The Memory Keeper

Now and again my two sisters and I engage in a raucously filled night of making up fake memories from our shared childhood. I might say, “hey, you guys remember the time I broke both my knee caps rollerblading?” Or Raven or Jenny might say, “oh yeah, like the time you and mom were boxing in the living room and that’s how you lost your front teeth?” The three of us will cackle until Mom yells from another room, “Why do you lie?! That never happened!” flustered at our inane and false stories of our lives together, she returns us to reality.

I have been mulling over this idea of “story keeper” or “memory keeper” and the role of motherhood for the past few months. It stemmed from a conversation with my partner’s mother. His mother, Judy, and her seven brothers and sisters are in the midst of an unfortunate losing battle. An oft-told tale of elderly parents and rapidly fading memories. What started as frustration, “Mom, we just told you when Leah was coming home next!” grew into a desperate realization of defeat: her memory, her life, their life as she remembered for them, was slowly being worn away by time.

I was forwarded an article written by David Pitonyak, entitled “Who Holds Your Story?” He writes, “Having our stories held and told by others gives us a sense of place in the world, a sense of belonging.” The entire piece is moving, depressing, hopeful, and cathartic.

Judy teared up recently in the car and asked Jordan and myself rhetorically, “who am I if my mother doesn’t remember me?” There was a silence—and extended pause of pain. Jordan answered, “well, you’re you of course.” But we got the point. When the person who holds your memories, your life, forgets— what then is left but that unspeakable sadness and guilty anger?

David’s writings remind me of many who I’ve encountered who cringe at revisiting the past. This work we live has a shameful, and dark history. “Let’s look toward the future!” “We’ve moved on, thank God!” “What good will come of reliving those days?” I can’t help but think of the countless and forgotten names who lived that shameful history. Judy’s words, her aching question is painfully valid and eerily haunting. “Who am I if my mother doesn’t remember me?” In this work, who are those we’ve forgotten, if we don’t remember? Pitonyak writes about case files, ““professionals do everything they can to make sure it is textbook sterile: “Delivery normal. Child failed to reach developmental milestones. Problem behaviors began to emerge in special education classroom at the age of 7. Mother and father no longer able to care for child. Child institutionalized at age of 14. Mother visited every Sunday afternoon until she passed away in 1977.”” (Pitonyak pp. 2) The story ends there, in the file. Rarely a picture is found, no letters from old loves, no Christmas cards from Auntie, no old yearbooks, no dried flowers from old Proms, or wedding, no newspaper clipping noting honors, graduations, births.

Sandy, Debbie, Judy, 1970.
When my grandmother passed away we found boxes of drawings, first hair cut clippings, school photos, spring concert programs, letters, birthday cards, parish bulletins, all documenting my mothers and her four sister lives, my life and my two sisters’ lives, all my cousins, all of my relatives lives compiled in stacks of yellowed paper and bent photographs. It took us months (literally) to sort through everything. No paper, no picture was unimportant to her. To her, it all had to be remembered.

Starfire U juniors recently wrote their own biographies. I am proud to say that none of them read as case files. Here is a sneak peak:

“Navigator. Metro Expert . Tour Guide, just ask Joseph how to get to anywhere in Cincinnati …” and my favorite quote from Joseph, “I hope my future will be as joyful as it right now.”

“On September 19, 1986 at 11:03 p.m. marked the beginning of something special. That was the day that Nikki was born and where all of her struggles and triumphs started….”

This is a just snapshot, of course. But the point is, their stories are known. Their history, their lives preserved, their future made evident, in their own words. Living documents of who they are. I am grateful to know their stories, be in their lives, and relieved to know that it is not my duty alone to remember it.

I struggle often thinking that sometimes this work we do sets us up to poorly eulogize those we are supposed to be serving, while they are still living and breathing. In Louisville, someone talked about the separation and segregation of language between us “professionals” and “those other people.” “He’s a screamer, biter, eloper, hitter, inappropriate at times, prone to outbursts, needs redirection.” WHEW! I’m sure, if you asked my mother, my own memory keeper, she could describe me in a similar way, “She’s neurotic, sarcastic, cynical, confrontational, selfish, annoying, easily offended, nail biter.” And for gosh sake, don’t we all “need redirection”?! However, she wouldn’t describe me in that way, no—no one would describe those we care about with all the negative secrets first. Why then, do we do so in our work? As those who document in baselines, incident reports, daily logs, MyPlans, IEPs, paperwork galore—let’s preserve the memories as we’d like our own story to read: dignified and humanely. Let’s “reclaim the person’s story” as Pitonyak asks.

Candice Jones Peelman