There are many interesting things about getting older that I didn’t anticipate, some good, some strange, some oh holy hell why me. But the one that fascinates me most is the process of remembering the past. I call it a process because I’ve learned it evolves, it changes, it picks up hitchhikers, it weeps and it laughs. Memory is like that. It dances away from what is remembered to how it is remembered. I’ve learned that matters a lot.
In the last year, since I turned 70, I’ve noticed the bad things that happened to me begin to fall away to make room for the good things. I didn’t do this intentionally. It just happened, as if the inner workings of this bear beast of a human chose to have a happy end game. But I didn’t choose.
That’s the part that amazes me and takes me again to scouring the internet tubes for brain stories. It’s hard to let the scholar go when it’s so ingrained in me to research my ideas before embracing them as my own. But I’m learning to let that go and just fly with them, because it turns out nature is a fantastic research library. I’ve learned a lot about myself sitting with the trees, breathing in the saltwater that brings that scent of ocean into my house. I don’t have to show my work because I am my work.
Here is one way this all seems to evolve, using me as the example. I’ve written often about trying to come to peace with my childhood . Basically, I didn’t have one. My father gambled for a living. He wasn’t very good at it. He was also not very good at being a human being. War leaves many victims behind and he was one of its most defective. He left a lot on the casino tables, but not his rage at the world and especially at women. That, he brought home to share with the family. My mother rarely spoke. I remember her as the silent ghost he used to take his rage out on before he came for us.
When he told me I reminded him of his mother, that was not a good thing. It was a condemnation, a chance for him to make up for the damage she inflicted on him. I understand that now. But then I understood only that he was dangerous
I was terrified of him when he was drunk because his violence had no limits. He left a lot of ugly bruises from his rages, a few of them that I carried into the future. He told me I was ugly. I wasn’t. He told me I better study because no man would ever marry me. He was wrong.
I was the classic runaway. On paper. In the real world where I lived I was a shy, awkward high school kid who worked full-time jobs in restaurants, took care of other people’s children, even sold an underground newspaper on street corners. I knew college was my only way out of that hell so I studied even when I was so exhausted I could barely keep my eyes open.
I didn’t have time or the social skills for friends. I can count my high school friends on one hand. For a long time they became part of the memory of then, the bad times, the invisible people who were there but not there. But as I grew more into myself, their faces became more visible. And then an amazing thing started to happen. They began to show themselves as significant influences on my life, even though their time in it was so brief as to seem not worth noting. In the stew of bad memories they rose to the top as the good foam, the tasty, lovely bits you remember in your heart because they made a difference.
There were five in particular I owe my life to. Of course, they undoubtedly have no idea why, but I do. I picked the memories apart and found them. Of course, they were all artists. They lived in the good part of my life, the one with music, dancers, singers, painters, sculptors, writers, and performers. My father was the outlier in this world, the only American in a crowd of exquisitely talented refugees. He was also the only one who was uneducated, who didn’t play an instrument, who didn’t read books, who never went beyond the third grade and was basically illiterate. But in my memory, the rest of my family took the place of him. As I grew older that world became larger than the one he forced me to live in. Memory changed the script for the better.
But those five people, they weren’t part of my family. They weren’t people I worked with. They were my high school friends. They were also mostly gay because I could be friends with them and not have to deal with the whole concept of relationships, boyfriend-girlfriend, commitment and all those other phobias. And two of them were black during a time when just hanging out with me was dangerous for them. I learned a lot about courage from them.
But of that tiny group of friends, one in particular stands out because I saw myself in him, in his lovely shyness, his sweet nature, and his strange home life. Of course, I see that now with the gift of memory metamorphosis. Then, my memories of him were simple. I remember his house and how he made a fort out of his bed with hanging curtains. I recognized a hiding place when I saw it.
I met him at the worst time in my life when my father was the most violent. When he nearly knocked one of my teeth out with a belt buckle I began my career as a runaway. One of the places I ran away to was his house. It didn’t last long, mostly because my father had found out about him so to protect him I ran away from him too. I couldn’t take the chance of him being hurt by that monster. He was too good a human being. When he called me he would use different names but I always knew it was him. And then I got scared for him and was afraid to answer the phone. Try and I might I just can’t remember how we parted. I did see him again a couple years and it was the last time, but he’s always held a place in my heart.
In later years I thought about him. I wanted him to know what it was like to have someone care about me as a person, to hold me and make me feel safe. I got to sit in his lap crammed in the car with everyone else and enjoy the teasing that I had a boyfriend. I had a sweet crush on him, my first experience with those kind of feelings. It’s a good memory.
What he never knew was that he saved my life one night when I showed up at his house. I had reached the limit of living on this planet. I was exhausted. I had bruises all over my body. I made him turn the lights off in the unlikely chance he tried to remove my clothes because I didn’t want to explain what was underneath. There’s so many stairs you can fall down. I wanted to kill myself. I wanted the hurting to stop. I came to his house to say goodbye. Instead he held me, let me hang out in his fort, and saved my life. He came to visit me shortly after I got married and then he moved away. For the longest time I saved the cartoons he drew for me. And then the box they were in got lost. I remembered how sad I was about that.
The only one who wasn’t gay was my first experience of being loved by someone I didn’t have a clue how to love back. He was two years older, an immigrant child like me, but he came from France. I thought that was wonderfully exotic. And he thought it was exotic that most of my family was born in the same city but different countries. He would introduce me to his friends as the girl who was from that place where the boundaries always changed.
Without even sharing so much as an innocent kiss, we made plans to move to France. I applied to the Sorbonne and was accepted, much to my shock. All I had to do was get another job to pay for the tuition and living expenses. I did and began saving my pennies. And the plans began to take shape. I had a future that would take me away from the brutality of my father. I would get to be an artist, to write poetry, to live among those who didn’t think I was too ugly to love.
And then he was drafted. I begged him to run away. We were part of an antiwar group that helped conscientious objectors with letter writing, witnessing, making up shit to get them rejected, and when all that failed, arranging for our network to hide them in Canada. It would have been so easy. But he was an optimist. We were both poor broke kids. He saw a chance to pay for school, buy a house for us, and make a life together. He was killed in Vietnam within weeks of being sent there. I burned the flag they gave me from his coffin. I was done with love, even though I never really loved him. But I needed him. That was better than love. Memory works that way.
And I ran away for good. This time I was 17 so the police couldn’t bring me back, especially since I had a full-time job and was capable of supporting myself. I stayed away for many years and made contact again only after my father finally died.
I met a man at work when I was 18. He was a lot like me, a loner, the oldest child in a family with dysfunctional parents. I told him the first time we talked that I had no interest in marriage, I didn’t want children, and I was an Atheist. Turned out he didn’t want the same things. So I took him to a party where we were the only white people because it mattered to me that he accept two of my closest friends.
Within five minutes he was explaining the significance of her astrological sign to my friend’s wife. He left with my friend’s BBQ sauce recipe, an honor reserved for those he liked. “He’s a good man,” my friend whispered to me on the way out the door. “You deserve good. Take it.”
I thought okay this one has potential. So I took him to meet the family, starting with my grandmother who didn’t speak English and moving on to the others who spoke with accents. The only ones who didn’t have accents were my cousins. We grew up in America. I explained to him the role of immigrant children as translators, that we were the ones who answered the doors and the phones, and that’s why it was easy for me to go from one language to another. I’d done it most of my life.
I put that in practice, that moving from one language to another when we moved in together and began what has become a 50 year plus friendship. We talked a lot during the pandemic. He learned things about me. I learned things about him. We talked about how memory changes as we grow older. We talked about those we loved, the relationships with others we never denied each other. We have always believed in love and there are no limits if you truly believe. You love or you don’t. We loved and still do and always will. It’s who we are.
In the last year I’ve done something that I suspect other old people do when the memories change from bad to good. I’ve gone back and tried to find those who saved my life just with their presence. I’ve connected with two so far. It’s been affirming, necessary, good for all involved. They needed to be thanked. Still waiting to hear back from my high school crush, but if he doesn’t that’s okay. I love him differently now than I did then. It’s the love of gratitude, of appreciation, of knowing love doesn’t need an object or a presence, but merely the feeling in the heart that stays with you for life. One of my life lessons was learning once you love someone, that feeling never dies. Love is like the sun. It doesn’t die because night falls. It just changes and becomes easier, a softer and more gentle part of self. He’s one of my sweet, gentle memories.
And yes, part of my wanting to contact these people, was first of all to say thank you. But also to make sure they were okay, to reassure myself and especially them, that when you save someone’s life they will always be there to save yours because memory works that way.
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