At the end of the industrial age, I stood between a chair and my office window , gazing at the Christmas shoppers fourteen stories below. I had just been asked a fairly technical question by my boss and mentor and so I was looking out the window to reflect. And I was preparing a response, or more accurately, a translation, that my boss could follow.
When, suddenly,…down there…among the crowds, I saw my grandfather. I recognized him because of his thin brimmed hat and the brown cardigan sweater barely covering his suspenders. His gait also confirmed his identity, still a bit stiff on the right side because of the stroke he had survived in 1959. And then, as she came through the glass door, I was able to make out that my mother was also with him, the key here being her silver hair and her soft plumpness covered by her raincoat, with the belt hanging unbuckled on each side. They had just left the Sibley’s department store through the Clinton Avenue doors and as they came to Main Street, together they turned in the opposite direction of my office and slowly walked out of my view. My impulse was to immediately bolt from the office, run to the stairwell and down all 14 floors to join the crowd and search for them.
Instead, after silently composing myself, I turned around and answered the question at hand. My reply described hashing algorithms and database lookup collisions and the possibility of manufacturing a computer’s understanding of the similarity of chemicals. My answers were framed within his knowledge of the software project that I and the company were designing to predict the toxic effects of theoretical molecular structures.
But when the conversation finished, after my boss left the office, as I slumped into my chair, all of my thinking returned to the scene that I had just witnessed beyond the window. I sensed that my grandfather and mother might still be down the block on the busy sidewalks. Or, perhaps, they had started the drive home to Bristol in my mother’s 1966 Ford Custom 500.
“So they are still alive within my memory” I thought. And at first. I consoled myself with the flashing of many stories – studded with the things that I knew about them – all safe from being forgotten. Their quips, the lessons they preached and even the fading memory of the sound of their voices. The smell of my Grandfather’s home rolled cigarettes, the nicotine stains on his hands. The sound and aroma of his home-canned tomatoes hitting the hot oil and garlic in the cast iron skillet as he began that night’s “sugo”: the tomato sauce to go with the macaroni and rustic salad that I still craved. His incredible physical strength and astonishing, lifelong pacifism – both always evident as he lived out his final days, Always he remained unaware that he projected himself as the most devoted, holy man I have ever met.
My mother’s knowing, beautiful brown eyes with the gold ring around the edges, That rollicking version of “On the Sunny Side of the Street” that she, a classically trained pianist, pounded out as her signature song. Now her playing was recorded only in my thoughts alongside the sounds of her forceful alto. Her sighs, her desperation, and her unforgettable intensity as the only college educated descendant of her own grandparents. In fact, she was the only example of a college educated adult that I knew while growing up. I skimmed through my personal catalog of her lectures on the biographies of artists, philosophy, religion, pacifism, and medical science. I felt again her love for Freud, Dr Spock, Renoir, the Big Band Era, Mendelsohn, Itzak Perlman. The New York Times, Liberal Thought and all the other interests and cultural judgements that she had so earnestly attempted to send on to my younger sister and I.
My mother and grandfather were two of the major loving influences in my life and there were others who now existed only as archives collected within my memory. But as I reflected, my mood suddenly changed to despair as I asked myself: “What will happen to their lingering essence when I finally go? ” Would my death be something like a second death for them as well? Would there be no one left who knew what I knew…knew what they had shared with me?
Would there be no trace among the living of their personality, their stories, their wisdom? Would it be as my Uncle Bob, also by then among the departed, had described about his presence within the corporate world: Would each of these singular lives be like a hand withdrawn from a bowl of water – once the wake had stilled – leaving no trace whatsoever of its former presence in that bowl?
Several decades later, I’m committed to a project to bring them back from over the horizon and, at the least, let some of their stories be re-told. Thucydides introduced his history with an explanation of his audience. It was not intended as the people of his day; he had captured the events of the Peloponnesian war in order that his stories would last forever. I have no delusions that my efforts could result in literary immortality for my subjects. But I am hoping to prolong stories of my friends, loved ones, relatives and acquaintances at least into another generation. This is how I help them rest in peace. And yet, should the dearly departed be looking on from their vantage out in the collective ether, they will also find disappointment here among my remembrances. Because this will be a collection of one-sided fragments which are often told from a slanted, fading perspective. They will live again only in the context of my life. That hints at another focal point of this journal – which is to build an autobiography from my understanding of those people who have influenced me along the way. In fact, I can only expect to fail if it was my plan to resurrect the entire being of any person now gone. But where I expect to succeed to will be to express a point of view of their essence – as I still appreciate now what and who they once were as the people I knew.