Negotiating the Past

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I suspect the past

does not resemble its photos.

—Richard Hoffman

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So I was all set to call this week’s blog, “Past as Prologue.” My first paragraph was going to tell you about the second day of a seven-day walking pilgrimage along St. Cuthbert’s Way, when, still apprehensive about being able to complete the 62-mile trek from Melrose, Scotland to the Holy Island of Lindisfarne off the east coast of England, I looked back across a newly mown field to the Eildon Hills my wife Mary Lee and I had climbed the day before and thought, Hey, I climbed those. I can do this!

In the next paragraph, I’d planned to quote one of the Brothers at the Society of Saint John the Evangelist, who said in a homily that hope is not about the future so much as about the past: that it is from our past experiences we gain the strength and the knowledge to give us hope for the future.

From there I figured I’d continue with all the ways my past has helped me deal with everything from canceled plane flights to the death of my daughter to the challenges of aging.

And then this skeptical voice in my ear said, Wait a minute. Are you sure the past has always been that helpful?

I recalled how when Mary Lee and I began our St. Cuthbert’s Way pilgrimage in Melrose, we’d had a hard time finding where the damn walk begins. You’d think it would have been easy to find. The village is small and the St. Cuthbert’s Way markers are distinctive. But the sign that marks the turnoff from the street is tiny and part of a brick wall, and Mary Lee and I missed it several times. Each time, I grew more and more panicky. What do you expect? another voice—my judgmental one—chided. You’ve always been a loser. You’ve never been able to do anything right. You might as well go home. Memories of years of falling off my bicycle before I was finally able to learn balance, of fouling out of a basketball game in 19 seconds (some kind of record, I’m sure), of being jilted by girlfriends swarmed through my head until I heard Mary Lee call, “Hey, I found it. It’s down this alley.”

Which started me thinking about the times when the past, rather than make me hopeful, has made me feel hopeless. A few weeks ago, the Al Anon group I attend was talking about resentments. As I thought of mine—usually against people with more money than I have, people who haven’t worked as hard as I have, people who just seem to have more luck than I do—I realized that every one of these resentments was passed down to me by my parents. The shame of growing up in an alcoholic family has been the driving force in my life, dictating the vocation I followed [See my previous blog], my nightmares (always some situation where I’ve lost control and feel humiliated), my difficulties identifying and talking about my emotions.

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As I understand it, memories are snapshots our brain takes of each moment, which it then files away until we retrieve them. What seems to be in doubt is why we retrieve certain memories and not others, and what we do with these memories once we do retrieve them.

I know that sometimes, we—I, at least—change them.

Racked with guilt after the death of my daughter, for example, I found it impossible to recall any of the good times I’d had with Laurie, only those times when I’d spoken harshly to her or spanked her, times when she’d been angry with me, times in which I failed her in some way.

And then there was the afternoon, about a year after Laurie’s death, when my grandmother, Nanny Cleaves, lay dying in a nursing home. I stood by her bedside looking through a window on the town in which I’d grown up and suddenly recollected a scene thirty-five years earlier. The memory was vivid: I sat at a folding counter-top my father had built in front of a tall window with light green curtains that looked down the street to the river. I was eleven years old, pudgy with smooth round cheeks and blond highlights in my crew cut, wearing a jersey with horizontal stripes, corduroy pants that whistled when I walked, and black P.F. Fliers. I had sheep-like brown eyes that I kept focused out the window as I ate my bologna sandwich, trying not to think about my mother, who was in the hospital because the baby she’d been carrying inside her had come out too early and died.

Nanny, who had come to stay with us kids while Mom was in the hospital, stood behind me. Her shoulders were broad and her bosom was massive. Her arms looked like thighs, too big for the short-sleeved flowered dress she wore. Her hair was short and parted like a man’s under a hairnet. Her mouth was a straight line. Her eyes were hard and black. She spoke in her flat, Maine voice: “If you’d carried the laundry for your mother the way you were supposed to, she wouldn’t have lost that baby.”

I didn’t look at her. I ate my sandwich and tried to think about playing baseball after lunch, but her words stung and my eyes burned.

At the nursing home window, I turned and stared across the room at my grandmother. I heard her labored breathing. I thought of those afternoons I’d listened to my daughter’s breathing—ash…es, ash…es—and of the rattling in her lungs the night she died. My cheeks burned with guilt and rage as I thought of how my grandmother had accused me of murder.

I never questioned that memory—never doubted what I’d heard my grandmother say—until fifteen years later, when I was recording some of my now-eighty year old mother’s memories, and she talked about her miscarriage of a five-month baby girl in the kitchen of our house and of how she’d almost died of ensuing infection.

“I’d been helping your father carry lumber up to the second floor so that he could add on to one of the bedrooms,” she said. “And I overdid it.”

When I told her of my guilt for not having carried laundry, she said, “That was never one of your jobs. You were usually in school when I was doing laundry.”

And I realized that what Nanny had probably said to me was that when Mom came home from the hospital I would need to help her around the house, especially with lifting things such as laundry baskets. But in my grief that year after Laurie’s death, I remembered not the actual events of thirty-five years earlier, but an eleven-year old boy’s solipsistic sense of responsibility.

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All of which is not to say that the past hasn’t helped me live in the present. I wouldn’t write so much about my past if it didn’t help. But I am aware in ways I wasn’t before I started writing this week’s blog that the past is something that needs negotiating.

A little, I guess, like negotiating the hills and animal pastures of St. Cuthbert’s Way. The walk is definitely worth taking, but there are some shitty places you have to walk through, mud holes in which you can get bogged down.

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I’m sure I’ll still use the past as a way to guild me into the future; I just need to be careful about getting bogged down, either by sentimental nostalgia for a time that never existed except in my imagination (a real problem as I get older) or by the baggage of seventy years worth of wounds, some of which I’ve also fabricated.

The trick, I suppose, is to keep one eye looking back at the Eildon Hills, and the other looking ahead to the Holy Island.

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