On a shelf in my living room is a rotogravure portrait featuring a spirited teenager in a 19th Century frock, brashly showing her skirt. This is my grandmother Rose who was still a young woman when I was born, and had a fatal stroke when I was in my twenties. Other than this photograph I have no idea what the girl in the picture was like. In my kitchen there is an incomplete set of her wedding crystal and a blue teapot bearing her initials in silver and the year of her marriage, which was 1898. These are all the pieces of her life that are left except for a few fading images in the memories of a handful of people who will soon be gone.
A quarter of a century after my grandmother’s death, my mother who had inherited her high blood pressure suffered a series of smaller strokes. The strokes did not kill her at first but damaged an important function in her brain. Afterwards, my mother was still in good physical shape, but she could barely remember who she was.
Somewhere in the black hole that her memory had become, she had even misplaced my father and could no longer retrieve him. Although they had been married for more than fifty years, the life she had lived with him had slipped into the ether and she could no longer recognize his name. The images of my grandmother’s life were fading in other heads; my mother’s had disappeared in her own. All she could remember was the house on Maple Street in New Haven where she grew up, and the one in Sunnyside where I did.
The Book of Psalms says that all flesh is grass and that each of us is like a flower in the field that flourishes and dies: “The wind passes over it, and it is gone, and its place knows it no more.” Our feeling that we have a place in the world is a deception we practice on ourselves, because we have none. It is this pretense that makes an otherwise unendurable existence bearable and at times even happy. There is really no place in the world that “knows” us in the Psalmist’s sense. There is only an illusion sustained by others who love us, and who, like us, will soon be gone.
But the feeling is so strong the reality does not matter. The illusion of home will overcome even the most grotesque scenes of family dysfunction. We can be battered by a spouse and never want to leave. We can spend our childhood in a household of abuse and fear, but as long as we draw breath our hearts will still want to go home. On this earth our comfort is deception and we can never tell whether we are dreaming, or not.
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