The Unbearable Lightness of Memory

I have only a handful of photographs of my father. One, taken shortly after I was born, shows a man, already old, wearing this1935369_132986046159_768528_n ridiculous hat cocked at a ridiculous angle on his head, wearing the half smile of someone who doesn’t want to be photographed, and holding a giant walleye in one hand. It’s winter in the photo, and a cat, little more than a kitten stares up at the man and fish with a look that suggests love for both. Another photograph comes from his life before my family, where a younger man in a startlingly white t-shirt stands, cigarette in hand, with his arm around the woman I assume was his first wife, the woman who I never knew, and who was never spoken of in my home.

I remember other photos: my dad with his always-crooked glasses and the thinning but unruly hair I’ve inherited, giving me a bath when I was an infant, a scene at a family wedding I don’t remember where my parents showed the seething hostility that characterized much of their lives together while my sister and I, unaware, smiled for the person taking the picture. And, of course, his high school picture that reminds me so much of myself.

In place of photographs, I have a scattered set of disconnected, fleeting images that are probably both real and and constructed, some from whole cloth and others from the combination of events that have been distilled into the singular, cohesive narratives I seem to impose on my past. Some moments, though, are certain:

  • the night at the dinner table, with the yellow Lazy Susan wobbling crazily, when I announced that I was going to tell my parents which of them I loved more—and that it was my father who stopped me.
  • the smell of the bar he managed in the morning when he was “swamping” it, disinfecting a night of manic energy, loves lost and initiated, and the regrettable choices that so often characterize dive bars. To this day, I can’t walk past a certain kind of bar late at night or early in the morning without immediately being reminded of those mornings with my dad.
  • the night my mother and father began a fight at Evan’s Supper Club, a fight so epic that the skies opened into the worst thunderstorm I ever heard. And later, huddling in my grandparents’ apartment, while my mother was missing, my father, uncles and grandfather searching the town for her.
  • how moved I was by the singing of the woman who sang at his funeral, who, despite the bitter cold of that December day, was wearing the kind of thin, simple dress that seems like it’s only ever worn by evangelicals.

There are more, of course. Thousands of flashes of memory, some that I can call at will and others that surprise me with unexplained their unexplained appearances. The story of my father isn’t cataloged anywhere but in the memory of those of us who knew him, and that story of a man who loved two families, who served in the US Army in Japan, who gave up a series of dreams for the sake of others, and who killed more than a few of his own, will continue only as long as an increasingly small number of people keep it alive.

How different from those of us alive today, who note every detail of our lives in online presences that will endure long past us, neatly sorted by date, the friends we shared them with, and how many stars we gave the experience. While I only have a few handwritten notes and shakily underlined passages to reveal which passages in his Bible moved my father, my online profile has collected the passages I love and even periodically reminds me that I do, or once did. We’re not just building support for our own memories, but constructing identities that not only define us, but that will tell people in the future where we traveled, what we ate after photographing it, and who we loved—and when that love ended.

As much as I wish I knew more of those things about my father, and could scroll through the Facebook wall of his life for clues about the man he was, I’m not sure that such an identity would be any more true than the fragments I cling to, because when we build our lives online, we don’t actually tell our biographies. We’re more like curators of our own lived experience, selecting the showcase exhibits for prominent, public display and hiding some of the most authentic moments, moments of fear and confusion, doubt and pain, away from view. To borrow from Fitzgerald, like Gatsby, we seem to construct the Platonic ideal of ourselves—and the disconnect between our lived lives and the online simulacrum is often profound and even shocking to the person who created it.

And while I do want to capture as much of the experience of travel as I can, I worry that the packaged memories I’m creating will slowly replace the moments I couldn’t put down in words or on film. On this trip, I’ve watched people race through the most majestic buildings I’ve ever seen, furiously clicking their cameras in a desperate effort to possess the memory of a place without ever once, even for an instant, truly seeing the space they were trying to lock away forever in a digital image. When they get home, I fear some will have an exhausting collection of photographs taken in the best light and from the perfect angle or an endlessly series of selfies taking in front of incredible backdrops, but missing the awe that just inhabiting a place can give us for just a moment.

I love taking photographs—and sharing them with people, either perhaps to inspire them to visit a place I’ve loved, or to give them a chance to see a place they may never see. I love shoeboxes of old printed, candid photographs, with their chemical smell and thumbprints, because they spark memory or teach us something new about a person we know. I’m just less certain about the effort to construct a past in the present, with our staged photographs and effort to depict our experiences in neatly packaged amuse bouches designed to score the most likes.

As I travel across Europe for this adventure, I’ve been cataloging moments: the best pictures my humble camera and questionable404041_10150603049736160_718167128_n eye can capture, the pithiest observations about the cities I visit, and the messages that try to encapsulate what I’m living and while none of those things are dishonest, they’re not entirely accurate, because they can’t capture the whole of the experience, the frustration that accompanied finding the best route to the top of Bergen, the unexpected joy of my heart swelling with wonder and hope under a huge moon in Prague, or even the comedy of the the disregard for clothes shown by German pilgrims at my hostel in Pamplona. In the same way I trust that I won’t lose those memories, even if their context and even my ability to deliberately recall them may slip over time, I need to trust a bit more that the other moments can live in my mind without making it to an SD card or an online profile. The goal, it seems to me, is to create our lives by living them, not to package them for presentation, either for ourselves or others who might be watching.

I’m glad that I own those few photographs of my father, and I wish I had more. They provide comfort when I miss him, and context for the memories that are slipping. I’m even more glad that I have this mess of images and memories of him that are only my own, unthreatened by the objectivity of film or a precisely recorded phrase he once thought. And as glad as I am to have the ability to record some of this experience of eleven countries in 80 days, I’m maybe even happier that some of them, messy and incomplete as they may be, will only ever be for me. In a dozen years, they may not be as accurate as the photographs I’ve taken, but they’ll be true.