My uncle remembers as a young boy going back with his mother to their village in Poland to try to persuade his mother’s parents to leave while they could. He remembers being chased through the streets by older boys who threw stones at them. He remembers that his mother’s parents did not want to leave their lives behind to come to France and that he never saw his mother’s parents again.
My uncle also remembers a family in Southern France that gave shelter to him and his sister and mother for a time, before they managed to board a train to Spain and then a boat to New York. He remembers that in this temporary house he was told to stay away from the windows, but that he would, when he could, peer out quickly to see German soldiers in the streets.
I remember interviewing a job applicant on the inside of whose wrist I saw, at the end of the half hour, a tattooed Hebrew word: lizkor. To remember. As we walked to the door after the interview had formally concluded, I asked her why that word and why there. “To regularly remind myself to remember the past,” she said, “and also to remember the future.”
It’s been seven years since she said what she said. I’m almost certainly remembering it wrong. But the idea of remembering the future—I love it, and I’m not sure what it means.
My uncle is losing his sight and his hearing and balance. I am preparing to lose my uncle.
My uncle was with me three decades ago when I lost my mother. Because I see so much of her in him, I have the strong presentiment that when he goes, there will be a rush of memories of my mother, and then, as time passes, that I will remember even less of her, even as I also start to lose memories of him. I wonder if my uncle prepared to remember his grandparents.
I like and worry about the idea of deliberately calling oneself to remember, of fixing certain memories—the good ones, the ones you never want to lose. This is what pictures do, only falsely: the desire to remember leads to a picture, which replaces the moment. Then I remember the picture, and the picture stands in for the moment, as it did in the moment.
This is what stories do too, differently, also imperfectly. I retell with my cousins and siblings the stories of my uncle and mother. Our children hear the stories. The stories change and simplify and fade, leaving only the small flame at the center. Then that vanishes too.
My uncle’s name is Leon. His father was Simon and his mother was Goldie. His older sister’s name is Helen. His younger sister’s name was Jackie. Jackie was or is my mother. I called her Ima and sometimes still do. Their town in Poland was Cerozk. My mother was never there. She was also never in Oregon, where I have been with my family for almost a decade. I don’t yet know if I will be here for the children of my children to remember me.
In the Jewish grade schools I attended in Boston and Chicago, we were relentlessly taught the following two words: Never forget. The prohibition against forgetting felt different than an encouragement to remember.
I’m writing this a few days after the anniversary of my mother’s death. My uncle and my sister and brother and I shared those last days and knew we would remember them as different than any other days we’d lived. With my mother in the deepening fog of her last days, we were starting to remember the future, a future without her.
My uncle lives on the other side of the country. I usually see him twice a year, less often since COVID. I saw him this spring, and he was smaller than he’d been. Quieter. Less there.
I remember sitting at my cousin’s dinner table with my uncle and bowls of lukewarm soup. He would pause before speaking, then ask a familiar sequence of questions. I remember his voluminous eyebrows and, beneath them, the depth of his eyes. I remember also the shape of his eyes, the lilt of the lids. My mother’s eyes had this lilt too. When I look at my daughter, who does not remember a village called Cerozk or Jewish day school or my mother, I remember my mother’s eyes. And I wonder what my daughter will remember.
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