House near Millard, Missouri
Wanderings From the Roadways of Memory
An Essay Into Memory and Vanished Time
But I know it’s only my lonely hopefulness that these stones might flesh familiar bones, that houses might home us again, that time’s insatiability might turn to stone before it swallows my fading name.
A man named Pierre Lagacé, who lives in Quebec and who has made my recent acquaintance by commenting on my writing in Harthouse on Main, shared this thought recently about information I had posted about my great grandfather Benjamin Johnson Hart: “Some people wonder why some people are interested in dead people. Simple . . . . Dead people are really dead when no one remembers them.” And there, poignant and plain spoken, is the force behind my writing this essay. For several years now, my sons, Ethan especially, have asked me to “write this stuff down” so they will know our family’s history. And so, whether I call my effort an “essay” or “creative non-fiction,” I now comply. One of the ironies of life that plagues me when I think of it is this: Because my father married late in life (he married at age forty-one and he was forty-three when I was born), this positioned my brother and me to be much younger than most of our first cousins. I have just turned sixty this year, and most of my cousins are in their seventies or their eighties—or they too have died. At this time I am one surviving aunt’s life away from being among the “oldest living generation” of my family. It is conceivable that if I live a long life, I will outlive all of my first cousins and many of my second cousins as well—among them only one that I can name is younger than me, one or two of them are the same age, and the rest of them are older than me, or I do not really know who they are. One of the truths of our time is that families grow distant from one another, and they spread out across the continent to different parts of the country with such ease and nonchalance. The further away we go, the less likely we return, even for short visits.
Some members of my family that I saw regularly at reunions when I was a youth I have not seen in thirty or forty years. Some have returned infrequently for funerals. Those of our previous generation—my parents and my aunts and uncles—were the glue that held our family bonds together. They are gone, and we are going—further and further into distance and forgetfulness. The world we live in today is so not the world I was born into or lived in for the first twenty years of my life. I used to look back on my father’s life and conjecture how much change he’d seen from his birth year of 1910 (the year of Halley’s Comet and Mark Twain’s death year) until his death year in 1979. He watched Neil Armstrong walk on the moon in 1969—the only sunny summer’s day I can recall from my youth when my father did not make us do needed farm work that day, but instead we hovered around the television to see that “one small step for man” because my father knew it was perhaps the most momentous peace time experience of his life. What giant strides we’ve taken since then and where we are going tomorrow is impossible to determine, but just in my working on this piece of writing have I begun to consider the range of change that has occurred in my own lifetime since my father’s death. Some days, if I let myself think negative thoughts, I begin to fear we are hurtling onto a trajectory of doom, I just don’t know if it will be political or environmental. Sometimes I wonder if the “American Dream” we all desire but can not clearly define is flirting with obsolescence. Sometimes I wonder if the doomsday prophets of global warming won’t have the last laugh. Many times I’d like to join Ray Braden’s pioneer ancestors in their covered wagons and begin again the long journey back into the grassy hinterlands that thrived behind his cornflower blue eyes and move on ever westward toward some perfect evening star to capture a lost dream redeemed.
And so we take the fast road home under darkness sifting down from stars: my sons sensing this rhythm in their sleeping breathing, their heads resting and rocking with the car’s urgent pace, dreaming their ancestors’ feasted dreams.
The ending of my prose poem recalls my sons from their youngest years when they used to go with me on my journeys into “the countryside of the dead.” After a long day of traipsing about cemeteries, and visiting my mother and aunts in Carrollton until they started to pass away into the eternal silence, and usually including a stop in the city park with picnic food from Sonic, by day’s end when we would set out onto Highway 24 to come home by way of Brunswick and Mendon, my sons would soon nod off and sleep the whole way home. When they were older and still went along we may have talked of topics brought up by the day’s visits, or I might have humored them with silly talk. It varied from year to year. I know one year I alarmed them when they were younger by asking them to imagine a huge hand coming down out of the sky and squashing the car flat in the road like a hapless bug. I still don’t know what mood prompted that foolishness, but it’s true. It made me laugh then, and it still provokes a smile now. What I would wish for my sons now is that they too will assume the mantle of family and help me keep mine alive by encouraging my words and passing them on when they have the chance.
Among my many collections of things I’ve packed into my house over the years is an extensive collection of photographs of people from the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries—what Denise calls my “instant ancestors” and one of my sons calls “boxes of dead people.” I have several fine photographs of my own early family members—more from my mother’s family than from my father’s—but there is urgency in my soul that seeks to rescue these mostly unknown people who are now just sepia specters on paper and card stock. Sometimes they have names, but that is of little consequence today when they are barren echoes lost to a world that does not value them. I have to wonder what passage of circumstances allows them to be abandoned by their families and to end up in a box sold for a few dollars at auction, or to be tagged and sold at flea markets to ornament someone’s wall or to indifferently populate a collection of pictures amassed in a box. If they are “lucky” like paper denizens of some city of the dead, they get to come out of the box’s darkness and share in the light of day. They are redeemed for a moment and lifted from the darkness to shine for my eyes with their paper surface’s pale, ghostly glow. Even if their names are lost, to see them is “to live them again,” and if only for a moment, to defy that death that comes when no one remembers them. That would be my legacy contained in these words for my sons or for my readers, and to leave them with this thought by L. P. Hartley: “The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there,” and I am their determined ambassador.
Poems of Related Interest
John Keats, “Ode on a Grecian Urn”
Thomas Gray, “Elegy Written in a Country Church-Yard”
William Cullen Bryant, “Thanatopsis”