Memories of Things Imagined

This last week, my mother’s side of the family gathered for its annual holiday party. Her brothers – my uncles – bestrode my narrow childhood world like colossi. They were demigods with huge laughs and gargantuan appetites, bone-crushing handshakes and stories of adventures that stood my hair on end. Hercules and Hermes combined, they were the offspring of mischief and might. I only saw them once in a great while, and always orbited them in awe and delight. How different they were from my father’s only sibling, a sister who lived in Europe. She would arrive for visits exuding fascinating perfumes. She had an exotic accent, at once foreign and familiar. Her children, my cousins, had unusual clothing and curious footwear. My father’s sister always seemed to me the height of sophistication. My mother’s brothers were paragons of vigor, large and lively dogs, cunning, laughing, and a little dangerous.

My mother had a picture of them when they were young, standing on a dock by a lake. They are looking into the camera and laughing. I looked at the picture so many times that it became familiar – the feel of the dock, the sound of their laughter. I could imagine it as a memory of my own, as if I was there when the picture was taken. Of course it could not be my memory because I was not yet born at the time it was taken. But memories accrete to such objects, just as edged and faceted crystals grow on a string floating in sugar water.

There is a part of me that still thinks of my mother’s brothers as a towering grove, and believes that I might yet scurry around the oak trunks that were their legs, eluding the pursuit of my siblings. But at the party I can see that time has begun to put its mark on them. Their faces are more lined, bodies more rigid, and handclasps less fierce. I am their size now. It seems as if some of their vigor has been drained out of them and into me, inflating me, deflating them. I am astounded to find myself a grown up. More shocking yet: middle aged.

The next generation tumbles about the gathering, ranks of cousins, cousins once removed, and second cousins wrestling and twirling, and generally engaged in the very serious business of play. The second-oldest of the Uncles present stands up to make a toast. He’s the most boisterous of them, all tumultuous embrace and booming voice. But he has a way of focussing attention that is remarkable. He goes from loud and jocular to grave and attentive instantaneously. When you are speaking to him and he does this, you feel as if he has stopped the whole raging carnival of the world to listen to the specific thing you have to say at that instant.

He stands at the holiday party, drink in hand , subito piano, and miraculously all the kids arrest their games in mid-careen and lie on their bellies, heads balanced on their palms and listen to him. The moms scramble behind him, cameras in hand, to capture the improbable moment. The kids listen to the toast, and for them it’s a story, the story of a little house in which all these grandpas and grandmas grew up. I imagine that all of those kids can picture this house that they’ve never seen, and that they’ll remember what they’ve pictured. The image of that little house may reappear to them in dreams, or bubble up years from now, a snapshot memory. And they’ll remember that this was an important place, but they will not be able to identify it, because it is a place that they have never seen except in their imaginations. It is the artifact of an instant, the moment that their great-uncle spun out the thread of a story and they gathered in the other end. In that instant an image formed and hung between them like a pendant.

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About Tom Weiser
This blog is devoted to the development of the Bad Lama's Guide to Meditation.

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