I: The Face of Memory
I have always occupied myself with the question of whether memory has a face. I imagine that such a face – if it exists – is always morphing; lined with contours of fleeting images, events, places, time, smells; shifting around like sand.
– Yinka Elujoba
From time immemorial, human beings have always been bothered with closure; ending a thing permanently. There are no wars without death and, most times, people fight to end things. This desire for an end is often without recourse to the subject. While certain individuals are considered public enemies and ended by the state, it is always without recourse to the feelings of the family members of these ‘public enemies.’ Perhaps this desire for closure is copied from nature itself as one of the only constant things about humanity is death. No matter how long a person lives, it is inevitable. Sometimes death comes earlier than expected but it comes anyway. However, with closure come memories. Memories of wars, people and events linger long after they are over. Memory is vivid, yet it is hazy. Memory is light, yet it is heavy.
Like Elujoba, I have also wondered if memory has a face. If it does, for me it would be the image of my late mother; temporal yet permanent. It has many manifestations but it is what has dominated my mind the most. On a Saturday morning in 2004, I was in front of my grandfather’s house when I saw vehicles pull up in front. I immediately knew that my mother, who had been admitted in the hospital for a while, had died. I was a teenager and since then all I have of her are memories. That day, I did not cry. I also did not cry when, some days later, the church organized a burial program. But those days remain etched like a bad scar. The paradox of it is how it has added events and scenes to my memory, like thick blotches of paint on a white wall, while also removing from me memories of what life would have been with my mother. Memories manifest in many ways for me and I try to understand them as I grow up. Some I have ways to manage, some I don’t but I know it is an unending task.
II: Memory as Pain
The death of a loved one is like an amputation – C.S. Lewis.
When I found the quote above, I knew it was true for me as I navigated life. I grew up imagining what would have been if my mother had not died. Like one living with an amputation, I’d tell myself that things would have been different, better, and I would have had more help. Memories were painful and, as I try to process the pain, I often get new revelations and new ways she would have been helpful to me. Like an amputated arm, a part of me went with her; perhaps it was the part that stabilized things because that was one of her major roles in my life growing up. She was all I had growing up and when she died, memories didn’t help as they reminded me of when I had it all together. Whenever I struggled with life, memories would remind me that I might not have struggled if she was alive. Whenever life was seamless, memories also questioned what joy was there in a motherless and rudderless life. Memories reminded me of stable periods, enabled by my mother, of unstable periods, alleviated by her. She seemed to always have it all together and her death exposed the fragility and inadequacy of everyone in the family. I always wondered whether every child lost their childhood stability eventually or whether I lost it simply because of her death. And memories attach to landmarks so memories would remind me that, the last time I saw her physically, she complained of leg pain. This memory of pain has been a constant which I didn’t know how to repress for a long time.
III: Haunting Memories
Just like her burial place, unlikely places became minefields too. The school she taught, the church we attended and her friends’ houses. I managed to stay off some but there was one I could not stay off: my sister. My sister was just five years when we lost our mother but as she grew up, she began to look like her. I would often relate with my sister without looking at her face. I could not stand the face of my mother which she wore daily. I could not hate my own sister but I avoided her face actively. On this innocent face is my mother’s face, bright and firm. Memories haunt and I am still unable to confront it. I always long for the common dreams people have of their dead parents, giving them instructions and petting them but I never had one. Even with my longings, the semblance of it I have, I am unable to confront. I hope to look my sister in the face for long someday, maybe I can separate the mother from the daughter. In secondary school, after I had lost my mother, I was always singing burial hymns for fun and I looked at the rectangle shaped Mathematical set box like it was a coffin because it looked like one. I said it out repeatedly until AyoOluwa, a smarter friend, called my attention to it. That was a stage and I got over it. Memories haunt like life is a bad dream but I have no solution to it yet.
IV: Fading Memories
Of course nothing prepared me for my mother’s death, not even her long illness, so I did not revel enough in the times we had together. I wished there were enough landmarks; pictures, videos, trips and other things I can hold, feel, touch or see after her demise. The memories I have are often hazy and, as time passes, they fade. I often try so hard to remember scenes that I am tempted to make them up in my imagination. When I am confronted with a situation, I try to imagine what her reaction would be if she were there or what her reaction was in a similar situation in the past. Many times, I am unable to muster the memories and I blame myself, for not paying enough attention, for letting myself forget. Memories connected to grief as I grew up and I often found myself walking in a minefield. The first five years, I avoided our old house, I avoided the part of the new house where she was buried and I still don’t sleep in the house now as an adult. It is a minefield for me. Memories fade and no one is to blame. I might have to write that somewhere so I stop beating myself over for the faded memories of my mother.
V: Memories as Respite
In moments of exhaustion, memories come in handy as respite. Sometimes when life gets overwhelming, the human brain activates memories of good times and it creates a bittersweet feeling. As fleeting as the joy might be, sometimes it is all that is needed. Sometimes it is memories that serve as respite in the midst of crises. Memories offer reassurance. It suggests that perhaps good times might return. Even when the situation shows that it won’t, memories are dwelt in and they help. There are those who downplay the importance of memories, those who charge others to move on or look forward. I often ask them how to ignore one’s past. How do you ignore the very person that you are? For me, no one else can serve as my mother and it is simply impossible to move forward from her. The gap remains open and all I have are memories. How is it possible for me to move on from that? I don’t think it is. It is in memories that I dwell when I tell myself that my mother has stopped growing old even as I grow. Memories help to freeze her in time, instead of killing her. Memories can serve as respite but they seem to have a mind of their own, acting as respite sometimes and acting as a reminder of pain some other times. I try my best to make memories into respite. I remember the good times and pretend like the bad times were simply scenes that did not occur.
VI: Memory as Personal
The debate about the personal and the public is a popular one and it cuts across many discussions of human life. A lot of what we call personal nowadays are actually public and vice versa. The line between the personal and the public has been blurred. Collective memory is why my mother’s burial had hundreds of mourners and why many older neighbours would look at me with pity whenever they met me after my mother’s demise. In retrospect, it is difficult to call them well-wishers as others are wont to do because if they wished us well, they would not have triggered me with the pity look each time they saw me, they would not have come to trigger my grandfather with each condolence visit. In the days when the family mourned, many would drive themselves calmly to our house and then begin to perform and throw themselves to the floor on seeing us. This memory is my first introduction to hypocrisy and it comes back each time I see people mourn others. I now see mourning as a performative act, done to please oneself rather than the bereaved or the dead, for of what use is mourning to the dead? Mourners are usually plenty but the memories of mourning are personal and not collective. It is the same way I remember the death of Gbenga Adeboye, the master comedian, musician and actor. It shook the country but what I remember is the collective memory: the performances, the shape of his casket and the crowd that mourned him. The gap he left was filled poorly in popular culture but I moved on, like thousands of his fans. Only his family members and close associates would have memories that are personal enough to haunt, to pain and to please. The death of my mother is personal to me and I cannot even express how much it has defined me. I still cannot put it into words and if I ever do, it is just so I get some respite from the memories.
VII: Curating Memories
“He who can curate memories has mastered life.”
I hold the quote above to be unassailable and truthful, at least for me. After years of living with a consciousness of memories, I know that memories have to be curated carefully. The ones that haunt have to be avoided most times and the ones that please have to be reenacted as much as possible. 15 years after the demise of my mother, I decided to bring the memory of her burial to the fore and revel in it. Over 100 pupils from the school where she taught before her death lined up on the road waiting for her as the corpse was brought from the mortuary to the church. It was like a guard of honour and I imagine that she was quite important to her colleagues and pupils. It took 15 years for me to understand the significance of that but now that I do, I magnify it and convince myself that she died a hero. It helps me appreciate her more and it guides my life decisions. This memory serves the dual purpose of pleasing me and giving me closure, as it reminds me that even in death, my mother had people who appreciated her.
I now understand that life itself is a minefield which we navigate daily. Rules are fluid and cases have to be treated based on their own merit. Only very few things are certain in life, one of them is memories. It is then the responsibility of each person to curate their memories according to what they want to dwell on. It would be reductionist to say therapy is merely the curation of memories assisted by another person but the bulk of what therapists do relies on memories. Maybe if we pay more attention to memories and are deliberate about the one we create and curate, the world would be better.
Ayodele Ibiyemi is a lifetime student of Literature. He is also a reader who writes occasionally. For him, the world is intractable and words are what makes it livable. He tweets at @ayo_eagles.
This entry appeared in The Memory Issue
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