When Memories Collide
May 7, 2011
I am utterly stunned. This is utterly not what I expected.
Expected: the slow ending of a meeting with an aunt over 80, my father's sister, someone I have not talked with since I was 5.
She has talked and talked and talked - no space for her daughter, who is there - also no visible interest in me. She has such an urgent need, it seems, to talk, to tell, about the garden hose, about her holidays, about her dead husband's doing nothing in the garden.
The ending: she starts talking about her childhood, her father, his niceness. It does not go with the many stories I have heard from my father. She mentions 2 wanted children in the family, the first and the last. She also says - and this is so stunning that I have already erased hearing it - that her father never raised his hand.
My father's stories. This sister was not beaten. He was. So was the first child, his adored sister Adele. She was not a wanted child - as I know from his mother.
After a couple of minutes, I didn't stay silent. "Your stories," I said to my aunt, a bit hesitantly, "don't go with my father's stories. Of being beaten often. Of his mother being beaten so much that she ran out into the snow, spent the night in an open shelter in a field. That the village priest told her she had to go back. Don't you remember any of that?"
My aunt - who in some ways looked so much like my father - said she didn't. "No, no, no. He never laid a hand on me."
"I know," I told her. "My father told me you were not beaten. But he was. And the oldest child, Adele, was. The next one wasn't. The third one was. The fourth one wasn't - that was you. The next - my father - was."
No, no, she remembered none of that.
A bit later, a bit hesitantly, she did remember my father, once, having been beaten. And she remembered wondering what a child could have done to deserve such welts on his back.
"Just once? You remember him just once being beaten?"
Just once. "But of course," she continued, "I left home early, at 14, went to a boarding school."
"But you were at home 14 years," I continued. "My father spoke, often, of many beatings. And of his mother being beaten often. Of much violence. And he spoke often of the poverty, the hunger, because his father drank away everything."
"Oh no," she said. "He paid for my boarding school, which was expensive."
I remembered, vividly, stories of nothing at Christmas - and stories of hunger, of one goat that saved the family with her milk. I remember there being not even one orange some Christmases. Oranges were a special treat for Christmas, at any rate when his mother could scrape together the money.
My aunt remembered none of that.
I remember that my other aunt, according to what I heard from my father, cursed her father, or anyway did not forgive him, on his deathbed - spat on him, if I remember right, for all he had done to her mother.
"I'm not the least bit sorry for you." ("Du tust mihr gar nicht leid.") Those were the words I remembering being told she said to him. They're going through my mind right now.
This is the child who was a wanted child, according to her sister. She was anything but, according to my memories.
But I wasn't stunned to hear this aunt refer to her sister, the firstborn, as a wanted child. Wanted. Unwanted. My father had never mentioned anything about that. But the beatings - I remember the pain in his voice, when he mentioned those.
About the first child's not being wanted, that I know from my grandmother - from a casual conversation with her - no anguish in her voice, though it's the story of a life mangled by her mother's fear of being shamed.
And here I'm remembering what my grandmother told me: she did not want to marry my grandfather, already had experienced his harsh side. But she was pregnant, and her mother did not want the shame of a daughter having a child outside wedlock. My grandmother went on: she was the most beautiful young woman in the village. Someone else wanted her. She was sure he would like to marry her, and it would not matter that she had a child. In fact, years later, he married another woman, who had 2 children by 2 different men, and he treated her like a queen all the days of her life. From my grandmother's quiet tone, I knew she could have been that woman.
There was one connection between my aunt's stories and my grandmother's. My aunt said, several times in the visit, that her mother was the most beautiful woman in the area, that she was told, a number of times, how beautiful her mother was. I only remember hearing of my grandmother's beauty once before - in my grandmother's story of not wanting to marry my grandfather.
But there it was, something that appeared in both stories.
I told my aunt that, from what my grandmother had told me, her older sister was definitely not a wanted child. I told her that my grandmother did not want to marry my grandfather, but was pressured by her mother. She wanted to marry someone else. She only married my grandfather because she was pregnant.
My aunt said she knew nothing about any of that.
"And the beatings. Don't you remember anything?"
First she remembered the one beating of my father - not the beating actually, just seeing his back after a beating.
Then she remembered her father, once, making a nasty remark to her when she, once, had a single mark below an A. (It was a B.) She remembered being very upset with him - at his being upset with her for one single imperfect mark when she had so many perfect marks.
Then she remembered her father, once, making as if to raise his hand against her, but her mother saying, stop that, don't you touch her.
The incident: she had met some fellow students, boys, on the way home, and had talked with them, joked with them. Her father happened to see this. "What were you doing? What was going on?" And the raised hand.
"Anyway, he was not someone you loved," she also said.
So different from my father, again - he both hated and loved his father.
He admired some things - so I have good stories about this grandfather too. I started, that my father both loved and hated. I was cut off.
"He was not someone you disagreed with,"
said my aunt about her father. That I agreed with.
I mentioned that there was one son who, in my father's stories, had his head knocked against a stone wall.
First my aunt looked utterly disbelieving. Later, "Father liked smart children." She said it as if that explained everything, justified everything.
"My father was smart. Adele was smart." I answered.
She agreed. Yes, they were. Then, "Herbert was retarded."
"My father remembers him having his head hit against a stone wall. And if he was retarded, surely that would not help him learn."
I have so many memories. I remember my father telling me that when he started school, he was so scared - not of school, but just scared - that he trembled all the time. The first grade teacher saw this, and held him on her lap, comforted him. He remembered her caring.
When he told the story, he was there again, held in the arms of this caring woman.
And I am remembering more of this story - anyway, I think I am remembering right. The teacher was ugly, he was told.
But to him she was utterly beautiful.
So many stories.
And I think of this aunt, and her construction of the past - a past in which her mother never said a bad word about her father, just against drink - "Why did the Lord create alcohol? Your father was a fine man except for alcohol."
In a way, those words admit he was often not a fine man - though in her story there is no battering, no near starvation.
It's when she said that her mother never said a word against her father, only against alcohol, that I countered with the story I've already told, of my grandmother's having told me that she never wanted to marry my grandfather. It's a conversation I remember vividly. "Why not? He hit you?" "No. He was mean to someone much weaker, very mean. And that turned me completely away from him."
Again I think of this aunt. She talked non-stop most of the 2 or 3 hours I was with her - of what her preferred holiday was, of the many holidays she had taken. Maybe most, I was struck that there were just, in a corner, 2 photos of her daughter, both small - and that there were dozens of photos of her more attractive and more vivacious grand-daughter. Huge blow-ups. An overwhelming presence in her home. Over the past 10 years, all the holidays have been to where this grand-daughter lives.
The message to her daughter - who was also there the entire
time - was not subtle.
That daughter was
not listened to, at all. What were her preferred holiday places? Mountains - so different from her mother's love, oceans. I know because I asked. And the mother countered with, mountains, mountains, she could do without mountains.
The daughter also asked me what I liked most. Wide open rolling hills, I said. And the daughter picked up that this was like much of the Austrian landscape near Vienna.
Yes, I said.
Is my aunt's - to me, pathological - talking her way of trying to make sure only her story is heard, nothing else will come out?
I don't know. I am less stunned now. I was - inside myself - gasping when I heard her story of her childhood - and more, her saying she remembered no beatings. This could not be possible. It did not make sense. How could this version of reality exist?
I have the easy answer: this aunt did not get beaten. But she saw many beatings and did not intervene. She was young. She was small. She did not want violence to be directed
at her. A very scary situation. Her coping mechanism: not to remember, or anyway, not to talk of what she remembered.
And of course, unless someone came from the same family, how could one challenge anything she said. So her words about her father - his never raising his hand, and so on - she said them as if she had said them dozens, most likely thousands, of times. Only this time she was talking to someone who had heard very different stories - and someone who tries to speak, does not believe in swallowing one's reality.
I was not angry. I was stunned
- but not stunned into silence. I did take a couple of minutes to think. But it did not make sense to be silent. In the first place, what would she say about the stories I had to tell? I wanted to know.
Now I am wondering: what will her sleep be like tonight? Will memories come up? Is she ashamed of how she acted as a child? Will she go back to the old stories - so easy, with the mental ruts created by decades of telling the same stories? Or will she now avoid these stories? Will something loosen inside her?
There was no anger, from me. But I could not leave the stories undisturbed.
Has anything changed in me?
I have been wondering about people telling their stories over and over, rather than listening.
When I was, earlier, listening to my aunt talk and talk and talk, I wondered about myself. How much did I silence my ex, instead of giving him space enough?
And then, with the utterly divergent stories, I was just stunned.
It seems to have sunk in now - or anyway, I don't feel stunned.
"Did you and my father never talk about childhood - your memories and his?"
It somehow never came up, she said.
I don't think he could have talked about it without so much old hurt and rage that there would not, most likely, have been space for her story to come out in a safe enough space.
She is the sister who knew, did not protect, did nothing. And then, so many resources went to her. But that was later, when she was 14, and my father was 12. And I shake my head. What about those Christmases - the hunger, the want.
They happened when my father was very small - 3, 4, 5, and she was just 18 months older, long before she went away to boarding school at 14.
More memories of the time with my aunt. The ending. We are outside, saying our goodbyes. I am trying to find common ground between my father's memories and hers. "His mother, your mother. My father adored her. You must have too. A soft woman, very caring."
She came back with a memory of feeling hurt. "My mother once said to me," she responded, "'You are not warm, like your brother.' He would hug her and kiss her, not even only when he was a small child, but when he was 12, 13, 14. I am not like that. It isn't me."
So again, something unexpected - a very different connection with the mother. But she remembered, more than anything, a reproach from her mother - anyway a comment indicating her mother preferred her brother.
What to do with all this? with the stories from my father, and now with the stories from this aunt, an almost non-stop talker, drowning out her daughter, little interest outward.
My big interest: what does one do with a past with so much hurt in it. How does one somehow not get stuck in it - also does not cut off from it, paper it over and leave the mess underneath.
For that, right now, no answers. It's been finding answers to that, that has been a big focus for me, especially the past couple of years, but much longer actually. But here, just ... that moment of being so stunned at worlds colliding, pasts colliding, when I know it's not just a matter of different things mattering more to different people
When memories collide, worlds collide. That has just come into mind.
A question. Was it okay to tell my aunt what I did,
basically to confront her with her memory distortion?
My aunt's stories. Is it memory distortion,
repressed memories, false memory,
or just different memories?
Elsa's Blog Journals.
When Memories Collide, Worlds Collide.
And I am stunned.
to check out
to a king
a good life?
I feel lost
a dark night
of the soul
What is the truth?
TMemory distortion:Memory distortion:Memory
Why is there
memory distortion?Memory distortion: