Tuesday, September 29, 2009


The trouble with the "eternal now of memory" is that our memories are often flimsy and unreliable.  What we think is steel is more often origami, intricately crafted, beautiful to look at, but hardly a firm foundation.

I love this photo, which, based on the suits, the hats, and the absence of snow, leafy vegetation and Child Number Three, I put at Easter Sunday, 1966.  We look like a working class Kennedy Family, Camelot with calluses.  I don't remember this day.  I have no idea who's taking the photo.  But I imagine it's my Aunt Kathy, and I can see, just outside of camera range, the crooked sweet cherry tree that was easy to climb, and the massive black walnut with its husk-covered fruit.  I can see our neighbor, Vida, working in her yard, and right in front of us, a mess of lillies of the valley growing underneath our cellar windows, green leaves and tiny white bells.  We were happy, and confident, and we lived in the best house on the most interesting street in the greatest town in the world.

None of this was true, of course, not really, not wholly.  But that's the way I remember it. Monks were self-immolating in front of the Pentagon.  My dad's friends were fighting (and dying) in Vietnam.  "Sergeant Pepper" was playing on the radio, everywhere but in our house.  We lived out of time, safe in the Mayberry of my memory.

There's a photo someplace of my dad, who lost his own father when he was a kid, walking his pet cat on a leash.  His mom hated dogs, I always imagined, so he was only allowed a cat (cats were handy for people who lived on the Erie Canal: they kept the rats out of your cellar). He had a pet cat, but he was going to do his level best to make the cat owning experience as close to canine ownership as humanly possible.  This is all myth, this defiant eleven year old, determined to bend circumstances to his vision.  I admire that boy, the one with the cat on a dog's leash.  He's been an inspiration to me, someone steady and steadfast, somebody smart enough to pick his battles, but spirited enough to be a tiny bit subversive. 

Maybe, he just liked cats.

In one of W.C. Fields's movies, he tells a very convoluted story about fighting Indians.  At every point, a skeptic interrupts him, corrects him: "Revolvers weren't invented yet." "That's not Apache Country!" "How could you swim with a goat under each arm?"  Defeated, Fields walks away, muttering, "There goes another perfectly good story, ruined by an eyewitness."

Myths are fine.  Families are filled with them. Until about three months ago, I knew with perfect certainty that my family was Scottish, and that all of my personality traits were drawn from the Polish side of my family.  We're not Scots; we're Irish.  No one except my father ever spelled our name "MacMurray".  We're from Downpatrick, County Down, just outside of Belfast.  I am, the more I read and learn, more like my father's side of the family that I ever imagined.

Myths make things easy.  They fold reality to the dream we have of ourselves.  They aren't enough to build on.  We need to know who we really are, where we really come from.  The most amazing stories, the surest foundations, are the ones that are true.

1 comment:

  1. An elegant symmetry here, first and last paragraphs holding this all together like cufflinks on French cuffs. The "eternal now of memory" and origami? Indeed. You make me wish I had known your dad. It makes me wish I knew mine.