Monday, January 28, 2008

`Impassioned Commemoration'

My brother is the keeper of family history. He has lived in Cleveland all of his life and stayed in at least occasional touch with people I haven’t seen in 40 years, the dead and the living. He also inherited boxes of photos, birthday cards, newspaper clippings and other documents essential to understanding a family for whom mystery, rumor and willful ignorance were a way of life. My cousin Denise has contacted my Aunt Nancy regarding our maternal grandmother, Jewel McBride Hayes Kelly, who died in 1972 at the age of 84 and was that rarity among my relatives – a tolerably decent person.

This Irish convolution is starting to sound like the plot of a William Kennedy novel, but a Hayes/Kurp powwow is planned to pool information. I won’t be able to attend but I’m sympathetic to the cause because family seems more important today than it did in the past, and the reason is unapologetically selfish. The image I carry of my Aunt Nancy, who has survived her husband and his five siblings (including my mother), is four or five decades out of date. She’s eternally young in memory, much younger than I am today, and this misalignment of images induces a sense of temporal vertigo, knowing that an old woman has taken the place of my pretty, youthful aunt.

The writer who best charts this region – that is, the eternally elusive past – was Nabokov, especially in Speak, Memory. Toward the end of Chapter 8 he refers to “the supreme achievement of memory, which is the masterly use it makes of innate harmonies when gathering to its fold the suspended and wandering tonalities of the past.” The entire passage, in which he recreates an Edenic childhood picnic, is masterful, as when he notes that such memories are “exaggerated, no doubt, by the same faculty of impassioned commemoration, of ceaseless return.”

Samuel Menashe, in “The Living End,” seems to understand, but his understanding is tinged, as it often is, with regret:

“Before long the end
Of the beginning
Begins to bend
To the beginning
Of the end you live
With some misgivings
About what you did.”

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