collective memory

Marking time

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Is it okay to be me? … the answer was yes often enough that I went ahead and became her: the writer of plainspoken prose who would not shut up about her grief.”–from Dear Sugar, “The God of Doing it Anyway”

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Today is the day my father died. On this day, twenty years ago, his heart up and stopped in the ICU, four days after falling ill with what we thought was the flu. Today, like every year, I mark it by the markers of fall: porch pumpkins, yellow and red leaves rusting on still-green lawns, yards trumped up like graveyards, cobwebbed and skull-strewn. Today, as every year, I wonder what to do or say with this private grief that spans two decades, that morphs with each year, rising and falling like a tetchy barometer. What’s there to say about it after all this time? And who wants to hear about it again? Not me. I want to be done.

But that’s not how it goes, it turns out. It turns out, the grief sticks around, showing up on my doorstep each year, holding out its pillowcase, begging me for an offering. Many years, I don’t open the door. Turn off the porch light, hide inside.

Today, because it’s a “big year,” a big fat marker, I suppose I feel obligated to say something, to commemorate, to note it officially: today he would have been 72, he would have been gray and bald and funny and irritating and argumentative and giant-hearted. He would have been fixing things, always fixing, Mr. Fix-It, as it says on the bench that commemorates him at the ballpark in my hometown, where new generations of Little Leaguers dart past with their stale nachos and sodas from the snack bar whose finicky ice machine he fixed and fixed and fixed.

But he couldn’t be. Every year, that fact stays fixed.

And I can’t fix it, either. Not with words, not with stories, not with memories.

But here I am, anyway. Trying to make sense of the insensible through words, through the world of language.

This year, I am struggling to find my words. All I can get at are questions: Twenty years–how is that possible? Who would he have been now? Who would we have been together?

Next year will be better. No milestone, no marker. I’ll open the door more easily, hand out Dum Dums to baby superheroes. I won’t have to think yet of the next marker, five years from now: the year I’ve lived longer without him than with him. I have some time to forget.

Today, twenty years on, stumbling to find words of my own, I thought I’d let poetry, quotes, and images do the talking.

Here’s to you, Alan Lee Chancellor (1942-1995): Beloved Father and Husband, In Our Hearts Always, as it says on your grave marker, our final note, as if that could capture all the wondrous, confounding, unknowable parts of you. Our Mr. Fix-It: hope things are good in the Big Garage in the Sky.

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Dad, 1965

Dad, 1965, at a house in Berkeley, CA (I think).

Born here of parents born here from parents the same, and their parents the same.—  from “Song of Myself” by Walt Whitman

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Dad and me, 1993 or so, rockin’ the outfits, at home in Sedona, AZ.

…This morning I couldn’t get up.
I slept late, I dreamed of the single
sheet of paper, which I never managed to reach
as it stuttered and soared over the grass
and a few flowers, so that I woke
with a sense of loss, wondering who
or what I had to mourn besides
my father, whom I no longer mourn,
father buried in the earth beneath grass,
beneath flowers I trample as I run.
— from “In Dreams,” by Kim Addonizio
***

Dad, 1995, his final Father’s Day. We made the tie with my nephew’s baby footprints. (My nephew, now a gorgeous, brilliant junior in college.)

I buried my father

in the sky.

Since then, the birds

clean and comb him every morning

and pull the blanket up to his chin

every night…

— from “Little Father” by Li-Young Lee

The many voices of baseball

I  always seem to want to start my blog posts off with a remark about how much time has passed since I last wrote a post, even though as far as I know, no one’s keeping tabs on my productivity — aside from my bratty Inner Critic, who today is tapping her watch and sighing loudly and rolling her eyes. Pretty soon she’ll start snoring. Twit.

Speaking of time, this summer TW and I finally got around to watching Ken Burns’ Baseball, a mere twenty years after its initial release date. (Next up: the films of that hot young director, Alfred Hitchcock!) All 18.5 hours of it. Numb bums aside, it was totally worth it. I learned so much, even as a fan who has more than a passing knowledge. But it wasn’t quite the soaring, euphoric tribute to the game that somehow I expected. Sure, there was plenty of rhapsodizing about monumental moments, about the deep emotional connections within families and communities. But it also tracked the darker side of the game, which of course is entangled in the injustices of American history. Burns famously knows how to tug at the ol’ heart strings, and I often ended up in tears. Most people know about Jackie Robinson, but the film highlights the Josh Gibsons, the Satchel Paiges, the Buck O’Neils, the Curt Floods. So many men with such talent, and the god-awful things they endured. Their faces clear as day, their voices retelling both the lows and highs. At one point, TW patted my back as I wept into my hands, and he said, You know this history. This isn’t new. Exactly: It was old, and persistent, and rooted, even in this game that I have always loved. Of course it was; no part of this country’s hands are clean. Not then, and not now, even as we progress.

But then again, it’s baseball, a game that is nothing if not contradictory: perfectly linear and logical and yet twisting and chaotic; individual and collective; sad and joyous; tiny and grand; defeated and triumphant; grounded and mythical; certain and surprising. Games are like stories that way. No wonder writers across the years have been so enamoured.

And so in my own meta-baseball-watching, I shouldn’t have been surprised when I was surprised by something that, ahem, came completely out of left field.

As we started watching, I kept listening to the narrator, thinking he sounded familiar but unable to pin it down. When the credits rolled, there it was: John Chancellor, the legendary NBC broadcast journalist.

And my father’s first cousin.

My dad’s father was the youngest of eleven children, and John’s father was one of the older siblings, so John and my father were several years apart. My dad had always hoped to meet John someday, but alas, he never did. (My dad died in 1995; John died in 1996.) In our family, though, we always knew the connection. Everyone always noted how they looked alike. When we’d see him on the news, my mom would say, Yep, just look at their faces.

Here’s a couple of pictures of them:

John Chancellor

dad1

Alan Chancellor (my father)

Indeed, I can see the resemblance, in the shape of the face and around the eyes. It’s one of those things that I have always known.

What I didn’t know until watching 18.5 hours of a baseball documentary is that they sound alike, too.

Over time, I have lost the sound of my father’s voice. This is a normal part of losing someone, but I think it’s one of the harder parts; it’s like that person disappears all over again, years from the initial loss. About a year ago, though, we found some old home videos. There, on the screen, my father moved and spoke and laughed. And there was his voice in my ear again. At first I worried that this would be a setback, that seeing and hearing him again would send me into sadness, but ultimately it was comforting.  His voice: a little high, reedy. A twinge of his native Chicago even after living most of his life in California and Arizona. A twinge of me.

Well, it sounds a bit like this:

As we sat this summer watching so many hours of the history of baseball, the narrator’s voice eerily evoking my father’s, I felt my personal history colliding with the collective history. All of those stories coming together in one space– the injustices, the beauty, the grief, the joy — and sharing it with someone I love.

In short, baseball.

Fragments of the whole

Oh, Insomnia. You’re like that college ex who keeps showing up in a bad dream, the one about the party at a house that’s not my house but is my house, and there you are, although it doesn’t look like you but it is you. You lurk off in the doorway to the garage, your lousy juju rising off you like cartoon stinklines. Jerk.

Alas, it’s nothing new. Even as a kid, I wasn’t a good sleeper. These days, when I am hyper-stressed, I fall asleep fine but then wake up at 4 a.m., my mind buzzing like a jar full of bees (who are using tiny bee chainsaws to cut down tiny bee trees). My waking days become a bleary-eyed mess, progressing from edgy impatience to sentence-mangling delirium (sorry, students). Luckily, this goes in waves. I think the final wave crashed last night; that is, I slept straight through.

Anyhoo. Writing about insomnia is about as riveting as listening to U.S. politicians these days; like those speeches, it’s also making me queasy and irritable, so let’s move on.

I’ve been thinking a lot about fragments. My novel-in-progress has a great deal to do with fragmentation, both in terms of subject (loss and memory) and of form (bits of narratives strung together out of order). This is not to say that I am actively thinking in terms of theme and structure while I’m writing; at this point I’m still figuring out the story. However, in looking at the pages I have, I see such a pattern emerging.

My beloved TW’s art projects also often are interested in fragmentation. Because of a project he is working on and because of a longstanding interest, we took a trip a few weeks ago to the Roger Brown Rock House Museum in Beulah, Alabama. Roger Brown was an extraordinary artist and collector who came to be known as one of the Chicago Imagists but who also kept strong ties to his native rural Alabama.

I am still emotional about this visit; this is a deeply affecting, inspiring exhibit/collection. Roger’s brother, Greg Brown, a great sculptural and collage artist who lives in Montgomery, oversees the museum and acts as guide. Because Roger passed away before the sale of the house was complete, Greg and his parents put together this space, which acts as both a museum and a memorial, a mix of Roger’s art and objects from his life. The pieces collected here reflect not just Roger’s obsession with collecting but also his family’s. Many items are those that their mother kept, or that Greg did, or related pieces that Greg found and added later. It would be impossible to list the thousands of disparate objects that come together this space, but some that stand out to me: Roger’s wildly gorgeous, cheeky art, including a large painting that hung for years in his parent’s grocery store in Opelika; old cigarette packs and a high school cowbell; an uncle’s Purple Heart; a junk drawer of a desk, kept exactly as it once was; Roger’s childhood drawings; a childhood devil Halloween costume; the roadside-store chairs that Roger wanted to buy and that Greg went back later and found; the prison matchstick lamps; the framed elegy that Greg wrote for his brother’s funeral; the photographs of their mother, whose ’40s-style hairdos are exactly represented in Roger’s female figures; the melmac dish collections; the sloping upstairs floor; the maps that Roger drew toward the end of his life, planning an architectural wonderland behind his parents’ home in Opelika; his Auburn beanie.

All of these fragments cohere in the most unbelievably beautiful way, and for me it’s because each object represents a story about Roger himself or about someone who knew and loved him. Even without Greg’s quiet, generous explanations, those stories are imbedded in these fragments of a life. They tell us about Roger — his artistic beginnings, his creative trajectories — but even more, they tell us about the people who loved him and about their connection. This is a space of collective memory, a jumble of pieces that reflect how lives brim and spill and ripple into each other. We are a complicated sum of our own memories, but also of others’ memories of us. When we subtract any part of that sum, what remains? Who is left? Are we still whole? Who are we when the people who remember us are gone?

The Rock House seems to ask these questions, and so far, here is my answer: We will spend much of our lives asking such questions, not as a way to stay in the past but as a way to move forward. In the act of retelling and reseeing, we do not relive; rather, we create a new connection, a new memory, give life to a life gone. We will do this again and again, creating pieces that we carry in our pockets like flat, smooth stones. Some days they will weigh us down; sometimes we will rub them obsessively with our thumbs. But sometimes, we will skip them across the lake of our lives, watching the ripples bend and fracture outward, until we lose sight of them in the shining sun.