something with fabric, and writing. Yuri's Brush with Magic, my newest book for middle schoolers follows the adventures of a brother and sister, the magic of words, and the incredible magic of the natural world. I'd love to hear from you! You can send me a note at: maureen@wartski.org/ My blog is here: https://maureenwartski.wordpress.com/ Or friend me on Facebook!

18 responses »

  1. What a beautiful post, Maureen! I can see your mama and the rooster, fighting it out! 😉
    I have looked at photos before and wondered what the story is behind them. Also, on G+, one of my photos was used in a story challenge. The lady who ran the challenge used a different pic for 30 days and folks would write stories based on the photos. It was very cool!

    • Thanks, Donna! I’ll bet the challenge was cool. Did your work channel a new story? I think of many plots (usually when I’m walking) but many of them don’t see the light of day.Old photos, though… there’s something haunting about them.

  2. Lovely post. I wonder about the stories some old pictures tell … I just posted some on my blog and so many memories came rushing. Coincidentally, my daughter was doing a family tree project at school, so we had a good time going through the pictures. What’s amazing is how particular events had to happen just so she could exist! I’ve been writing little vignettes about my mother to bind into a little book for my children since they only know her through the pictures and stories I tell. I want her to live in their memories after I die, and not just be a picture of some woman they never knew.

  3. Maureen,
    Like that rooster. Where is his haiku? Thank you for sharing some of your memories. What a beautiful story, Your mother was a great lady. I know whenever I see a hummingbird, I think of my mother. What a blessing you are to be able to make art from memories.

    drinks at the fire bush
    Mother smiling at me

  4. I keep meaning to write down some of my early rememories because my children don’t know all about my growing up. I’d better hurry up and do it!

  5. Maureen,
    Storytelling is always a favorite at camp. We should find a way to capture that experience in our daily lives so family stories will be passed on.

    • Very true, Linda. We told a lot of family stories on vacations, too… and I remember most of them. Lately I’ve taken to compiling the stories I’ve told the grand children through the years. Some day their children will laugh over them…

  6. Dear Maureen,

    How well I remember the unique personality and character who was your mother. How did she manage to live for so many years far away from her only child and grandchildren? She was independent, feisty, talented, opinionated and very beautiful as well. Through photos, stories, and many memories, we maintain whatever fragments we can of our dear progenitors. Next month on St. Patrick’s Day is the anniversary of my dear mother’s passing. As her only child, I find myself frequently repeating her accent, sayings, teachings — even mannerisms. If only her grandchildren and those to follow would could retain and carry forth those essential characteristics that made her so special and unique to us all. Keep writing, snapping photos, quilting and creating all manner of art, Maureen. Those will be your gifts to the future.

  7. Recently I’ve re-written a lot of the ‘Polly Molly and Jolly’ stories I told the kids each Monday and Tuesday for over 8 years! We figured that I had told at least 547 stories to them! I was able to remember just 7… and I wrote them up and gave them to the grand kids. Even Ben, who is much too old for these things, said he liked them (Sandra said he laughed a lot reading them) and told me to write more and publish them!

    I think you should write something (or record something) about YOUR mom, Fran. She was a wonderful and interesting lady!

  8. Your post strums at my own heartstrings. Over ten years ago I began writing down the slice of life stories that I could remember from my childhood to share with my family at my parents’ 60th anniversary. Later as my parents turned 90 – first my father and later my mother and her twin brother – I used some of these stories and added to them more stories I gathered from my family and cousins to make books for each of them. I also interviewed each of my parents and wrote down as many of the memories they could recall. Our family now has two books to keep skin and bones attached to the names in our genealogy records.

    • How wonderful that you interviewed your parents and wrote down the memories! I thought of these things too late… and can only reconstruct from memory. Memory as a time machine can be wonderful or somewhat unreliable. Add to this the fact that I grew up in another country and that records and photographs were lost in the last Kansai earthquake. I can flesh out the people I know, but oh, to know more about those lost ones!

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