My Fantastic Voyage

11CCAF20-EF03-4B26-A348-7C4353515F1BRecently, 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.6D9C5314-D8CB-4BCE-BCE2-573A5D38308C

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.F5F396F4-B573-4D46-B536-1E89414211F9

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.6F8FE9FB-613E-4F1A-9C40-461CB3D191AB

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. EDE9BD62-D2AC-44FE-913B-ED6926D983FB

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.0A473A21-D866-4792-87E4-E434F3197A01

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.B3648BA8-BFE7-4F18-A0B1-A0F8C13A0B69

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.B20BD006-7097-4F43-8B2C-CBFB8B2833BD

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.

Map from Rogers Park, Chicago, IL to Chicago Loop, Chicago, IL

We spent a day together talking and walking and I remember we wound up all the way downtown in the north Loop. Miles and miles of walking. I hadn’t thought about that in years. I didn’t like him as much as he liked me and our friendship was brief. But I remember that walk, from neighborhood to neighborhood, through all kinds of of economic strata, winding up at the fancy mansions on the streets close to Lake Shore Drive. I can see Jerry’s face but can’t remember his last name. Absent my recent knee replacements, I’m not sure I’d ever have remembered that walk. The proverbial tip of the iceberg is what that is, an incident that didn’t push its way into the commonly told adventures of me. As it is, there are times when I’m relating a story to my family and everyone says, almost simultaneously, “yeah, yeah, you already told us that a million times.” Some of them aren’t even my best stories. For reasons I can’t explain they just got shoved to the top of the memory file cabinet and are the ones that pop out most frequently. I’m looking for all the others, or at least as many as I can access from all the layers in my head.CC483FA6-45D5-4B9E-87CC-CBEBE309D92C

When striations in sedimentary rock formations are observed, we know from geologists that the layers can contain different environments that accumulated over the years. One line could forest or ocean or woodland. I think that’s how people I are built as well, layer upon layer. We move along the surface with occasional forays into one of those memory striations. I want to get at more. Sometimes a trigger for that will be a naturally occurring event. A person will ask a question and the answer will lead me into a group of memories buried below the surface.46CBE7C7-5399-4A1D-821B-64D0E52C7962

The other day, a friend wrote me to ask some questions about a handsome guy we knew over 50 years in high school. I have her my answers and satisfied whatever she needed at that moment. But later, when I was ruminating on that long-ago past, I remembered that somehow, he’d gotten connected to my oldest friend Fern. I saw the three of us standing in an apartment complex parking lot in my university town. The name of the complex was Country Fair.  I remembered thinking back then how odd it was that this Adonis-like character who seemed so out of reach in high school was now having this easygoing conversation with the two of us who were completely off his radar when we were young. Our images are vivid to me, down to the color of his eyes which matched the blue sky on that bright day. I hadn’t thought about that in years.0BE7C4C0-99C5-4162-9CE5-544F766712A4

Another person asked me about getting elected student council treasurer when I was a junior in high school. An induction ceremony, led by the graduating senior officers, was held in the school gym. While the festivities hit underway, we new inductees were hidden behind a curtain waiting to be introduced. I was standing next to the president-elect, my friend Danny upon whom I’d had a terrible crush since elementary school. In that big moment for us, he reached over in the dark and grasped my hand in a moment of anticipation. I’ve always remembered the feel of his hand which was warm and dry, not like some of the sweaty paws that were part of the awkward dating scenes of my teen years. That was in late spring 1967. I can still feel it now when I close my eyes and transport myself back to that space.CBDD8924-94A1-4511-83E2-F81741A25ECA

So what’s the point of all this? Will it make a huge impact on the world? I don’t think so. When I think of what my legacy may be, it’s more often in terms of small, personal  things. I was a good daughter to my parents. I remain a good sister,a good mother and a good grandmother. I think that my extended family likes me pretty well. I know I was a good wife. I think I’m a good friend. Along with my husband, I created an atmosphere in our home which was welcoming and safe to all kinds of people. They keep coming back, some after almost 25 years now. That’s a good enough mark on the world. But this mission, this discovery journey of old history, some tiny bits and others larger? I suppose it’s to create a three dimensional character out of what will be the photographs of me looking flatly up at those grandchildren and perhaps great-grandchildren who may wonder where they came from.

They’ll have my stories and my memories, my journals and my lists. They’ll know what movies I watched and what books I read and which shows I binge-watched on Netflix. They’ll learn the bad and the good, the sad and the happy. I hope they’ll laugh and I hope they’ll be inspired to do something interesting with their lives. Or maybe this will all be a private exercise for me. Either way, I have to keep poking and probing. I have no real clue what the ultimate results will be but it seems the process is the point. My interior terrain isn’t as awe inspiring as the national parks I’ve roamed in recent years. But there are surprises tucked away that I hope will continue to surprising and fulfilling. Win-win. Fingers crossed.9D740B03-E6E2-4C75-BC11-A72B02DFF4CC

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