The Memory Keeper’s Daughter
I wrote this essay when my mother was still alive, when she’d already verbally passed the “Matriarch of the Family” torch to me, when I’d begun to feel the full weight—and privilege—of preserving the memory of her losses. My brother, Patrick Joseph McKenna, would be sixty years old today, if only he’d somehow lived past the age of four. It’s in his honor I wrote this, and in my mother’s and father’s and grandparents’, too. For the longer I live, the more I think that remembrance may itself be the greater part of honor.
It’s a quiet worry, not one that I’ve ever expressed in words until now. But I guess I’ve carried it in my heart all my life.
Do you feel surprised when you open your containers of Christmas ornaments each year? I’m always shocked at the gasps of joy and stray tears of nostalgia that escape me when I see the treasures my children made for me during their school years. They are my most precious decorations.
But there, among these keepsakes, is one I weep over season after season. It’s a tiny red and ivory knit stocking, no bigger than a baby’s sock, with a printed Santa and the words “Baby’s First Christmas.”
I can’t help how I feel when I hang it on my tree. I can’t help thinking of my parents celebrating Christmas 1951 with their three-month-old firstborn child, unaware that he’d only ever spend three more Christmases on this earth. I can’t help it that I’ve already asked my sweet daughter to become the caretaker for Patrick’s stocking someday.
I’ve already asked my daughter to not forget.
Because, you see, my mother now remembers less about her little boy than I do. I repeat back to her the stories she’s told me about his short life, and she shakes her head. “Did I tell you that, really? It was so long ago, like another lifetime…”
It didn’t used to be like this. In one way, my mother’s whole life has revolved around the loss of this one dear son. But now, so much has faded in focus for her, and so I have become, of my own volition, The Memory Keeper’s Daughter.
I know that Patrick’s name will someday—perhaps with the passage of only one more generation—be little more than a brief line in a family tree. A line with no branches descending beneath it. Someday, perhaps one of my own grandchildren will take up an interest in family history and ask about the little boy without a story.
Will the Baby’s First Christmas stocking hang on a tree somewhere for generations to come? Or will the threads finally disintegrate like a mother’s fragile mind? I think I know the truth, but it’s hard to face it.
There are some things I’ll take with me to the grave, but I can still hope my brother’s memory isn’t one of them.
Posted by Katy on 08/09/11 at 12:59 PMFallible Comments...
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