October 22, 2010
Beneath the surface of any problem, if you scrabble a bit, you’ll find a secret.
It may take a while—decades perhaps—not for your excavation, mind you, but for your desire to appear; for that childlike curiosity to float up again. Indeed, you may need an actual child to summon it, as I did.
But this is what drives us—the historians, the trash pickers, the gossips, the shrinks. And yes, the readers of books. We’re all rooting around, teasing out other people’s hidden reasons.
Haven’t we all profited from another’s heartache? Anything antique or inherited comes to you out of pain. And it comes to you, doesn’t it? Why, even the comforting of a sniveling acquaintance carries a sweet center: after they sob on your shoulder, they will tell you why.
Please don’t say I’m drawn to others’ secrets because I have several in my own deep past. That’s a bit tidy, don’t you think? In fact, I’ll come clean with a confession right now. Perhaps that will make you feel better about my motives.
Forty years ago, my young daughter died because of something I did. Notice I stop short of saying I killed her, even though I clearly did. No one knows this. Do you think my daughter-in-law would ever let me near my granddaughter if she knew?
I didn’t bury this pivotal event, or suffocate it in a cloud of good works, as so many venerable Main Line ladies would, yet much of it, the details especially, have sloughed away. By necessity, by neglect, by a need for the widow to soldier on. And yes, by the failure of my own memory. Call it what you will: “senior moments,” old age, dementia. It’s inevitable, that’s what it is. You go right ahead and complete all the crosswords your children press on you; but know they can keep you only so sharp.
Sometimes my memory of that awful day wanders away completely, and when it returns, it jolts me, like falling in dreams. I can’t summon my actions in crystal detail anymore; I see the house, that room, through a haze, in pieces. I can see the maple tree outside the window, and beyond it, the old field on one side and the park with the verdigris Revolutionary War statue on the other. But I’ve forgotten, for instance, what time it was; whether the light sparkled when it hit the water, or cast shadows across it, making it look more gray and deeper than it actually was. I draw a blank on whether the baby cried in the distance, or where Peter was hiding—in the cellar; in the field; or in the small, dark shed. Parts of it are gone, perhaps forever. I miss the details, the small intricacies of many things now, even this. All the more reason to continue to write things down in my diary. All the more reason for me to take my pictures, to hang on to scrapbooks and photo albums in steamer trunks. All the more reason to collect evidence.
This morning, for instance, I completely forgot that I’d been to the lawyer. My newest secret, and I only remembered when I opened my freezer and saw what I’d hidden there. Imagine!
It will all come out in time, the tidbits I’ve learned and swung round to my advantage. But I did not set out to do any of it, and neither did Ellie. It’s important you believe me. The natural order of things merely took over. The drive to dig pulled us like the tides.
All we did, after all, was pay attention. You should try it sometime. Watch a woman’s face as she fingers her antique locket. Hear the jangle of charm bracelets covering up an ancestor’s cries. Feel the ring handed down from grandmother to mother to daughter, how the gold is worn down at the back by everything they’d done while wearing it—all the games they’d played, all the people they’d touched, all the things they’d held and broken.
It’s all there, in every jewelry box and trunk, every photo album and yellowed postcard, every attic and basement. Just look, and you’ll see what I mean. You don’t have to travel to a lost city to find the artifacts of a mysterious society. Just go ask your grandmother.
© Kelly Simmons