At about age eight, I stood in front of the bow-shaped window of our Victorian house on our tree-lined street in Danbury, Connecticut, waiting for the mailman. As he mounted the five steps to the porch, I made a sudden promise to myself: never to forget that moment. Even then, I knew it was a kind of crazy promise, but I reasoned that as an adult I would never be able to remember moments like this unless I made the conscious decision to perform such a modest act of memory.
I loved that house—too large and drafty to be heated properly, but filled with clues of what once must have been a grand existence for others who lived there. Though I treasured remnants of days past — the tiny flat, mother-of-pearl buttons in the hall that once called servants or the stand of four permanent washtubs that lined one room in the basement — my mother seemed anxious to erase such traces of a time gone by. As a starter, she turned one of the two butler’s pantries into a tiny ’50s-style kitchen so that the old, large kitchen could be equipped with built-in seating and a TV. Two years later, she had the huge wrap-around front porch chopped off, along with the top balcony. She wanted the place to look more colonial. The claw-foot bathtubs were hauled to the third floor that we called an attic and the double-decker ornate mahogany fireplaces were beheaded and “antiqued.” (Antiquing involved smearing gold paint over white, or was it smearing white over gold?) Despite all of my mother’s efforts, the house remained essentially Victorian.
Anyway, standing at the window I came up with a plan to emboss this moment in my memory. I would remind myself regularly – daily at first — of that afternoon. My hope was that when I grew older, I would be able to retrieve the feeling of what it felt like to be eight—nothing sentimental or precious, but rather the ordinariness of being a kid on a Saturday afternoon, waiting for the mailman in late winter. My hope, even then, was to put that feeling in conversation with my adult self, to teach my adult self something important.
BLACK SHEEP EFFORTS
Unlike me, the others in my clan were not concerned with “making memories” – no postcard-worthy Christmas mornings, no family trips to Disneyland, very few photos. While other parents purchased Polaroid cameras or captured images of children smiling and waving to the dad behind the video lens, my gang scoffed. “Why the hell would I want all those pictures? I see you everyday!” my father explained.
I wasn’t buying it. If my parents weren’t taking up their roles as keepers of the past, I needed to find my own ways of doing so. I had a small Brownie camera, and the fading images that remain are all of my house. Then there was my alternative approach to documentation for the future. Like the memory hoarders who pay photographers to shoot the filthy, badly behaved child posed clean and angelic, I similarly sought to create memories of merit. As a young teen I joined clubs so that someday my family and I could look back with pride at my junior high school achievements, documented in photos. At one point I talked Mark Wasserman, a nerdy guy two years my senior, into giving me his National Honor Society pin so I could wear it for the high school yearbook shoot, hoping my future children might look admiringly at that little bit of jewelry announcing my dedication to learning. The real memories and the constructed and wanna-be ones became jumbled, often confused and sometimes dishonest.
I also turned into a hoarder of other people’s pasts. At the end of World War II, my father had become part of a reconnaissance unit documenting the destruction of various cities and sites in Europe. The remnant of that activity, a jumbo box of curling black-and-white photos of tiny buildings taken from the air, sat like Jabba the Hutt in our ample basement. When a momentous flood left the images not only curled, but wet, then damp, then moldy, my parents tossed them. I felt like I was the only one who knew to care, and I was helpless to save them.
Over a lifetime, I became interested in photojournalism and collections of sound and stories. But as I studied each snippet of history, a fundamental question dogged me: why was this particular image or story or sound better—more worth saving—than the one preceding or following it? The conscious, felicitous choice of saved socio-cultural bits is what we call art, I reasoned. Being able to choose well again and again is what we call an artistic practice. I have made a living thinking, writing and teaching about how such choices are examined in schools.
But in fact, what really interested me was not the art, but the people themselves, the ones who pushed those little disconnected buttons to call the servants in my Deer Hill house and the people who responded to those buttons. Of course, I would like to see a picture of them, but more than that, I wanted to know how they thought and felt, how they interacted, what rights each thought they had, who was angry at whom, who desired whom, and how they imagined the future. Even that wouldn’t be enough. I wanted to know the history of the house: did the first owner grow old and comfortably decide that it was time to sell, or did finances push him to give up on a place he or his wife or his son-in-law worked hard to design?
LESSONS OF HOME
I remember when my family bought the place—the bank loaned us the $12,000 to buy it with no money down. The former owners, the Dorfmans, hadn’t figured out where to go next so for four months they simply moved lock, stock and barrel into our living room. And as if in a final ‘gotcha’ they told us about the ghosts of Russian soldiers who lived on the third floor and dragged chains in the night as they tried to return to their own homeland. Little Raymond Dorfman, two years my senior, showed me how to slide down the curved banister and in an authoritative tone announced how lucky we were to have a “thing” at the end to stop us from flying off and to the floor. Years later I remember how happy I was to learn the name of that thing: a newel post. As a professor, I taught the importance of connecting new words to experiences.
“Every memoir reminds us of the faraway and long ago, of loss and change, of persons and places beyond recall,” writes Abigail McCarthy, (someone I would like to cite as more than the wife of Eugene McCarthy). It is the feeling McCarthy describes that sends my age-mates to their computers and notepads to capture those moments. But that wasn’t and isn’t what I am after as a writer. I wanted – indeed, I still want — people to realize that we are always in the process of creating memoir. Memories are being made as we live and even as we go about the business of making memories. It is the act of taking mental, if not physical, note of our “now” that helps us to remember. But then that old question reappears: why is one moment better to document than the one preceding or following it? And is it worth taking up mental space to remember the little girl waiting for the mailman?
Here is my lesson: that little girl is not lost largely because she worked to remember her present. True, she did not have a lot of past to retrieve and she knew nothing about how to do historical research, but she did have a sense that she was contributing to history—her own if not one that might interest others. My efforts at memoir, are, I believe, best focused on today, what I do and think about as the world flakes apart around us, what I do with my own fears and how I respond to the fears of others, how I take advantage (or don’t) of having enough time and reason to read and write, to anticipate and to look back.
In truth, I have both lost and not lost that little girl standing by the window. She is lost because my image of her is now a memory of a memory, and she is lost because no one but me cares about what happened that day, probably a March day, when the mail arrived and there was nothing for the little girl and why, for no reason at all, she remained hopeful.
Wendy Saul lives in Stone Ridge, a town that depends on the US Postal Service.
1) 94 Deer Hill Avenue in Danbury, Conn. (Zillow.com)
2) Photo of the home from the 1950s
3) Wendy at age 8.