Liquid Memory

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Me with my mother – 1972

My memories of childhood are shadowy, fluid, dreamlike. Like a Super 8 home movie. Scenes blur together, and then separate into clips of lucidity. This kaleidoscope of reminiscence has kept my memoir at an impasse for too long. How can I cut and splice these flashbacks in a coherent and meaningful way? Most of the book is written; much of the editing is already done. What is holding me back from finally finishing it? I want so much to get it right. Deciding what to keep and what to discard has been the most difficult part. I remember so much. The intensest memories are not necessarily the most significant to the story. Sometimes, the quiet moments are the most illustrative. I don’t know how I know this. Except for the required English 101 classes at college, I am completely self-taught. Intuition and observation are my only teachers.

About a year ago, treasure fell into my hands. An uncle had converted all of my maternal grandmother’s Super 8 home movies to DVD. My mother sent me her copies, and I converted them to digital files. Hours and hours of vintage footage unspooled before my eyes. Grandma was a meticulous documentarian of family history and traditions. Birthdays, Christmases, First Communions, football games, hometown parades, slumber party pillow fights, proms, graduations. My mother and her six siblings appeared before my eyes in glorious retro distortion. Light leaks, blurs, discolorations, and double exposures. Eat your heart out, Instagram.

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Grandpa superimposed upon a Florida theme park all-woman water skiing spectacle – early 1950s

The family road trips mesmerize. Cross country station wagon odysseys. East to West. North to South. And back again. Through forest, wide open plain, mountain, desert. Along the Pacific coast. Niagara Falls. Mount Rushmore. Yellowstone. Grand Canyon. Roadside plaques. Random flora and fauna. Kitschy gunfight reenactments. State lines. Much of the footage was shot from the car window. An infinity of open road. I swoon with nostalgia for this lost Americana. Unfortunately, I can’t watch for more than a couple of minutes at a time without getting nauseous. Carsick by proxy.

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My parents appear in a church. Two teenagers barely out of high school. I am there, concealed under my mother’s shapeless white shift dress. Around this time, the buzz cuts, bouffants, horn-rimmed glasses, and full skirts give way to bandannas, sideburns, and bell-bottoms. And then, there I am. I gaze into my innocent face. My future was too vast and fertile to be comprehensible. The past too shallow to be influential. I peer into this crystal ball, trying to decipher the messages that swirl within. Unlock a hidden vault. Trigger a breakthrough. Tell me, little girl, why I am the way I am.

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Grandpa and Me – possibly 1974

Scenes merge; eras collide. They fade to black with brutal finality. I rewind and play them again and again. I analyze mannerisms, facial expressions. This is what I’ve discovered: away from school, from my peers, I was happy. Confident. Rambunctious. There I am jumping off a deck into deep snowbank. Skidding down icy hills. Plowing through a pool. Running through the forest. Even when I could only crawl, I focused on my target and charged forward until I reached it. My brothers and sisters move in and out of focus. Each personality instantly recognizable and endlessly fascinating.

Grandpa’s gentle, good-natured demeanor makes my heart ache. He’s been gone so long now. Grandma rarely appears, but when she does, she’s an imposing, luminous presence.

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Grandpa and Grandma with my brother Billy – 1970

My mother was clearly unhappy with my father throughout the years. Her body grew rigid when he was near. Her eyes hardened. She turned away. No one seemed to notice. He knew better than to leave visible marks. Smiles, everyone. Smiles.

Moving pictures are two-dimensional. Recollection is not. I remember the wallpaper texture of my stroller cushion. The tightness of patent leather shoes on my feet. The unripe taste of the green olives I ate just before we drove away from our little yellow house for the last time. I felt sad about abandoning the empty jar on the tree stump next to the driveway. I watched it recede through the back window. I was four years old. It’s funny, the sensations that endure.

Lips move. Does it matter what they say? My father’s voice reverberates through my mind. The dying vibrations of a struck bell. How do I reconstruct the enigma that he has become? He died in 1992, at the age of forty-three. Over the years, he became a caricature, defined by the illness that consumed him: schizophrenia. Crazy Dad. Fear distorted my perception of the person he had been before. Through the lens of time, I see his deep, nervous sigh at his wedding. The awkwardness at social gatherings. His laughter at his children’s antics. The spontaneous kiss on the top of my bald little head.

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With my father and my uncle – 1969

His instinctive tenderness. I grasp onto these precious seconds with everything I’ve got.

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My father and me – Christmas 1972

I search for signs of his disintegration, but there are none. Even at my littlest sister’s baptism he jokes around with his best friend, my sister’s godfather. He wears his usual goofy, canine-like expression. He doesn’t deviate from the program. My siblings and I make the sign of the cross on my baby sister’s forehead, light candles, and return to our seats, beaming with joy. I sit in the front pew and take photos. I am twelve. Only my mother looks pale and wary. It was about this time that he began to refer to his five children as his disciples. Sermons replaced conversation. Strange word combinations crept into his speech. His eyes rolled back in his head, as if he had gone into a trance. Within a year, the remnants of his sanity would vanish.

My father disappears. The birthdays of my littlest brother and sister go on, as do the Christmases. That first Christmas without him, we sing the traditional carols with downcast faces. Everything blurs. A slight backward jump in time. Oh, look. There’s the trip through Michigan’s Upper Peninsula with my grandparents.* It was the summer of 1982. I would start high school that autumn. This trip was supposed to be an escape from the constant apprehension.

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With my littlest sister, somewhere in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula – June 1982

Sometimes images are not what they seem. This is not the face of a kid with PTSD. A kid who slept in her clothes and had nightmares. This scrawny little girl had always been such a crybaby, but the tears were replaced by a low-grade hum, an ominous tremor in the cells. This is not the face of a teenager who, in just a few months, would begin to self-medicate with alcohol and marijuana. The casual observer would not know that I was not holding my littlest sister, but clinging to her. Something I probably did too much. She was one of the few things that made me happy.

Not long after this, VHS appeared on the market. The days of Super 8 came to an abrupt end. No more film to thread into a projector. No more white screens to unfurl. No more flickering images in the dark. The spectral spectacles were banished to the back of the closet. Did my grandmother move on to the new format, or did she give up her hobby? When I try to remember, I hear only the hypnotic click of the reels as they spin into oblivion.

 

*This trip is in the memoir. I posted the excerpt on this blog as “Across the Bridge”.
**All images in this post are stills from Grandma’s home movies.

122 thoughts on “Liquid Memory

  1. You have a treasure here, indeed … one I’m honestly not certain I would want for myself; but it seems you are making good use of these preserved memories, and I’m happy for you. One other thing occurs to me as I looked at the pictures and connected the dates … at less than half a decade my senior, you’ve a tenuous right at best to refer to me as ‘young man’😉

    I hope your start in 2016 went well, and that this year and the years that follow will bring you what you seek, fellow traveller🙂

  2. Oh my gosh Julie, it is so real. Like I was back in time, that sick feeling that was always with us. The fear and sadness and feeling so helpless. I always thought someone would come and save all of you. But weeks went into months and then years and years went by. So sorry what happened to you. My love and respect for you is great

  3. I started out thinking what a treasure trove you had found… my own memories as a scrawny kid with those same shoes… the thought that things are fine till you go to school and people are mean. But the pain of an unreachable Dad and the tiptoeing… needing. I’m so sorry, Julie. Maybe it is cathartic to write it out of your system. Your poor Mom!
    Hope 2016 turns out well for you.

    • Hi Jo – it has been cathartic, but I’ve been working on this book for so long that most of the pain has dissipated. I don’t know how my mother managed – raising 5 kids all alone. She was raised to not “take advantage of” others, so she knew better than to ask for help.

  4. Forgive me if I presume too much here. But I think of all the too-young parents who have had too many children in too short a time, and find myself sad and angry at the loss and damage — the former in the weight of potential life unlived (especially mothers, but also some fathers) and the latter in the associated, often repressed wounds of their children, which become evident only later. Needless harm.

    That said, a lovely evocative piece.

    • Thank you. I know what you mean. I was about to add that it was a different time then, but I’m not sure that today, even with the access to contraception, teen pregnancy is under better control in the US. I don’t know what the statistics are now, but I have doubts that there has been a big improvement. It just shows that education is the most important prevention. Really understanding the consequences. My mother made damn sure I didn’t get trapped.

  5. What a start in 2016 – reflections to the whole family. You really got a treasure – with golden memories but also with pain, Julie. This treasure is called life.
    Have a wonderful year,
    Ulli

    • Thank you for recognizing the treasure, Ulli. Even with its imperfections. I think the new year has a way of making us reflect upon the past. A splendid 2016 to you, too.

      • Yes Julie, Every start is a chance: to look forward and to look back, to remind and to learn for the future.
        Best wishes,
        Ulli

  6. As we leap from the tail end of one year to the cusp of the next, we sometimes fall into the gap, a rabbit hole of nostalgia that can bring both smiles and tears. I stay away from the old home movies, the slides, and the photo albums at such times! – it’s always a strange period of hope for the future and simultaneous grieving for parts of our pasts.

    • A rabbit hole of nostalgia. What a perfect way to describe it. You’re definitely wise to stay away from the mementos around this time of year. I hadn’t thought of that, but I will heed your advice next year. Cheers!

  7. What I wouldn’t give for some Super 8 home movies – the colours of memory – unfortunately Dad never ventured beyond stills. It begs the question, does the Super 8 get any further under the skin than a single image or do both cameras still lie. There is enormous poignancy in the moving version not only terms of what is hidden beneath but what came next.
    An excellent piece Julie and I look forward to the finished work.

    • Thank you, Robin. I think both cameras lie, but it’s harder to conceal with a Super 8. I can’t tell you how overjoyed I was to learn that these movies had been converted to DVD. I knew they existed, but feared they’d get lost in the chaos when Grandma passes. I actually had her old Super 8 camera for a while and tried to use it, but it no longer worked properly. There’s a magic to those silent, warped films that VHS and digital can never duplicate.

    • Thank you. It was not easy, but I am very aware that many people have it worse. Before my father became ill, there were many good times. The terror came from the unpredictability of schizophrenia. Home life was dysfunctional, but I much preferred it to school. THAT was hell, and there was really no excuse for it.

  8. Hi Julie,

    I think you’re intuition and observation serve you quite nicely. I look forward to buying your book when the day arrives… I have read all of the excerpts of the Memoir, and it is nice to piece together a fuller picture of what you have been through and wish to share. My mother had multiple personality disorder, but it never had the edge to it that it seems your father’s mental illness seems to have brought to your life. My life is tame somehow in comparison to what you describe, which is part of the allure to read more of what you have experienced, and to see how difficulty propelled you into such a library of raw experience. The fuel inside of my life has burned with a different heat it seems, but this is all part of the beauty of our shared humanity– the various temperatures, colors, inclinations and propensities. There’s room in the experience of being human for such an expanse of feeling and experience, and yet a common root I think underlies all of it as well… We kid ourselves sometimes I think, when we imagine a particular experience makes us unique from everyone else. It makes us distinct for sure, but what is shared can never be lost.

    Peace
    Michael

    • Hi Michael – Thank you so much for taking the time to read the excerpts and for sharing your mother’s struggle. Mental illness is devastating for a family, but there are often other factors that determine how that experience affects a person’s life. I had to deal with a very hostile school environment. I believe that this is where a lot of the edge comes from.

  9. Thank you for sharing your story and remembering. Your journey was not for the faint-of-heart. Resilience! The very word brings courage and strength. An excellent post to being a fresh New Year. I look forward to following your adventures in 2016. Many hugs coming your way.

  10. Thanks for taking me on the roller-coast ride of your childhood. I’m glad there were some good times to remember, and that the bad times are now long ago.

  11. What a poignant memory. I’d have to digest this one a while before making the appropriate comment, Julie, just know that I think I understand why the process of writing this memoir has been such a challenge for you. I wish I didn’t . With love and hugs to you. 💖

  12. As your first commenter said ‘powerful’. I don’t really know what to say but I wanted to teply as I read your post and found it mesmerising. I was very sad to hear of your mum and her father. But on a much lighter note I really did enjoy your photos and other parts of your childhood. just want to finish by wishing you all the very best in 2016 and I can’t imagine how difficult it has been to write some of your post. Thinking of you!!

  13. Julie, it is great to read you again. My childhood and the causes/origins of my own mental illness have been on my mind lately, so this spoke to me. I really hope I get to read your memoir! xx

  14. As always, I am impressed by the writing. What will you must possess as a self-taught intuitive writer. That strength was earned! And, I am glad to hear you reassure your Mom and that everyone turned out OK. The best to you this New Year. 😊

  15. Reading these wonderfully portrayed recollections of childhood reminds me of my own battles to piece together my history through writing. At times, it can become a difficult and painful process.

    What impresses me about your work is how you manage to convey a sense of immediacy so well. In employing the image of a Super 8 projector whirring away you have created an excellent visual metaphor for the ephemeral quality of life itself. And there’s a certain poetry in the idea of not having a soundtrack. When we have you to conjure up a film out of the written word we don’t need one. We don’t need celluloid to illustrate it either, even though I do love the accompanying stills. The amateurish mistakes and technical limitations, you describe, only serve to mirror the imperfections of memory. Through the simplicity of language you transport us directly back to the moment. You don’t knock at the door of our consciouness, you burst right in.

    Though you make it look easy, I sense you work very hard to achieve the sensation. If I’m wrong, and it flows from your fingertips as endlessly as a fountain, you are gifted with a rare touch of genius indeed. I look forward to reading more.

  16. Julie dear , there is a lump in my throat , ” a Liquid Memory ” brings a tear down my face , it’s a drop of love I think . Your sentence in the opening paragraph , ” I don’t know how I know this .” is spellbinding for me ….your gift of expression , glorious and deep ….love , megxxx

  17. What an amazing trip through humanity with this post ~ amazing writing Julie, with so many pieces I feel so close to as if it could have been me: “Grandma was a meticulous documentarian of family history and traditions” are pieces of my family and the road trips described as “I swoon with nostalgia for this lost Americana” are words that could have left my mouth as every family vacation we ever took when I was young seemed to involve endless hours on the road, which also made for much of the magic.

    Yet it is here our tales diverge, and with your writing I am absorbed by the differences. While I would like to spend just a few minutes with my younger versions to have them help unlock some of the mysteries I’ve forgot in my youth…these mysteries are likely trivial for me. A bit different for you ~ “Within a year, the remnants of his sanity would vanish…” ~ and I simply do not know how I or my sisters/mother would have managed life with such an event, yet later you answer that question as well: “I was not holding my littlest sister, but clinging to her.” Great writing of what seems to be a great/trying story. Impressive.
    Wish you a great ’16 ~ make it one for the ages.

  18. Wow. To have such a vivid documentation of one’s family and past is something many would wish for. Whether we want to remember it all or not is another matter. Beautiful writing as usual.

  19. A Janus-like start to your 2016, it appears to be, unwinding spools of memorabilia, drawn from family archives. Not many families can boast of such valuable resources.The pics and narrative depict the makings of Julie, apparently linking her talents and capabilities to an astute grandmother. There is no question of good and bad as everything, being a part of Brahman (universal consciousness), is integral to everything else. As Krishna affirmed to one of his friends in answer to query on justification for evil in this world, ‘I am Brahman, multiplying into an infinite number of opposites, working on and counter to one another, enabling the universe to evolve’. Wishing you and yours too, Julie, another rewarding year ahead. Be well…

  20. Beautiful writing for such difficult times…
    I wish you a very happy new year and I hope you’ll write a lot of articles. I love reading you !

  21. How wonderful that you were able to preserve those old films. The photos and film add richness and dimension to those difficult memories. Your writing is poignant and heartfelt, and captures the fluidity of memory that most of us experience whose pasts are a blend of joy and pain. Thanks for sharing.

    • It’s mind-blowing to have all of those reels on a little flash USB drive. Most of the time, I really love technology. It might seem like watching them depressed me, but it’s really the opposite. Thanks for sharing your thoughts, Diana.

  22. I love the way you offered this story… the Super 8 reel of real life blurring and your words articulating the the divergent layers so well. This is beautiful, Julie.
    ~ Meredith

  23. Dear Julie, I’ve always felt that there was a story within you that was/is not easy to come to grips with! I find it, whowever, very special to have these images from the past with your family, which help your sometimes blurred memory despite the fact that they may not clear themselves. To go back to our childhood may be very hurtful but it helps a lot!) I really wish you much success with your book.:) Very best regards Martina

  24. Fascinating and poignant. The photo essay is brilliant, the writing excellent. I almost zapped my “follow” thing because this is so pertinent and meaningful to me that I thought I would just as soon not read it…not deal with it. But I’m glad I did…thanks for sharing it. 🙂

  25. Enjoyed this piece. It’s fascinating how little we remember of our childhood. I’d describe my memories as a series of fleeting snapshots, occasional moving pictures. I like the way you described them as “shadowy and fluid”. I’m not sure how I would react to sudden access of all that footage of me as a kid, it would certainly be fascinating and emotional. Good luck with your book.

    • It is a strange feeling to look at footage of a young self. However, I don’t think it would be as surreal to watch our pasts unfold in the videos we take today, with their sound and clarity. I wonder why that is. Thanks for sharing your thoughts.

  26. Not much to add to all these thoughtful comments, except maybe the brilliant blending of the post title “Liquid Memories” with the first picture: great aesthetics that pull one into the text. Remarkable!

  27. The worst part of retrospection is what you can’t remember. You replay your movie, and you know there are scenes missing, frames deleted or maybe never recorded. You can’t remember what they were, but you know they were important, that somehow, these scenes that you can’t review were the scenes that created you. Maybe they were never recorded because they were too painful, your mind editing the film as it’s recorded.

    Thanks for this post.

  28. I feel like every family goes through ups and downs. But great families are those who stick together no matter what happens..
    Loved the way you portrait and presented this.. Absolutely beautiful.. 😊 👍

  29. Really neat discovery of hidden Super 8’s! Also a neat discovery in which “Liquid” introduced your story to me and my story of life. I look forward to Following your blog ahead!

  30. A lovely post Julie (And a happy new year). Aided memories through the magic of photography and super 8.
    I’ve managed to scan all my parents’ photos and negatives dating back to the 30’s in Egypt, where my father was raised, to ’49 in Pakistan when my parents started a long life together and my sister and I were born. And then Africa. Stills are done. A vast task awaits to digitalize the 8 and super 8 movies…🙂
    Looking back at your photos I understand better Paul Ricoeur’s book: La mémoire, l’Histoire et l’Oubli. Our memories have already turned into History, and one day will fade into oblivion. (To every season, turn, turn…)
    Have a great year. My regards to your “Caldoche” husband. (I have got that right, haven’t I?)
    Brian

    • Hi Brian – Oh, gosh no. My husband lived for most of his life in New Caledonia, but he’s definitely NOT a Caldoche. One has to be born in New Caledonia to Caldoche parents to be considered as such. My husband is a dreaded “Zoreille” (metropolitan French). Anyway, good for you for converting the stills to digital and best of luck with the movies. A fabulous 2016 to you, too!

      • So he’s a “Zozo”.😉 I had a few Caldoche friends a long time back. They can be surprising people. Hope it’s not too cold right now where you are (Bratislava?), it is cold here in Mexico. All’s relative: 12-15C is cold!😉

  31. Beautiful stuff!! Sometimes things going on in your life may seem normal when they aren’t, and sometimes they are completely opposite, I guess that’s what life is about!!
    Regards, Chaitanya Haram

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