Tuesday, May 30, 2017

Family Institutional Memory

One of the things I learned about in Library School was Institutional Memory; what an organization knows to be true because of the people who work there. Often, if people share their knowledge, this memory is not too adversely affected by people leaving, but some of it will be. Fred, my former boss, was a World War 2 freak and knew a lot of random information that sometimes came in handy. It was necessary, but it was helpful.

A family has an institutional memory, too, because we know that grandma was really good with needlepoint and thus knew where all the thread stores were. Her sister was a great knitter and knew where all the yarn stores had been in their old neighborhood in Brooklyn. She knew that most of them were gone, and she certainly wasn't going to go back there when she visited New York (particularly since nobody we knew LIVED in Brooklyn anymore), but she'd known them once.
My father had an good memory. No, check that, my father had an obnoxiously good memory. I'm not sure if it was something he worked at, and I do know he abused drugs (mostly alcohol) that should have had a detrimental effect on his memory. If it did, we never noticed.

My father could see a movie once, and remember whole sections of dialogue. Me? Maybe, if I'm paying close attention, I'll remember dialogue. I can memorize something -- songs, music, poetry -- but I'll have to work at it, most likely. But that's not really what I'm talking about when I say "Family Institutional Memory."
Every family has a story, a sort of creation myth; a story they tell themselves that may or may not be true, but which represents how they see themselves fitting into the world.

OK, I don't know if EVERY family has this story, but I know mine does. My parents met at a US Out Of Central America Rally in D.C. Kind of perfect. My mom believed in politics and revolution. I think my father did too, but my father wasn't as involved as my mother. He was perfectly willing to be a cheerleader for the movement.
The Family Story becomes how you fit into the world, because it is how you figure out where your family fit in. My parents wanted to make the world a better place, but my mother was more devoted to this cause than my father. Perhaps she just believed that change was possible more than my father did, because her family had believed that change was possible. And that's how mom believes in therapy, and my father really didn't. He respected that other people do believe in therapy, but not for him.

I understand I may have completely misrepresented my father's beliefs, but he's dead, and that's part of my point. Everything I think he believed may now become, de facto, what he believes, because there are fewer people to tell me otherwise. How our family organized itself will become how I think it did, because fewer and fewer people will be around to tell me otherwise. Since I am the only child of my parents, and my cousins have spread out and were never too close to begin with, how could they tell me differently. They might have a different impression, but I suspect they would defer judgement to my mother and then to me.
Shit. This makes me the historian of the family now.
I'm not sure this is what I expected to have happen when my father died. But I'm pretty sure anything I expected to have happen was ill informed anyway. Anyone's presence is a layered thing, how it affects you depends on many things which are not completely within your control. Your memories aren't even completely within your control. What you remember now depends on what you believe is important, and what you believed was important at the time (which is why you remembered it in the first place) and both of those beliefs can change of over time, which can change how you remember something and what you remember that you know to be true, and what you remember which you think isn't quite what happened.
How does your family story change when pieces of it are lost? Does it really matter? Your family changes when parts of it change (when the uncle you didn't like divorces your aunt, the fabric of the family changes) so why shouldn't the story change with it? We revise a nation's history as we think differently of it, or we teach different perspectives of a country's history, why shouldn't the family history change as people leave, willingly or unwillingly (and YES, that is a euphemism for divorce). (lol)
The stories we tell ourselves and that we tell others will change over time. But still, the removal of one story teller means her stories are gone, and that changes how the rest of the stories are told.

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