“Memory — fragile, hazy-bright, miraculous, was to them the spark of life itself, and nearly every sentence of theirs began with some appeal to it . . . .”
— Donna Tartt, The Little Friend
One of my sons joined me on a recent summer night to seek a view of northern lights predicted to swirl so atypically southward that they would be within view if we drove just a few hours north.
On the way he indulged me as I pulled off the road and scampered with my camera towards relatively tame mountain vistas. Like his father, he is very patient.
Meteorological predictions went unfulfilled. But the fact that we saw no aurora of dazzling blue and green lights did not make it an unsuccessful jaunt.
The two of us wound our way in the dark around the White Mountains. Mt. Washington’s serpentine blackened hulk loomed over us, reminding me of a dream I had when I was ten: my toddler-aged dream self was standing knee-deep in the ocean and I was surrounded and dwarfed by stacks of boulders. No one else was in sight.
Ours was the only car on the highway, our headlights muted echoes of two stunningly bright lights in the night sky.
The night’s dark watercolor whorl beckoned to both our former selves.
“Still more coming . . . x, y, z . . . . ” I murmured to my firstborn, who is now not far short of a doctorate in pure mathematics.
“We were here before, and you and your brother wanted me to read Chicka Chicka Boom Boom the whole way.” I added.
He had been only three on the night I remembered last winding down this road. In the deep dark of that recent June night, though, I still could see not only the long packed-away picture book’s saturated pinks and oranges, green coconut tree leaves and neon letters, but the carnation pink velour shirt my baby girl had worn, the holly-sprigged cobalt parka in which one son had been swaddled in his car seat. My husband Jim would have been playing his music, though a Raffi tape would have been at the ready.
Unsaid: the “we” in “we were here before” was our family. It was I who read to the children in the car because my husband, their father, who has since died far too young, had always taken the wheel when we traveled.
“I remember,” my son said. He paused a beat. “I think this was the first time I went skiing, and dad took me and he brought me up a rope lift. And the aunts were there, too, in a different part of the place we were staying, and there was something about a refrigerator? A broken refrigerator in one of their rooms?”
He jogged my memories. He was right on all scores.
“How did you remember that?”
We drove on, trading off pieces of our family memories, sequences of bright clattering dominoes, pictures from our past.
“We came back over this bridge with the big stone circles and it was raining, and we stopped right over there and had pancakes.”
“And here–just about a block away, around the corner–do you remember we stayed overnight and we were in the room decorated with the baseball posters?”
“Oh, and then we went a little way off the highway near the mountain the next day and dad found a trail with a waterfall, and we went through a little tunnel to get there….”
A few years ago I heard on my car radio a story about an elderly professor who remarked that when his wife died, all their family memories died for him too–that there was no point in his holding onto a past she was no longer there to curate with him.
Mercifully, that is not so for me.
In under a week it will be the anniversary of my wedding. (Perhaps there should be a word for a widow’s or widower’s wedding anniversary . . . a widoversary?) I have very few photographs of our wedding, which took place in the days of film photography. We have no moving pictures, no preserved sound. But I can easily call back our friend Gary playing the guitar, our friend Patty singing, the exact timbre and measure of our best man Jon’s words to Jim, my long-gone grandmother’s bright blue-green eyes and her patting the chair next to her and telling me to sit with her for just a minute before we left on our new life.
Rather than any formal recording, I gladly rely on what my aunt has referred to as the “haze of memory” of vows which lasted and which yielded this new family and all these boundless memories.
My son and I spent several hours driving that recent night. We stopped away from ambient light and walked into woods, peeper frogs and crickets providing the soundtrack, but no northern lights appeared.
Near midnight I stood next to my son, who towers over me. He is nearly as tall as his father.
We gazed on glittering gray starlit skies reflected in Chicorua lake, much too dark to capture with my camera . . . but a photograph, after all, itself is never just a photograph. So that night too will softly slide into memory’s soothing mist.