Dimensions of Memory
“Oh yeah, one of my first memories,” she says at a dinner with her adult children, “Opa was
what they called ‘manic depressive’ back then, and a ‘morphinist.’ At that time they sold the
morphine in a glass vial and you needed these tiny little saws to open them. As a 4-year-old, I
loved playing with those saws.” She can see herself kneeling at the low teak table, asking her
father whether she can saw one of those cool little vials for him.
Next day, coffee with her sister-in-law. “People used to say I was so much like my
father,” she says. “My father was a painter, and a wise, compassionate man, and his creativity
was like,” she searches for a word, “like fireworks.”
In her heart, she knows there’s other ways of telling the story, of remembering. Her
memory has many dimensions.
“She” is I, but – let’s not go there. Not yet.
Six when the first suicide happens – Walter. His death is mixed up with the memory of a
kitten his wife brought home when she lived with us. Soft, small, vulnerable, fascinating with its
tiny paws and velvet nose. One day it disappears. The memory of knocking on dozens of doors,
never finding the little cat, occupies a small town in her mind, Walter's death only a city block.
One, two, three, four suicides later – well, some people die of old age, some by suicide. Normal.
A Christmas memory. ’62. She and her little sister at their aunt's in the Alps, snow sky-high.
(She needs a name. How about Maria?) Icicles and a warm fireplace in the house that was a
converted 19th-century barn. Waiting for their mother who was going to join them but wanted to
spend one more evening with her husband at what they called the ‘nerve clinic.’ When she
finally tears herself away, the snow storm has already started. She doesn’t join her two daughters
until past midnight.
The story Maria thinks she remembers hearing is that that was when her father stopped
the morphine for good. And started drinking like a fish.
Coming home from school to that huge apartment, unheated in the winter most of the
time, with her father in bed, always in bed, is – later she says, “well, sometimes it wasn’t easy.”
His manic depression.
Maria feels lonely in that big, cold, place. She sits in her father’s chair and talks for hours
to her best friend on the heavy black rotary phone. Often around four her father comes out of the
bedroom, dressed in pyjamas and a bathrobe, and they play a game of cards. He is a funny, wise
man. Her mother comes home hours later, makes dinner, heats the place.
They are still heating with coal. It comes from the cellar, four long stories down, often carried by little hands.
An awkward teenager with big teeth, big ears, and long braids. In a thin fog of dreams
about horses. Gnawing anxiety. Maria is not sure whether she made up a story about an
attempted suicide or whether it really happened.
No, that’s wrong. Today she is quite sure that she made it up. But it felt so real then … ?
The memories of visiting her father at the hospital are nice. He had barely escaped death
from severe liver damage. Too much booze, too much forgetting to let air into the little art
chamber full of paint fumes. But what a beautiful summer, so bright and warm, some of it out in
the country with the reassuring smell and sound of cows, some of it in the hospital, quiet and
bright and healing.
Some of the teenage awkwardness is coming loose. As it begins to detach, a bike ride into
the woods. Sometimes the man (does he need a name?) follows her, sometimes Maria follows
him. He is much, much, much, much older than her, at least eight years. Electricity between them
as they climb a deer lookout together. Later, by the gravel pit, she sits on a log and he behind her.
Her heart pounds as he put his hands between her thighs and fondles the soft flesh of her labia.
Confusion thickens. She forgets everything she read in the sex magazine.
Later she learns that those years were called the “sexual revolution.”
Maria loves her parents. They have a great relationship.
She moves out the first time at seventeen. London. Cold. Unwelcoming. She takes a
plane home, her boyfriend greets her, and she gets pregnant that night.
She moves out for good at eighteen. Her child, the Beautiful Child, a few months old.
That there was this inchoate sense that she doesn’t want to bring up the Beautiful Child in
her parents’ place is not a story she tells much. A private memory.
Maria and the Beautiful Child move continents.
She suffers from migraines, just like her father did. Family lore has it that’s how he got
into morphine. She has an almost insurmountable resistance to even a bit of Tylenol.
In her journal, she describes herself as a toad sitting in a deep well. “Sometimes,” she
writes, “I manage to come up and sit at the rim.” She doesn’t know whether she remembers at
that time the summer of ’75 two years before, marked by barefooted, sunny euphoria.
Her friends smoke a lot of marijuana, grown by the hectares in the lush tropics of
Southamericaland. She smokes very little. Something about it … she just doesn’t enjoy it as
much as they do.
She likes to eat.
She really likes to eat.
1982. Maria and the Beautiful Child live on Turtle Island now. She has married Man X.
She is pregnant. Her memories? Mostly nostalgia for Southamericaland, and spiky splinters of
memories that recall guilt and abandonment. She does not follow the nostalgia. She goes out of
her way to avoid the splinters. She forgets to pray.
Man X produces memories, fast and furious. Some of them she delights in to this day. He
builds a huge wooden sculpture on the front lawn in one afternoon.
But many of those memories hurt.
Man X pushes and pulls. He shares with her a memory of when he hurt the Beautiful
Child. She cannot hear the memory, only Man X pulling her into his presence with the
confession. She is grateful: for that moment, she does not have to remember abandonment. (And
what’s there to remember? She wasn’t an orphan or anything like that.) She forgives him,
forgetting that it is not for her to forgive.
For thirty-six hours Maria remember she is her own woman.
Then she remembers a promise: If we have a child together, Man X had bargained, I will
keep it. She remembers the agreement, cobbled together by twisted memories. They now have a
child together, the Wild Child. She remembers: better not be my own woman.
For nine months out of the seven years they have now been together, Maria and Man X
do not fight. She forgets the hurt. She forgets she had forgotten to be her own woman.
She goes on a journey and dreams. She goes on another journey and dreams more. She
remembers one pushing-pulling too many. She remembers Man X’s story of hurting the Beautiful
Child. A part of her wakes up and sees what it means. She remembers to ask the Beautiful Child
about it. The Beautiful Child pours out one memory after the other. She remembers she should
have known. But she had twisted and shoved and draped the memory. Now she remembers. She
asks for forgiveness. She remembers not to let Man X back into the house.
Maria remembers it is her task to protect her children. She has only vague memories of
how that is done. She tries. She learns how to make new child protection memories.
She writes down what she remembers of her relationships with men. She looks at those
memories. She connects the memories to the present and to the future.
She eats a lot.
Maria realizes there is something she needs to remember. Something from when she was
a child. Something not good. She does not know what it is but she is learning to trust her dreams
and the strange flashes of lightning electrifying her body when she perceives a “perhaps …”
She can’t get herself to say the words “I had a happy childhood.”
She meets the Good Man. They become parents of the Delicate Child. She remembers her
shortcomings as a mother of the Beautiful Child and the Wild Child. She presses on, making new
memories, good and bad. The bad ones aren’t as bad as the ones before.
Maria goes for a walk and feels her muscles, throat, back, legs. She remembers how all
her life she has had this need to walk, to let an energy flow through that otherwise gets stuck too
easily and makes her brain, soul and body race. The memory that this could have a name is in the
future yet. Much later, she will call it “the manic dog.”
She has a headache. She remembers to take a painkiller. Just a Tylenol.
She looks at the food she eats and remembers her father. She allows a connection. His
wine, her potatoes.
One winter, the only thing that gives her joy is shovelling snow. She remembers the
manic dog, and her father’s “manic depression.” Her memory makes another connection.
I am Maria.
I allow the memory of my father hiding in his bed. I allow the memory of being a toad in
a deep well, allow my euphoria and my father’s firework creativity.
I allow all the memories and learn to weave connections between them and the present,
allow them to be alive and sprout meaning. I pray again.
Isabella Mori has been published here, there, but definitely not everywhere. Her first full-length nonfiction book, Believe Me: Stories, interviews, and research about mental health and addiction, is slated for publication by Three Ocean Press in the spring of 2024. A lover of the hybrid form, she is also currently working on a series of surreal haibun (a form that combines short prose with haiku) inspired by a tarot deck that depicts 1920s Berlin.