Sunday, June 30, 2013

The Past is Heavy

My grandparents on their wedding day
Inheritance. Heritage. History. Legacy. Sins of the fathers. Memory.

Time becomes the photographs, heirlooms, dusty Avon bottles, and stacks of Reader’s Digest books. A life becomes the debris unearthed by grown children and sorted into cardboard boxes for disposal.

With each box carted to the hall, the weight of memory shifts from the shoulders of the dying. The hands of the living must accept their burden, but the past is heavy. The answers to time’s riddles are hidden in dust.  What objects can be discarded? Which should be left for others? What item should I take to distill and thus preserve decades of memory?

In Love in the Time of Cholera, Gabriel Garcia Marquez wrote, “He was still too young to know that the heart’s memory eliminates the bad and magnifies the good, and that thanks to this artifice we manage to endure the burden of the past.”

"The past is a burden we carry, heavy at first,
the slowly alchemized into something ethereal and strange,
as the heart, like a Marquez novel, distills memory into art.
I stand a few years farther along than Marquez’s romantic anti-hero on this journey through time.  I understand how the heart’s memory operates, but being new to the mechanism, have not yet learned to construct a convincing artifice.

This month my family began dismantling my grandmother’s house. It’s been a project a-long-time-coming and much delayed. The act seems like a physical manifestation of my grandmother’s illness. Like Alzheimer’s has scattered and erased her past, so we scatter and erase as we empty the old house of its contents.

I’m only a grandchild to that house. The ache is a mix of nostalgia and generalized fear of death. But sitting next door, on the same lot, the lot which must be liquidated in compliance with Medicaid procedure, is my father’s house. The house where I grew up. The house where my bedroom floor was carpeted with patchwork carpet scraps. The house with that ugly orange couch where I first discovered dust motes shining in afternoon sunlight. The house that smells like paperbacks and cigarettes will soon disappear in a dirge of “if only I’d known…”

Its loss is hard. Its loss is heavy. Neither my house nor my heart has room for all the memories, fermented dreams, and artifacts my father has gathered and inherited. And to think he looses all that as his own mother fades into the fog of age and illness…it breaks my heart.

But the past is a chain that will not be broken. It is a burden we carry, heavy at first, then slowly alchemized into something ethereal and strange, as the heart, like a Marquez novel, distills memory into art. The fragments of family history tumble through the mind until they are smooth and beautiful, until they are small and stable: a single photograph, a bedtime story, or a relic rescued from a cardboard box.

My relic to preserve the past.


  1. I've been meaning to stop by to let you know you won my giveaway...sorry it took over a week to do so, but I'm glad I did. Reading this thoughtful blog post is really resonating for me as I helped my mother clean out the many, MANY things from my grandparents home over the last three years. It sometimes feels as though my mother was attempting to process, or reconcile, all the bad things that happened in the 'old homestead' as I have come to call it...

    Cleaning out a home filled with relics and treasures accumulated over many decades is not an easy task - I commend you for tackling it =-\

    Please send me an email to let me know where to mail you the creative goodies - you can find my email at my blog =-)