I tried to forget about my parents and start over self-reliantly with a clean slate. It didn’t work. And as this book took shape, I learned my parents had tried to do the same thing—to forget about their parents and start over with a clean slate. It didn’t work for them, either. The past doesn’t go away. We can tell ourselves we have forgotten it, but it goes right on influencing us. The past is what makes us who we are. My problem was that I didn’t know my parents’ stories, which meant I didn’t really know my own. Our stories are what bind us together.
Chapter Two – After the Funeral
The family gathered at Mother’s apartment in The Atrium, a high-rise assisted living facility. All of us knew she needed to move to a smaller, more manageable place. And I knew she needed to cut back on her expenses. But none of us considered asking her to live with us—or even near us. Besides, she would never leave Kansas City and none of us were going to move back there. To our surprise, she calmly agreed to move to a smaller apartment in the same building. This, of course, meant she would have to get rid of a lot of her stuff.
“Take what you want,” she said, waving at her treasures. But before any of us could speak, she produced a list: “I’ve assigned each of you exactly what you want.”
Clearly, she expected us to want her things and would be disappointed if we didn’t. But we’d been warned so often that we weren’t inheriting anything that none of us wanted anything. No, that’s not quite right. I wanted her drawings and her photograph albums, but they weren’t on her list because she didn’t think they were worth wanting.
We assured her that we could manage without her list. She was taken aback—not just at our deference to each other but at our choices. She knew no more about us than we did about her.
My sister and brother sent the stuff they chose back to Texas and went home. I chose Mother’s photograph albums, her drawings, and the contents of my father’s desk. The latter included a contemporaneous record of the time he was interviewed by detectives about a kickback scheme that one of his company’s salesmen had concocted, a pair of travel journals he and Mother wrote when they were going on annual tours of different corners of the globe, a collection of articles by “old timers” that used to appear in the Kansas City Star, and some miscellaneous folders, one of which contained the genealogical research given to him by his cousin, June Stallard Beck.
When I found his high school yearbook and a yearbook published by the Greek societies of the Kansas City School of Law. I packed those, too.
Then I asked Mother when she wanted to move. She said she needed more time.
What to do? Mary and I couldn’t afford to go on living in a hotel for who knew how long while we waited for her to be ready to move. Nor could we move in with her. I would get sick. Mary knew this and heroically volunteered to stay with my mother until she was ready to move.
With a sigh of relief, I fled back to Manhattan.
Week followed week. Mother still wasn’t ready to move. Mary was going crazy. A woman asked her if she was a new resident. Taken aback, she explained that she was visiting. “I’m staying with Mary Ellen Knapp.”
Her new acquaintance exclaimed, “Oh, I was a member of her wedding party!”
Mary passed this news on to my mother. “Shall we invite her for lunch?”
No, my Mother didn’t want to see her—wouldn’t say why, just didn’t want to see her. Mary was surprised, a little shocked. I wasn’t. Mother had never wanted to “rake up” the past. It was over, and she wanted it to stay that way.
Back in Manhattan, I looked through Mother’s photograph albums. She reminded me of Midas, who turned everything he touched to gold; she turned everything she saw to photographs, with the very odd exception of a trip she and Dad took to the New York World’s Fair in 1940. (More of that later.) She started taking pictures while she was in high school (1918-1922), but her albums include pictures she inherited from my grandmother, which extend her photographic record well into the 1800s.
When I was a little boy and had to play inside on a rainy day, I would drag a chair into the closet and stand on it in order to take down one of the photo albums. I’d lay it on the floor and ask, “Who is this?” “Where was this?” “Is that you?” I never got any answers and was soon told to put it back.
“The future is what counts, son.”
But it sure looked to me like the past was important to her, too. Leaving the house for a date with a high school girlfriend, I would see her sitting on the couch with an album on her lap and photographs scattered around her as she selected which ones to make part of her official record. Sometimes she would still be at it when I came home. But if that record was so important to her, why, when she finished an album, did she put it away in the closet and never look at it again?
Clearly those albums were not intended to be aids to reflection. She wasn’t interested in thinking about the past—“in mooning over yesterday.” Quite the opposite. She wanted it over. But it was her past and she wanted to keep it. I think she felt that with each new album she had “saved” a period of her life. It hadn’t disappeared. It was “there”—in the closet. I think she thought of each album as a period of time she had mummified and of the closet as the domestic equivalent of a pyramid. For me, though, the closet was like a bank and her albums were like money, gathering interest over the years.
Looking through her albums inspired me to go to my files for the letters we received from her and other members of my family while I was in Panama. And switching back and forth from the letters to the pictures, I had begun, without yet realizing it, to hunt for the plot.