On Memory, Mourning & Museums

I’ve been raised on books.

Said another way, I raised myself on books.

Just a few weeks ago, I thought that I could travel home to Minnesota, to my father’s house, and store favorite titles in my bedroom, shaped when I was sixteen–my aesthetic was still developing then, with its love for light wood and bright colors, and after a near-decade away, ultimately little has changed. Given the size of NYC apartments, and an oft-transitory way of life espoused by the city, this has been the Weronika habit.

Tonight, this week, these last few weeks, it has become no more.

Tonight, I pull books from shelves, and sort them by category.

Tonight, I prepare to let some books go, so as to not move with them.

My first copy of Lemony Snicket, a paperback box set. Two copies of The Shadow of the Wind, one which must be given away–a mental note to get it into the hands of a dream reader. The full Harry Potter series, of different editions, purchased by a trio over years. Bibles in multiple languages, and three-dozen dictionary and thesaurus sets, from parents for whom English was always new. Adam Mickiewicz and Henryk Sienkiewicz and stacks of Polish poetry, to get beneath the skin. Polish cookbooks, some so old that I’ve no doubt a great-grandmother would have run her fingers over the pages, to smooth creases. I can’t forget the Gillian Flynn collection, or those hardcover thrillers picked up for free at the library giveaway; to recycle now or to keep, ’tis the question.

Oh, what a life story I can tell through the books I’ve consumed.

Oh, the shelves filled and, roomless, dusty stacks built.

In the weeks to come, our family home shall be placed on the market, and for the first time in our lives, my brothers and I have to learn to shed layers of skin and history and memory, to find the right balance between photos kept in their scrapbooks versus scanned and electronically filed (all coded–year, location, across our Canadian days, Wisconsin days, Minnesotan days, days post-home into college and workforce eras); between the traditions of our forefathers and the American melting pot within which we have become who we are, between the English language that has become primary and that original language which added to our brains neural patterns, which I still speak without an accent, which my brothers have Americanized; between that Polish community which has known us on Saturdays, and Sundays, and that American style which has poured its ink over our beings, like a tattoo.

“I feel more Polish than anything else,” I have always said, given my parents’ language, given the strict no-English rule they maintained at home and in the Polish circles within which I was raised and have ever-walked; given Polish-styled cutlets and sauerkraut served over dinners; given the entire reality of their country and their faith burned into my mind and heart, a living ferocity of substance and culture, thick like glue.

Tonight I feel different, matured-by-circumstance in a way I have never tasted. Three weeks, and reality feels different.

Different, empty; filled in a new way.

Different, still, restless; I am unable to imagine the next step, yet sure of the mystery, of the mystery-turned-concrete as answers to questions unfold, doors open, pieces shift, things change.

A walk through this home now is a walk through a museum–stacked photos of my parents married on Polish pilgrimage, in homage to the faith within which their courage and strength was bred; elementary and middle school report cards; copies of Polish and Canadian passport applications, atop confirmations of annual visa renewals, which called for travel to the borders, and an annual shot through Detroit streets, before we became permanent residents and then citizens indeed; china and linens from ages past, some pieces embroidered by my grandmothers’ hands; books, in Polish and English and French, pulled from shelves, filtered, an odd but true blend of my whole person, formation, background, and history; vases, for the love of flowers, and wine glasses mixed across sets; and more.

Sunlight shines through the house in a different way, and I do not write of or with sentiment. Given that my relationship with my father was a complex, difficult one–a living receptacle to generational trauma and the contours of world wars, which bombed their way into the minutiae of Polish days and scarred generations–there was, without question, a disorder to a life lived parallel to one another when we shared time on Minnesotan soil.

We spoke little. I learned from him little. I strayed and stayed from his path, and left as little space as possible for ruffles and raised voices and collateral damage, though collateral was never fully avoided. Yet I loved him, for he birthed me, and raised me, and supported me, and condemned the weak in me–and I am no other man’s daughter.

Given the need now to think deeply about the next steps, and three orphaned lives lived into the future, weddings without parents, grandkids without grandparents, discernments without their wisdom or opinion, tears without their shoulders, silence without their humor, our dinner table feels almost more full–a paradox, perhaps, but the opportunity to ask these questions and to seek their answers now with a greater desire, spontaneity, and necessity soothes what otherwise might have been the darkness of the loss of my mother, which brought me to my knees for years, over and over, in a living agony.

They say grief comes in stages, and that all grieve in their own way. I have learned, so profoundly, that there is nothing that one can do to jump past the stage that is mourning visceral–that moment in which the child inside realizes she stands, indeed, alone over questions and realities she thought she had a lifetime to acknowledge (oh, fate!), and that moment in which the sheer overwhelming implosion hits hard and brutal; that moment in which body and emotion and mind are as if one, but yet not, for one bears the weight of the others, and what the heart feels the body releases.

I have learned again that deep love grieves, for what is love if not unity, that thirst for oneness and forever; I have learned that the depth of grief, of implosion, is proportionate to the love which precedes it, as grief responds to the object it has lost.

I have, simply, learned and known trauma and grief, and hope only that the lesson of their reality, unique and deep, continues to do its work–in the desire for good books, for imagination strengthened; for good friends, for more memories made, and traditions fostered; for the spirit of creativity, so that, finally, as I have long-dreamt, this walk may make its way into a novel of my own, borne in the same furnace as that of my clients, whose patience and generosity of spirit in this time has stunned and healed me.

Thank you, to all of you. Be so very well–and more soon!

4 thoughts on “On Memory, Mourning & Museums

  1. Jan M. Flynn says:

    You articulate grief so lyrically. As you continue to surf its rising swells and crashing waves, I wish you all the strength you need, and all the peace, calm, and ultimately joy you wish to contain.


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