“Why,” students ask me, “do you spend so much time writing and telling your mother’s story?”
I tell my mother’s story for both personal and political reasons.
My personal reasons were captured perfectly in a recent New York Times review of a new book called, Moonwalking with Einstein: The Art and Science of Remembering Everything. “Memory is intricately tied to identity; we are a product of our own experiences. What we perceive is shaped by what we have perceived before; what we learn is bootstrapped on past learning. Amnesia seems to many so horrifying because it robs us of our own autobiography, and thus, it seems, ourselves.”
For years, my mother coped with her losses by cutting off her story. In doing so, she inadvertently deprived me of an essential personal narrative to understand her and myself. It was her maternal impulse to insulate me from her own painful history. She believed she was protecting me; instead, I felt alienated from her. Now that she’s shared her story with me and I’ve recorded it, we both feel we have an autobiography.
Still, it’s difficult to balance the past and the present… but it’s critical. Sometimes, I feel the past has overtaken my present and I want to leave it behind me. I simply want to fully experience each moment without worry of my responsibility to tell this story. Yet, when I distance myself from the story and my own history, I feel I have shirked my responsibility to my mother and her family and I have lost part of myself.
Politically, there is an even greater mandate to tell the story. Of course, there is the old adage that those who forget history are doomed to repeat it. So that drives me. More importantly, I recognize that it’s important to be one of the many voices that interpret the past.
George Orwell summed it up best: “He who controls the present, controls the past. He who controls the past, controls the future.”
So I keep telling our story.