But this isn't really what I want to talk about. There was one statement, made by the aging matriarch of a French family, as she sits in a dark and quiet room, that I cannot quite forget. Helene has just hosted all her children and their families, and now as she sits alone and contemplates her mortality, she tells her maid Eloise why she is not making the proper arrangements to deal with her material things--which are great in number and value, including many paintings that Paris's Musee d'Orsay has tried to acquire.
She alludes to the possibility that already her children bear too much responsibility for family memories, and that all of these material things would just make matters worse. The things are merely the residue of memory. She says that she desires to burden her children with neither memories or material objects that are simply the residue of those memories. I think it makes sense. I've heard it said that after a loved one dies (or perhaps simply after a divorce), the subsequent fighting over the material objects is not so much about the things themselves, but about what they represent, about the memories.
We fight over memories. We fight for the possibility of being able to touch something that contains memory within it. I suppose we are afraid--afraid that when our hands cannot close around an object, when our fingers cannot trace its lines, angles, or curves, that we will have lost the ability to remember.
I don't mean to be an apologist for materialism. I hate hearing my parents talk about what will happen to things when they die. I don't want material objects. I want my family. I want my mother's laughter to ring in my ears until the day I die. I want to see my father sitting at the head of the table, watching his five crazy children teasing each other relentlessly, erupting in frivolous fits of laughter as they reminisce.
I don't want the table we sat around.
But I also can't deny that there are objects that I can imagine wanting to hold in my hands if I were to lose my parents. My mother collects depression glass--so thoughtfully and meticulously she has collected countless beautiful pieces over the years. We drink from glasses she has collected as we sit around the table, laughing with and loving each other. I imagine that they must carry the residue of my memories of my mother--especially the ones that would rise to the surface if, God forbid, I were to ever lose her.
And this got me to thinking: to what degree are we responsible for memories? Memories are imposed on us by our predecessors, by those with whom we come into contact, by our family--the consequence of our being born into this world. Memories are transferred and transmitted from one generation to the next. But must memory always be anchored to material objects?
When I spent a summer in Ithaca, NY, for Cornell's School of Criticism and Theory a few years ago, I bought an antique dresser with crystal knobs. It's nearly 300 years old, and I cannot deny that there are times when I stare at it and feel a sense of dread. I think about the memories contained in its drawers, and I wonder to whom they belong, from whom I have stolen them.
But then I think about my family sitting around the table, and I realize that it is not the table I need in order to conjure up that memory. It contains nothing but possibility--the possibility of bringing us together so that, together, we can remember. And yet, I think I will never quite know what to do with the residue, how or whether to scrape it away.