Most folks probably think that writing about one’s dead grandmother right before Christmas is somewhat maudlin, but please bear with me and think for a moment about the season of Advent and the Feast of the Immaculate Conception.
For Catholics, the Feast of the Immaculate Conception occurs every single year on the 8th of December, a little more than two weeks before Christmas and during the liturgical season known as Advent. Since 1854, it’s been a Holy Day of Obligation, which means, among other things, that Catholics are required to attend Mass.
In 1956, the Feast of the Immaculate Conception fell on a Saturday. My widowed grandmother, who had turned 67 a few months before, set off on the two-mile walk to her parish church to attend afternoon Mass. After Mass was over, she started home. When she was within sight of her house, she suffered a heart attack. Her friends and neighbors carried her home and placed her on the living room couch in her sister's house, where she died a few hours later.
I was eleven years old. My grandmother was my closest non-parental family friend, the family’s memory keeper and my own first genealogical informant, who told me stories about her mother and Irish immigrant grandmother and about my grandfather’s baseball years.
Following a two-day wake in my aunt's living room, my grandmother was buried next to my grandfather about two weeks before Christmas. There was not much to be merry about that particular year.
Still, Christmas came and went. It was different, since it was the very first Christmas at which my grandmother didn’t appear in her widow’s black dress. In fact, she was the first close relative that I knew personally who had ever died. I don’t remember much about Christmas that year, only that it was more subdued than usual. We still did the usual Irish Catholic Midnight Mass ritual (I was an altar boy and had to go anyway) and the usual Christmas dinner and gift-giving, but the rest of the day is kind of a blur.
After the holidays were over, the real work set in. My grandmother’s house needed to be emptied and cleaned. She owned a duplex house, and rented the other half to one of her younger widowed sisters. My father and his sister negotiated exactly who got what. He got lots of the cut glass, while she got the jewelry. She got the china, while he got most of my grandfather’s baseball stuff, including his White Sox World Series uniform. Most of the furniture and the clothes went to charity, except for the player piano, the piano bench and hundreds of player piano rolls, which got sold as a package deal to a friend of my father. Likewise, the Victorian-era oil lamps that had been in my great-grandmother’s house across the street.
Because I was only eleven, I wasn’t part of any of these delicate negotiations. It was only about six or so years later, after my father had died, when my mother told me about the diaries that my grandmother had kept, way back in the early years when my grandfather played professional baseball (circa 1910 – 1920). Diaries that covered the Lowell years, the Chicago White Sox years, the births of her children and much, much more.
The diaries! Even though I spent lots of time with my grandmother, I never knew that she kept actual diaries. So, where were they and when could I read them? Did my aunt get them? Were they in the attic? What secrets would be laid bare in them?
“We burned them all,” my mother said. “because we didn’t think that Annie would want anyone knowing all the personal things that she wrote about.”
So, when I read Cheri Lucas’s post on her blog “Writing Through The Fog” earlier tonight, in which she writes about “…erasing memories and the Facebook timeline…”, I thought of those long-ago diaries.
Ms. Lucas writes, “And because sometimes I just want to erase: to forget in the same way I had wanted to forget everything associated with a past relationship and a hard, confusing breakup.
But my curation of my own history—the deleting of previous status updates, the “featuring” of particular posts—is strange. More so than before, I am able to highlight what is important in my life—or what I want others to view as important—and fill in missing details from today to when I was born…
Imagine if my grandmother had had the opportunity to experience social media like Facebook. Media that lets you edit and re-form your own past history for the future. Would she have done things differently? Did she really want all those memories contained in those diaries erased through fire and ashes? Given the opportunity, would she have edited her diaries? Was she writing for herself or for others long in the future yet unborn and unknown?
Of course, no one will ever know.
Mnemosyne’s Mirror is about memory: how we form it, how we record it, how we filter it and how we preserve it. Every now and then, it forces us to look in the mirror and ask ourselves some basic questions.
Who owns family memory? Who controls it? Is it really ours for the editing? Most of all, should memory ever be erased, and, if so, by whom?
Warmest wishes for this holiday season, no matter what December family tradition is meaningful for you.