Recently, I’ve been thinking that I am on a mission. Granted, it’s a mission of my own making. And an odd mission it appears to be, as it is mostly shapeless, disorganized and somewhat incoherent. Whatever I’m doing begs the title “mission” as it lacks a specific goal and is occurring in my inner self as opposed to the world “out there.” But I call it a mission anyway. While thinking about this I was remembering the film “Fantastic Voyage,” which was released when I was a teenager. That movie was about a Russian scientist who’d developed the power to miniaturize people and objects for short periods of time. After developing a blood clot in his brain a group of intrepid Americans with a submarine were miniaturized themselves to cruise through his body to repair the clot, in the hope that the miniaturization invention could be maintained and extended. A vivid and exciting technicolor adventure that reflected both the Cold War and the imagined science of the future, it wouldn’t make anyone’s top 100 film list, but was memorable enough to come to mind as I ponder my current curious journey. I have a powerful memory which I think is probably a genetic trait.
My mother remembered a lot from her early years and as the chief communicator in our family, she shared many stories with me. Her attention to detail was so specific that I feel I can actually see her on her wedding day with her open-toed shoes in January’s snow and ice. I can see her on the day she came home from the hospital with me after my birth, when my father locked us in the bedroom because there were too many people in the house. I know I was dressed in pink from head to toe and that my cheeks matched my outfit.
She talked about living on Division Street and Artesian and Merrimack Avenue in Chicago. She said I was a farmer like my grandmother who loved plants and could grow anything. I’ve started the tedious tasks of plowing through public records and Ancestry to flesh out more of our family saga.
To do that correctly you have to be methodical and spend a lot of time researching. I’ve got a decent start but I’m trying to live my life too and am constantly aware that I’m on the shorter side of my string. So my mission is all over the place. I’ve written down lots of the bits and pieces I’ve ferreted out over the years. I have many of mom’s stories tucked into my memory, the kind that make you wonder where she leaves off and you begin. I’ve written those down too. I think lots of families have those histories and there are more diligent detectives than me whose tales are more complete.
But I also know that daily life is filled with so many tasks and chores and work and small experiences that many memories, whether planted or genuine, get papered over by the layers of living. There was a time when my mom and I sat down with the photos she’d inherited from her mother, along with ones of her own. We tried to identify in writing all the faces that looked up at us from their sepia-toned and ragged edged pictures. She just couldn’t remember who they all were. We got a bunch of them sorted out, but I have an envelope of those photos that I call the phantom relations.
Some of them are probably my relatives, others perhaps friends or acquaintances. Although somehow connected to the family web, I’ll never know who they were. And aside from not identifying their names and connection, I won’t know what they did and how they affected the lives of the people I do know. A vast emptiness, a sere desert is my real history, dotted with little oases of information that I hold cobbled together in my own memory and my journals. But the gaps are big. I remember that as a little girl, there were family reunion picnics in Chicago when far-flung relatives gathered in a park. My mother told me of a time when my older sister got lost at one of those events and her heart was in her throat until her little girl was found.
I remember names like Harry, the cousin who was uncouth. When he visited he slept in the bathtub. There were Dave and Belle, my maternal grandmother’s nephew and his wife. Belle had thin lips, usually bright matte red and whose handbag was always over her arm. Irv and Jeannette were fun and my parents’ age. Irv was funny and liked dancing and singing. Jeannette was warm and affectionate. They had a son a little older than me named Marshall. I went to a college football game with him once and couldn’t wait to get away from him. He was so, so boring. All this information is part of my mission. I’m trying to find all the history. I’m compelled to flesh out the memories to try and make the family history richer and more dense. I know my kids are interested. My son keeps talking about making videos of me sharing stories about the past but that keeps getting deferred.
He did do that with my mom and they’re fun to watch. But she and I spoke a lot about the gaps I’m referring to now. My father wasn’t a big talker. She asked him lots of questions about his childhood but he was often reluctant to look back and dredge up the answers.
He polished his mother’s fingernails. He himself and beautiful long, slender fingers which were always manicured and perfect. I still compare men’s hands to my dad’s. She used to say she would die without ever knowing big chunks of his family’s story. She was right. My perception of my family’s past is primarily from the maternal side. Dad’s side is spotty at best. And even with mom’s willingness and often, inappropriate willingness to share details, there was still a lot that was never discussed. People guard their secrets. Some stories will never see light. Many topics are taboo. That’s always been hard for me. I’ve had embarrassing experiences in my life as almost everyone does. I’d like to forget some of my less attractive mistakes and behaviors. But I’ve always thought that too much secrecy is damaging internally, and that making our issues so precious and private actually creates these chasms that could be bridged and made less threatening if they were actually exposed. Maybe then the scary parts could be defused as we shared them and recognized that we often have more in common with each other than we might suspect.
I certainly respect people’s rights to have privacy and be boundaried. But sometimes it’s taken so far that we find that life has gone by and the people closest to us can be more like strangers than intimates. That’s how mom felt about my dad in many respects. Their love was always there along with big pockets of silence.
So the mission. I’m like those miniature rescuers from Fantastic Voyage, looking into the tiny estuaries in myself for memories and experiences that I’ve tucked away. I have some ideas of what I’d like to unearth and expose and then there are the surprises that emerge because some random thought let me find what I wasn’t actually seeking. For example, today I was thinking about how having my two knee replacement surgeries has already changed my life. Even though the second one is only four weeks behind me and I had a setback of my incision splitting open a bit, I can already feel that the grinding pain which crippled me for years is gone. Sure, there are vestiges of discomfort from the surgery but they feel irrelevant compared to that bone on bone nightmare I sustained for so long. Last weekend I went to an art fair and wandered around from booth to booth, taking my time exploring and never needing to sit down. I can’t remember the last time I was able to do that. My legs are no longer bowed and I don’t limp. While thinking about that today, I suddenly remembered that when I was a sophomore in college, I met a guy named Jerry who lived close to my parents’ place on the north side of Chicago.
25 min (11.0 mi)
via US-41 S/N Lake Shore Dr
via US-41 S/N Lake Shore Dr