Einmal ist keinmal, one more time

At the end of the summer, on the last days before school started, I’d go into the classroom with my dad at the school where he taught. There was a periodic table of the elements on one wall, chalkboards and formulas, workstations where kids did experiments. Dad’s classroom had an odd smell—not a bad smell, just odd. It wasn’t formaldehyde, but had the same, vinegar quality. The smell of science. In the break room dad let me get the cherry cola I liked from an old, coin-operated soda dispenser. Forty years later, and I can still remember what the bottle felt like in my hand, my thumb running across the grooves. And seeing the film Planet of the Apes for the first time while it was snowing outside, and we had the day off from school. Or the sad-looking grocery store near our apartment, called Lane-co. Or the stained glass candle holder my mom and dad made: a Polaroid of me beside it now peach-colored, from time. Memories turn into clumps and clusters like that, and the memory-bearer is the only one who can find the thread that untangles them.

In the last few visits with my grand-dad, he would tell the story about a Scottish terrier they had, the time that dog (“Scotty”) came running around the lake when he was driving off somewhere in his pickup. I can’t even remember the punchline which is funny, because he told the same story every time I saw him, each time like it was the first. Maybe I wasn’t listening because I was distracted by the fact he was losing his memory, and I was lost in my own grief with the knowledge I’d soon be losing him.

My dad said he found something from my grandfather going through their old house. It was a framed artifact from his time doing nuclear science at the power and light company, “PP&L.” Dad said that as my grandfather got older he would have gotten shoved to the side of projects, at work. It was one of the last studies he did, a degradation chart, though my dad (also a scientist) couldn’t make out what it meant. But he couldn’t part with it either, because it had meant a lot to his dad. And in that way, there was a part of his long-lost father in that frame—and a part of himself, in a sense.

Maybe this is why I write memoir, because I can’t let go of memories, and I want to believe there’s more meaning to them—or if they’re lost, it’s like those times didn’t really exist—and nor did I, as a result.

I started reading The Unbearable Lightness of Being when Dawn and I were traveling to Berlin by train in February two years ago. But I left the book for my mom in Germany, and never finished it. I’m finally toward the end now, and dog-eared this page:

History is as light as individual human life, unbearably light, light as a feather, as dust swirling into the air, as whatever will no longer exist tomorrow.

Einmal ist keinmal. What happens but once might as well not have happened at all.

I guess that’s it, when weighing the value of one’s life, I just want to make mine heavier, somehow.



Categories: identity, Memoir, writing

Tags: , , , , , , , , , , ,

23 replies

  1. Speaking of degradation, all my video tapes are still sitting in the armoir, still awaiting transfer to digital. The ones I made, I mean, like that trip I took to NYC with she who I now remember as Ms New York. They are getting old and brittle, like me. I get what you mean about wanting to weigh things down so they don’t fly away. Hope you have a good FD, duder.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Resonant and thought-provoking piece, Bill. To make one’s life meaning weightier. Or it could be lighter – gathering up all the remembered strands of people’s lives like a big bunch of balloons and letting them fly. That’s more the sense I have from your writing. Have a good week, you and yours.

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  3. Forgot to say, that’s a rather mind-altering image heading the post. Great stuff.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. After my first was born, I suggested to my family that we all write down memories of our family, including of family members no longer with us. I thought it important that the next generation know those stories, because you’re right. Once those memories are gone it is as if they never existed. That’s something that just seems to sad and painful on some level, but on the other hand, it simply isn’t true. Those events happened and you experienced them and grew from them, regardless of whether they are remembered.

    I get your need to write memoir. I struggle with that type of writing. I’m not sure I can do it except for in rare circumstances. There are two real stories that I want to write one day. The first is my grandmother’s story, or as much of it as I can piece together before my mother passes away. I’ve started it and continue to noodle over it in my head. The second is to turn the story of my work life over the last sixteen years into something. It may interest only me and the people I have worked with, but I think I need to write it for my own therapy. I’ve started writing that also — just the opening couple of paragraphs. But that story won’t see the light of day anywhere until I retire, unless I can figure out a way to completely hide the reality behind a fictional veneer — which is an effort I don’t want to make. At least not at the moment. And as I type these words, I think I want to write both of those stories to ensure that they aren’t lost and to give greater weight to my own story and the particular hell I’ve been going through for some time now.

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  5. maybe most memories are meant to last but that one time and kind of drift away? maybe that’s why we long to frame and preserve some of them, to hold them down to the ground, to make sure they really happened and have evidence to support it?

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    • Yes, I like that thought: I’ve played around with the “trap them in a jar with air holes” thought, too. Good one Beth. Thanks for playing!


  6. “The smell of science”. Love that.
    Oh, “peach coloured from time” – that’s fabulous. I was looking for a faded colour image the other day. Next time I’m ringing you, whatever time it is.

    The last Lonely Keyboards post had a line about being anchored by the music collection – that weight of ephemera resolves into insubstantial stuff, no matter what it weighs.

    There’s a Hawkwind line, borrowed from Longfellow, “Lives of great men all remind us, we can make our lives sublime, and departing leave behind us, footprints in the sands of time”.

    Until the next tide, that is.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. I’m in a particularly emotional swing this week. Touched by all you wrote—words that hit the chord like a sledgehammer hits a rock. (Its not always fun being a woman.) However, it makes touching words like these sing as they were meant to. To drag a feather across the spine of memory and bring up the forgotten threads of my father and grandfathers who have each proceeded me in death in their turn. My husband who has been gone for thirteen years—longer now than the time we had together. That is a rough rubicon to traverse. Sorry, but you caught me in a maudlin mood and it does stir up the keinmal something fierce.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Ah, wow…I feel for you Kiri and hope there’s some solace in those memories and your reflection on them. These holidays can be really hard for folks. I’m lucky I don’t know that yet, but only a matter of time. It’s why I try to savor small moments and put them up here for my own preservation and hopefully some sort of entertainment or inspiration for others…enjoy the day and thanks for sharing and connecting with me, here. Bill

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