You Must Remember This; or, On the Impossible Past

My mother has lost most of her memory, so any bits and pieces of her history or family history are beyond reach now. But memories are tricky things anyway, murky, half-imagined, subject to distortion over time. I think of those fading Polaroid pictures, blotchy and pale with age. A friend was telling me about her own mother’s memory blotches. When asked about a photo in her possession, some years ago this woman had told a startling family story. Now, when the photo turned up again, she denies knowing who it is, and when her children told her the story she told, she says she had no idea what they are talking about. So was it true, then? Or had she misremembered then, or has she forgotten now? They will never know.

So much of the past is only what we think we know based on what we remember, or think we remember. The past is a fun-house maze of stretchy mirrors and blind corners.

In Q.M. Zhang’s book Accomplice to Memory the author is frantically trying to piece together her father’s past as his memory fades into dementia. The stories he once told, stories she had grown up with about who he was and how he came from China to the US, he had begun to retell differently. Had he lied earlier, was this closer to the truth? Soon he would not remember at all.

In the face of uncertainty, the author blends in this book recounts of her conversations with her father past and present; fictions of her imagination of what her father must have gone through, fleeing China after the Nanking massacre to start a new life in the US; recollections of her own childhood with this man eager to fit into his adopted home, and her own travels back to China to try to understand. She also adds to the book the closest she can get to fact: photographs — of China at the time of her father’s life and departure, of family members.

But what do photographs really tell us but of one perspective on one briefest moment: this person was on this streetcorner, the wind blowing a pale skirt, a street sign half-readable. You can almost smell whatever the street vendor is selling in the background.

But you can’t. The past is impossible.

I keep thinking about these shadow boxes made by a woman who splits her time between Alaska and Maine. I can’t tell you exactly why this book and these objects are connecting in my mind, except maybe at how we hold onto objects to try to hold on to the past. Margo Klass makes beautiful boxes and altarpieces that contain a few carefully chosen and set objects, sometimes creating windows in the top so light can strike the objects in certain ways.

These works seem to have something to say to me about memory, the way a place lingers through objects and light, are lit by the light of your moment with them. But you cannot return to that place in that moment. It’s all gone, as is the person you were then, and as will be someday your recollection of what or who brought you to that place and why.

It seems like our grasping for the past should teach us something about the present. But it never does.

Zhang, Q.M., Accomplice to Memory,

Margo Klass,

One thought on “You Must Remember This; or, On the Impossible Past

  1. Pingback: Bounds against chaos « ann e michael

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