My grandparents lived in a brick house with black shutters. It sits as it always has on a tree-lined street and maintains the solid address of 25 Cabot Street.
As you face the house, the driveway and yard to the right dip down at a steep pitch, flattening when they reach the back yard, making the lawn’s grassy slope a safe place for rolling or sledding, depending on the season.
The yard behind the house abuts a neighbor’s, and when my grandparents lived there, it was home to a couple of pear trees and my grandfather’s rose garden.
These are the facts as I remember them, and snapshots like this one verify my mental image of the place.
But the remainder of my memories of that house and its inhabitants — the scratch of my grandfather’s whiskers when I kissed his cheek, or the smell of the single rose he’d place in a vase atop a mahogany hutch in the living room — are mine alone. I don’t know what my brothers see and hear when they mentally walk through its rooms, if they do, or if that house haunts their dreams the way it does mine.
I loved my grandmother, but I adored my grandfather, and he adored all of us. Again, I have evidence: a photographic proof made in his basement darkroom with notes.
Because he died a few weeks before my 11th birthday, my recollections of drawing with him at our kitchen table, or counting sidewalk cracks as we took our ritual Sunday walk around his neighborhood come in snatches like a crudely edited home movie.
My feelings connected with a time so long ago that ended too soon were reawakened as I read Karen Joy Fowler’s latest novel, We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves, which explores the tricky terrain of memory.
Rosemary, the story’s narrator, was five years old when her sister Fern was abruptly removed from their home. Rosemary’s earliest memories are of living on a farm, where she was heaped with attention, and where she and Fern were always together, a tangle of limbs on their mother’s lap. Until one day, Fern was gone.
What happened? The memories Rosemary has held onto for years are a quavery, incomplete version of events. Her older brother’s memories are another, more judgmental accounting of what happened and why. Eventually, Rosemary’s instincts reveal yet another story.
When an early connection is abruptly cut off, the depth of that loss is something one could spend a lifetime pondering and exploring. After years of tamping down some important truths, Rosemary eventually releases her memories and unravels the mystery of how Fern came to leave.
It is a fascinating read and well worth the tears that come during its deeply satisfying conclusion.
I’ve never had a sister, and I’ve never lost a sibling. Yet I understand what it means to lose someone important during your formative years. Their absence and your imperfect memories may haunt you. But you also might realize that some love is powerful enough to shape and sustain you long after time has reduced its face and voice to shadowy afterimages.