The Past Is Never Dead. It’s Not Even Past.

December 22nd, 2015 13 Comments

Gold pocket watch


I received an email from a reader in Germany expressing regret that I didn’t have fond memories of living there. That reader couldn’t be more wrong: I loved Germany and have many wonderful memories of my years there and the only regret I have is that I somehow gave the wrong impression. But as I dashed off a quick reply, listing just a few of the things that made that time so special, I started thinking about memory, about its tenuousness, and about the importance of keeping it alive, not just because it links us to our own past, but also to a continuum of the lives to which we in turn are linked.

In my preface to the anthology, To Absent Friends (Willow Creek Press), I wrote: “There have been dogs in my life since long before I was in it. My father loved dogs, and the dogs of his childhood and young manhood are as real to me as if the memories were my own, ghosts of ghosts I can call by name and summon to my side.” And it’s true; the stories my father told me about his own childhood, about dogs and horses and people, about the incidents, triumphs and disasters both, many made humorous only by time and space and my father’s wonderful sense of the absurd, those things still live within me, keeping a past I never knew as alive as my own. Were the things he told me carefully selected and edited to suit the circumstances of my varying ages? Of course, they were, but that makes them no less valid, no less worthy of remembrance.

My mother turned to past the like a sunflower to the sun, drawing throughout all her life strength and sustenance, meaning and perspective from people and events both long gone and almost certainly forgotten by others. Whether this was a reflection of her southern upbringing or her Irish blood (both groups being noted for their tenacious grip on that most insubstantial of all realities) or whether it was simply a facet of her own personality I couldn’t say, but there too, courtesy of her, are long dead people I can still raise from their rest to watch go about their business hundreds of years ago in disparate places: County Cork; Mauritius; Loch Lomond; Georgia; Virginia; a specific, tall old townhouse in Baltimore.

Looking into the past at those people I know and never knew, I can see the tattered remnants of a defeated clan, the beaten survivors who were not buried in one of the mass graves determined by tartan, make their escape from Scotland to Ireland to America. I can see a handsome, pale-eyed young peasant with a bootlegged education, standing on the raised base of a statue in the small village square of Kanturk and reading aloud the account of the new Queen Victoria’s coronation for the rest of villagers, none of whom could read. I can see a brilliant, volatile college professor standing in a clearing, in his hand a dueling pistol that must have been old-fashioned even for that long ago time, and see the changing arrays of emotions that passed over his face following that irrevocable, terrible, minute movement of a finger. I can see an elderly man with a short white beard walking hand in hand with my five-year old father, the old man pointing out to the little boy he adored favorite landmarks around the Baltimore harbor, and when I hold now in my hand the gold watch my father carried in his coat pocket every day of his life, I hold too that same hand of a man I never knew.

So many others, more real to me in some ways than the people I see on my infrequent and irregular sorties into town; that’s the past we all carry, the past that never died or even passed.

And knowing these people I never knew helps keep my own parents alive, bracketed as it were, between oblivion and the unknown. Memories are as important a part of us as our DNA; indeed, who can accurately say which is which? Perhaps John Updike said it best. It’s a poem I may have posted before, but I don’t care; it’s worth posting again.

Perfection Wasted

And another regrettable thing about death

is the ceasing of your own brand of magic,

which took a whole life to develop and market—

the quips, the witticisms, the slant

adjusted to a few, those loved ones nearest

the lip of the stage, their soft faces blanched

in the footlight glow, their laughter close to tears,

their tears confused with their diamond earrings,

their warm pooled breath in and out with your heartbeat,

their response and your performance twinned.

The jokes over the phone. The memories packed

in the rapid-access file. The whole act.

Who will do it again? That’s it: no one;

imitators and descendants aren’t the same.


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  1. Anonymous says:

    Every third weekend in September, Eureka, SD hosts a celebration of their German / Russian Heritage known as Schmeckfest.

    During this weekend, I make it a point to go to their museum.

    The Eureka Museum is second to none. It is clean and well kept up.
    Buildings on the museum grounds include: a country school house, a country church, a sod house, and a building used to display antique farm machinery.

    It is a visual treat which leads a person back in time.
    Sympathizing with how hard life must have been on the prairie for these settlers, brings a deeper sense of appreciation for today’s technology.
    By technology, I mean the things we take for granted. Such as indoor plumbing and electricity.

    Kinda makes me wonder what future generations will think of us.



  2. Anonymous says:

    Wow. Just…Wow. An absolutely beautiful post, at the perfect time of year.

    You have me crying like a baby.

  3. Anonymous says:

    Hi JP I believe the past is full of lessons we can learn from. Whether the pas is a good one or a bad one we all can learn. Even from other’s past experiences. My most cherished memories are of my grandparents. My grandmother for her time before the war was a feminist in the making. She proposed to my grandfather before the second World War. She left small town Canada to travel to Montreal Quebec. That was two big events before the women’s lib movement My memories of my grandfather telling me that he helped his father read to keep his job on the railway. Although they are both dead their memories are not to me. They are very much still alive. I believe JP that your mom relied on her past for her strength in a given situation. And yes I agree this is what makes us all human.

    Tena French Halifax, NS Canada

  4. Anonymous says:

    Thanks JP for triggering off all the memories and stories from my past ……..priceless


  5. Anonymous says:

    Beautiful, beautiful, beautiful.

  6. Anonymous says:

    Shortly before I read this blog the memory of this song came into my mind.

    Christmas in Killarney song by Bing Crosby.

    I think that is a strange coincidence..

  7. Anonymous says:

    The Color door of Dublin. I will say that I have no idea if this story is true or not.

    The story is this. When Queen Victoria’s husband Prince Albert died she ordered all of England, the Scots and Irish to paint their doors black. The Irish being the Irish were not about to obey that order. So they went out and bought every color of the rainbow and promptly painted the doors those colors. The doors and all of their colors are still there to this day. I suggest that you take this story with a grain of salt.

  8. Anonymous says:

    We are our memories. The good and the bad.

    I saw a movie about Alzheimer’s disease and it was the saddest movie I ever saw. In the movie called “Still Alice” Alice starts to lose her memories slowly bit by bit. In one part of the movie her daughter asks her what it is like. She says that is like losing pieces of yourself until you don’t even know who you are.
    It is like having yourself erased. You don’t remember you husband or you children. You don’t remember you own life.
    It does show how important our memories are and how our memories form who we are.

  9. Anonymous says:

    Il y a des voyages qui nous ont marqué plus que d’autres. Vous parlez dans votre blog de l’Ecosse et de l’Irlande !!! Pour moi, ce sont des lieux magiques et tellement beaux. Il y a deux ans, je suis allée dans le Comté de Cork et j’ai pu visiter de magnifiques châteaux ainsi que des ruines très bien conservées. J’ai visité également d’autres lieux en Irlande, plus beaux les uns que les autres, en particulier Glendalough, qui est un site monastique, où se dégage une atmosphère étrange !!! En Ecosse, je me suis promenée au bord du Loch Lomond où des vaches « Highlands » paissaient !!! Elles s’accordent très bien au paysage !!! J’ai pu visiter aussi beaucoup d’autres châteaux et de lacs, dont le Loch Ness (mais je n’ai pas vu le monstre de la légende 😉 )
    Je n’ai qu’une envie, c’est d’y retourner et surtout réaliser un de mes fantasmes : me mettre en haut d’une colline très verte d’Irlande, et de la dévaler jusqu’en bas en roulant, en essayant de ne pas bousculer un mouton !!!! A 63 ans, je risque de me faire remarquer et peut-être aussi de me casser un os 😉
    Bon Noël à tous !!!!

  10. Anonymous says:

    In my Life The Beatles

    There are place that I remember…

  11. Anonymous says:

    How I love your “To Absent Friends” collection–about time for “To Absent Friends 2”, don’t you think? And indeed, another beautiful post….. I ain’t so sure what’s past is ever LOST–not completely. Everything IS unique of course, people, animals, places, and times–if only to make us appreciate them more. But I often feel, somehow, someway beyond our ken, they are all still with us( and I DO include the dinosaurs in this philosophy….)…..L.B.

  12. Anonymous says:

    Being from the South or some might call where I am from the Southwest(it seems the opinion on what texas is referred to differs with more than a few) I sort of feel your mom’s returning to the past is surely at least partly due to her being from the South. I know that I think of the past frequently as has all of my family. I still remember tales that my grandma told us about her youngest son and the horse that he loved and that love him. Even after that son had been killed when he was 12 by a boy slinging a baseball bat into my uncle’s head his horse Black Bess still continued to come look for my uncle until the day she died.
    While some past memories are too painful for some to go revisit and would be best left faded in a person’s memory other memories are ones that give a person a smile when they need one the most and should be kept alive.

    Nancy Darlene

  13. Anonymous says:

    My dad died last year. I am his only child, and only descendant. You know how, if you want a job done right, you do it yourself? I wrote and delivered his eulogy at his funeral. The last couple of years he was alive, in his eighties, despite him forgetting repeatedly that he had told his stories before, I listened with an acuteness that comes from being aware there was now a finite amount of instances I would hear these from him. The week he lay dying, I sat by his bed and with every family member and friend who came to say goodbye, I listened to their stories about my dad. Some I had heard, others I recall from being present. Some I heard for the first time. In the few days between his death and funeral, I went through decades of boxes of photos, matched selections to the memories, and made a PowerPoint slideshow to accompany my delivery of the eulogy. Months later I saw the funeral director, who said it was one of the most memorable eulogies she had ever heard. It was nothing but stories, memories … as are we.

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