I just started work on an upstairs bedroom; it’s going to be our office. I’ve settled on a colour scheme inspired by the changing leaves on our red-twig dogwoods, which have turned rich plum-and-gold. It fits, thematically, with the colours we’ve chosen for other rooms: our living room, in deep grey, echoes the slate colour of evening’s magic hour; our kitchen is the dirty-sky blue of Lake Ontario on a stormy day. Nature is an excellent decorator.
Last week, as I considered the best way to begin, I haphazardly picked at a section of the wallpaper. The newer, contrasting paper was hung on one wall in the 90s to cover stains on the race car paper mom chose for my brother in the late 60s. Two layers of paper came away to reveal a third, older paper hung before our family moved into the house. And on that tiny patch of that very old, scarred paper, I saw something that looked like pencil markings.
As we go through this house, stripping wall after wall, finding a bit of pencil isn’t odd. People mark walls for all kinds of dull, practical reasons. But these were no inscrutable arrows or exes. This was cursive in my mother’s hand.
I left it alone for a couple of days until I had time to investigate. When I went back to it, I took a butter knife, carefully slipping it under the first two layers of paper.
“I love you!” the wall said. It made me laugh. But in the space I had cleared, there was something else: a line of bright red crayon. As the paper came away, I found a crudely-drawn (but unmistakable) Charlie Brown. Snoopy, Andy Capp, Jughead and Archie followed. Someone had printed “BUZZ OFF” in six-inch letters near the baseboards. I took pictures and sent them to my siblings. “Do you remember this?”
One sister did: “I totally forgot about these. There’s more I’m sure!! Is there an Olive Oyl?? I’m sure there is!! ” In the days before the new paper went up, mom had drawn the characters on the walls to amuse her (then three) kids, two of whom would go on to forget it ever happened.
Today I stopped in to see dad. He is dying. I’m not sure he’ll see Christmas. But he was in a rare good mood, and I told him about finding the drawings. He was amused, but sad, too. “There are so many things I just don’t remember,” he said. A while later, he began reminiscing about the trailer he and my mother had in Alberta not long after they married. “That first winter it was -50ºC. The pipes were all frozen and the toilet was full of ice. Do you remember?” he asked, searching my face. But of course, I did not. I was born almost a decade later.
I feel as though these past years have been an exploration of the nature of memory. In this house where I grew up, many things are familiar, and just as many foreign. (Mine is not the only life I’m excavating.) I have learned not to trust memory, but the experience of it is inexorable. I wonder if this is what it is to have a past life, lived and not lived. I am surrounded by tangible proof we have forgotten more than we’ll ever remember. For a long time I felt I was failing, somehow, but now I’m not sure it matters.
“For the growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric acts; and that things are not so ill with you and me as they might have been, is half owing to the number who lived faithfully a hidden life, and rest in unvisited tombs.” Our culture, consumed by “brand,” social media, and celebrity, is built on anonymous masses and unremarkable events. By the same token, I am not the product of fascinating anecdotes; I am formed by countless small experiences, the details of which I will never recall.
Forgetting is inevitable; character is memory manifest.
* The quote is from George Eliot’s Middlemarch.