Preserving Memory, Deflecting Nothing

Preserving Memory, Deflecting Nothing


My grandfather was born in 1923, my mother in 1963, and I in 2003. With the three of us sitting in my grandparents’ living room together, you could visualize time moving, forty years in between each of us, the pastel rug that has been there since the sixties below our feet. The velvet couch was where it has always been. He used to sit in his chair next to his antique clocks and his glass table that showcased his whale collection—a series of wooden, glass, and metal figurines that I never bothered to question. As he got older, he moved to the purple velvet couch. The ghostlike man, Edward Whelan, would lay on the sofa smelling of his daily peanut butter crackers. To me, the grandfather before the frail, generous, quiet man, was a nothing. To my mother, her father was the alcoholic who worked too much, and forgot she existed, until she was forty and raising a daughter alone, in which moment, she became his favorite child. He would call us his “sunshine of the movies.”  He admired my mother so deeply, my mother never asked for help; he gave it, somehow knowing she needed him. His eyes looked like those of old dogs, so old that the blue faded to gray, he would stare at her in awe when she walked in the living room, slowly getting up from the sofa. He lived till ninety two; my grandmother has now outlived him, nearing ninety-four. He was a World War II veteran. They both lived through the Great Depression. Sometimes he seemed less like a grandfather and more like an elder, all knowing, endless stories and knowledge—the absence of nothing.

In Voids: A Retrospective, a 2009 exhibition at the Pompidou Centre in Paris,  artists’ defined through their work different interpretations of empty space. These ranged from blank, empty rooms, painted white, to physical representations of nothing, like radio waves and light that filled empty spaces.1 When thinking about empty space and the emptiest places I have ever been, my mind wanders, to school after hours spent rehearsing for plays, or being on a ferry boat in the fog, being home alone for the first time. What stuck with me was the memory of being in my grandparents’ house just days before the keys were given to the new owner. My mother was adamant about me not going into that house or helping with the move, determined to keep me from the pain of what she thought to be a visualization of death and unbearable change. My aunt, as she seemingly always has, felt the need to go against my mother. She had an errand to run at the house, she quickly asked if I was okay with going over, I nodded or shrugged, or a combination of both. I secretly really wanted to see it. I wandered off on my own while she checked a light bulb or a basement mechanism. Everything was gone. The pink rug, the hundreds of books my grandma had collected, my grandpa’s chair, his couch, his whale collection, his stones, his dozens of clocks—clocks that he had wired to go off one at a time around the house. All gone. I tried to force a tear or maybe it flowed naturally, I didn’t feel anything though. I was devastated but not sad. I felt as empty as the house. 

I can’t remember if I told my mom. Maybe my aunt did. But this was my moment alone with my childhood and my grief that had roughly encompassed it all. I was twelve, standing in a room I had always had come to, for periods of time, for card games, and family parties, baby showers and wakes. I stood visualizing the end result as empty space, a blank home, dissolving into someone else’s, still smelling of Edward Whelan. I wasn’t only feeling the absence of him but the absence of home and safety and the comprehension of ending. Two nothings were intersecting in the fading room: death and emptiness.

A family of four teenage daughters, a son, and two parents stand in front of a white garage, two red cars visible behind them, smiling and making silly faces
My grandparents, their four children, and cat outside their home’s garage in the late 1970s. My mother is the farthest to the left.

Before my grandfather died, I remember going over to the house on Cleveland Street, a colonial New England house, not massive, but enough for four girls to split two rooms, and one boy to get his own, and later, enough room for the large typewriter and two separate rooms for my grandparents. I remember once I was given the task of waking Grandpa up for our visit with him. I crept up the stairs, terrified I would find him there dead. I did not. But, every time I saw him asleep, he looked dead. He took naps with his arms crossed over his chest. To everyone else he was making a joke, but seemingly to him the absences of joking. Every afternoon he lay, welcoming the thought of death, like an acquaintance he was starting to become impatient with. I crept into his room, and “AGH!” he shouted, startling me as he began to laugh. He was up, arms uncrossed. I walked slowly in front of him down the stairs, trying to see through the back of my head, patiently waiting for a false step and a shattering of frail old bones, to come down the ancient staircase. 

When he died, it was like half the family hadn’t gotten to know the Grandpa my mom and I did, the one who gave us as much as he could because he either saw or thought that we had  nothing. My family saw a man who sat alone in another room at Christmas dinner, eyes closed and hands folded on his lap, alone. My mother saw someone she could sit next to in silence. Sometimes, I wonder if my family, or anyone, realized how much my mom actually made a year. This question was amplified every time I needed something big, like braces, care for my fractured wrist, or a new car, and the multitude of car repairs when ours broke down in the below-zero Maine winter of 2017. What no one seemed to realize is the only reason she didn’t work was she didn’t want me to come home to nothing—what she came home to every day on Cleveland Street. Except Grandpa. We lived off Social Security for years. I found gratitude for this years later—surrounded by full tuition-paying students when my Estimated Financial Contribution screamed “zero!!” Only then regretting the “drop me off away from my school” move I pulled for years, or the crying over a pair of sneakers everyone had but me, or the field hockey team merchandise Mom didn’t want to buy. Maybe that’s why she didn’t want me to see the house. It was hard for her to view the place empty, because it reminded her of how alone she used to feel there and how when her father changed—he was gone. She never wanted me to have nothing. And neither did he. To her the stuff and the things never mattered, it was time with me, being there for my cries when I lost friends, or failed a quiz. This was the place she felt forgotten in, and she was trying not to forget it at the same time. 

At Thanksgiving this year, my mother told me that Grandpa used to say we start dying the minute we are born. Why didn’t it scare him? Before he died, my mother used to say, “We need to write his stories down.” When he was almost gone he would just talk and talk like he knew he needed to tell these stories or they would be gone forever. He loved to tell us about the Merchant Marines, the places he traveled, and strange food he ate. He also told stories of the golf course and Mr. Grondin, his best friend of nearly eighty years. I wish I could say more, but I was twelve, and it is a mere nothing now. My eyes were not even focused—his face was blurry, I would stare at the wall and nod, thinking he was an eternal being who would never die, that the stories could be recorded later.

“I won’t call you,” said my grandmother on the telephone about a week before I left for college. With no hurtful tone whatsoever, she said she thought I would be too busy with school and she didn’t want to bother me. I begged her to believe she was everything but a burden. As my voice trembles on the phone, I ask her to call me, I’m not good at it. I think back to when I would sit in the dining room that soon became my grandfather’s bedroom, as he couldn’t walk up the stairs anymore, and how it was once my grandmother’s too, when her hip was replaced. I think back to sitting there, wishing I wrote what he said down, promising myself I wouldn’t forget it. And here I am. Begging for stories and phone calls. Begging to remember and disappear into the memories of his that now exist as a nothing. I think about my mother sitting by my grandfather in the dining room he slept in, with a chandelier over his home hospital bed, while I would sit in the kitchen with my grandmother. Here was where she taught me to play gin rummy, then cribbage, then solitaire. When I played with her last summer, after being vaccinated and having not seen her for over a year, she asked me who taught me how to play. I was terrified—I told her, “You did.” She deflected this quickly. What to me was everything was nothing to her—forgotten.

My grandmother told me she used to go to a mob bar on Staten Island. Her father came to visit her at college, and she took him to “some bar” that her friends always took her to. When they left, he turned to her and asked if she realized that that was an Italian mob bar. I sat with her and my mother in her apartment, which I suppose now is not new, but always feels new to me, because it isn’t my grandparents’ house. We laughed hysterically.  She started reading Jane Austen so that we could talk about the books, by the time I talked to her she had already read them all and moved on. She tells me of how she learned to read—fast. She tells me about college, how lucky I am I get to pick my classes. When she was in school, you didn’t and: “If you had English—oh it was just lovely. And if you had German—you’d just want to shoot yourself!” Gesturing towards her head. As she ages on, she becomes more blunt, her jokes are more raw if not brutish and her capacity to be patient with nonsense is next to none. She tells stories unapologetically, when you’ve lived that long, what is there left to hide? Thinking about memory, nothing, and empty space makes me think now is the time to hear her stories, stories I was too young to get from my grandfather or my father before they died. Is there strength in these random stories we don’t tell — but stick with us. And what can we learn about ourselves, nothing, and the world through asking, telling, and preserving memory? Because, if it is not told, is it nothing? Can our nothings exist? 

I have been looking into projects surrounding untold storytelling. I came across The Unsent Project This is an online forum where individuals can submit any phrase, message, or story they want, “to” someone. The identity of the sender remains a secret, while the message of the recipient can be seen. One can go on the website and search their name, and find all the unsent text messages sent to that specific name. I found myself scrolling mindlessly through the “Ella” section of the website, wondering if any could possibly be to me. I then wrote three different notes to people I haven’t spoken to in quite a while, and I found it insanely hard to press send. I guess that is the point of untold stories, sometimes they are too painful to admit or share, and although concealing them holds their own weight, sharing truths is extraordinarily difficult. Is concealing them to protect our countless anxieties just an act of humanity, of self preservation? Or is revealing our truths and our untold memories an act of healing?

What happens when we die? Am I dying? Will he come back? Is he okay? Why am I here? Why isn’t he? These questions have floated in and out of my mind since my dad died when I was six. The questions resurrected when family friends died, then my grandfather when I was in seventh grade. I was confused, I sat in my room alone, with my dolls, pondering these questions. My mother would walk in and I’d ask over and over. One day, she came home with a book she found at Goodwill, Questions on the Universe, Why Am I Here, something like that. She wanted to tell me. I got bored. We all want to know the “nothing” existing in our lives and minds—until we sit down and listen, or in fact, it’s too late. I want to participate in the act of listening to stories of “nothing.” I’ve decided I will pick up the phone and ask people for their stories. My grandma, my mom, friends. What are the stories of insignificance that for no reason at all follow us throughout our lives? I want or perhaps need to participate in the act of constructing memory—finding stories that are otherwise slipping into the unknown—the nothing. 

  1. Mathieu Copeland, Clive Phillpot, John Armleder, and Mai-Thu Perret (editors), Voids: A Retrospective (JRP/Ringier, 2009).
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