Archive for family stories

Lurching, Fragmented Time

Posted in Small Epiphanies with tags , , , , , , , , on December 8, 2012 by chateaucone

Small Epiphanies: December 7

We are home, in Patchogue, safe and sound, and Honey and Scout celebrated by sniffing every single blade of grass, individually, and thus gathering the latest news of the canine population of Fair Harbor.

It’s good to be home, and I feel as though some of the anxiety I’ve been attributing to the dissertation defense has lifted, and was, maybe, due more to moving home (and carting all my stuff back to Patchogue) than I realized.

But now. Now I can concentrate on the defense.

All day, in the back of my mind, I’ve been trying to think of questions that the committee might ask me, and I can’t think of any. In fact, I can’t even think of what my dissertation is really about right now. This, I guess, is its own form of  jitters. So, I’m going to reread the damn thing for the millionth time and appease my anxiety by memorizing names of theorists which will virtually guarantee that no one asks me about a theorist–because that is how my attempts at studying usually go. I will plan speeches in my head, and recite them in my sleep, and no one will ask me questions to which those speeches will be appropriate responses. And the defense will be something completely other than my imaginings. But I will follow my process nonetheless.

One thing I do want to be prepared to talk about is where I want to go next with this research, what my plans are, where I see the ideas going, that sort of thing. I was asked this question during the defense of my MA thesis, and I said, rather inappropriately, that the only thing I planned to do with my thesis and all of the background research was to have a big bonfire. I suspect that this answer, genuine though it was at the time, will not fly in this go around.

The truth is I have only vague notions of where I want to go with this. I want this published. This dissertation. Exactly as it is, if possible, which of course it won’t be. But after that? After that I think I want to write about my dad. This project centers so much on my dad and his stories and family and memory; it seems logical, or necessary even, to write about my father’s memory as he loses it, to write about the peculiarities of what he loses and when, and what he remembers, and how his mind seems to be working, and to examine my own visceral, inchoate reactions to all of this, which, to be honest, are not always the most compassionate or helpful.

For example:

When my father thinks my mother is his sister, I want to let that situation play itself out. I want, somehow, a glimpse of my father’s relationship with his sister, as though I could see that through his confusion about my mother. When my father thinks we are in the house on E. 2nd, I want him to describe it to me, every detail–the sounds of the trolleys on MacDonald Avenue, the temperature of the room, my grandfather’s mood, the fabric on the sofa, the scent of the breeze moving the curtains on the front windows, his sisters’ voices in the background.

I am sick and twisted. And while my father’s brain may be lurching back and forth, unwillingly, through time, dementia is not a time machine.

But. But, but, but.

Time is a series of discourses that structure both self perception and perceptions of others. We never really go back or forward but use memory and prediction to write narratives that are self fulfilling, self justifying, self accusing, or self abusing. The past is never past and the future is always beyond our grasp.

What happens when we look at my father’s memory through this lens? When we look at dementia? Or any normal, healthy memory? What happens when we are using memory to write ourselves, and memory is failing, physically, beyond all of the ways in which I’ve already talked about memory failing in theory?

The Wayback, the Tree Monster, and American Cyanamid

Posted in Small Epiphanies with tags , , , on December 4, 2012 by chateaucone

Small Epiphanies: December 3

We had a wayback. We had a tree monster.  My cousins had American Cyanamid.

As a child, I never quite caught the name of the place, and in my imagination it became some sort of enchanted forest.

I don’t know what they did there when they were nine and ten and I was still only four or five, but it was something akin to the battles fought by the Pevensie kids against the White Witch in Narnia.

They got there through my cousin Richie’s backyard. Beyond the pens where my uncle raised collies, beyond the crab apple trees, on the other side of the pool, up and over a hill, out of sight.

Not that my cousins needed an enchanted forest to stage an adventure. They did just fine in Brooklyn, and in Wayne, and in Smithtown.

My cousins, in particular Joni, Jaci, Dave, Steve and Richie, were mythical creatures who existed on the slightly scary, definitely fascinating, lawless edges of my life as a little girl. Joni and Richie captured a goose and walked it home along Hamburg Turnpike. Richie, Dave and Steve put firecrackers in crab apples, lit the fuses and tossed them out over the road in front of the house. They teased “the publics,” the kids who went to public school instead of to Catholic school with them. They fell in creeks in the middle of winter and came home wet, half-frozen, gleeful and in big trouble.

When we got a little bit older, Dave and Richie would persuade Mike and Billy, who were much younger, to ring and run the long-suffering neighbors of my Pacanack Lake cousins during their Thanksgiving dinners, to steal light bulbs out of their lamp posts, to peek in their bay windows making scary faces, by telling the boys they’d be “real men” if they didn’t get caught. “You stay here and watch Adrienne and Kathy,” they’d say to me.

I wanted to be them, but they were always just beyond my reach, as audacious and elusive as the eighth graders seemed to my second-grade self on the school bus to St. Patrick’s–as those eighth graders seem to me, in some ways, still. It was enough, mostly, to be in their presence.

Our wayback is the open, weedy part of my parents’ backyard that comes after the patio, the lawn, and a tiny bit of forest–just enough trees that you can’t see the wayback from the house, so it always felt secret and secluded.

The tree monster was in Freddy Kranz’s backyard next door–an old tree trunk that fell on to another tree and was suspended that way for years. It was a neighborhood meeting place: something to climb on and build forts under. It was base for countless games of Manhunt on muggy summer nights swarming with buzzing mosquitos, and probably where my brother and his friends practiced smoking cigarettes stolen from their parents’ packs.

American Cyanamid, Joni told me during Cousins Weekend last month, was the name of the pharmaceutical company that owned the land behind my cousins’ house. I guess the space was a planned industrial park that never quite got finished. Turns out, American Cyanamid’s Wayne, NJ plant produced tetracycline and an oral polio vaccine in the 1950s, and its president’s name was William Bell. Maybe it was an parallel universe.

For me, American Cyanamid will always be something not-quite-real, just out of reach, more intriguing than anything going on in my real life, a world my cousins created that I could only ever aspire to.