MY GRANDFATHER’S MEMORY
My grandfather invented a famous memory. It was the result of long years of hard struggle and more than a little skepticism from family, friends, the community, and sometimes, it seemed, from the world at large. Now, of course, it’s a part of the common culture, bringing such upheavals of cognition, as noted in the official brochure, free with paid postage, as the transistor, the algorithm, the modern phone.
The early years were especially trying. Aged forty-two, a senior repairman in an electronics repair shop, my grandfather felt one, a need to make a mark upon the world, and two, a distinct lack of happy collective memories. A methodical man, he got right down to work, approaching the problem scientifically, and drafted a list. What kind of memories tend to become collective memories, he asked himself. Historical events, he answered himself. Such as?
- assassinations, presidential and non-
- wars, battles, and associated events
- individual deaths (non-assassinational, presidential and non-)
- mass death (terrorist attacks, epidemics, natural disasters)
- protests and marches
And what do these all have in common he asked himself? What makes a strong experience a lasting memory, but strong emotion? That night, as the kids were being prepared for their bedtimes, complaining about not being sleepy, about having to go to the bathroom one last time, about monsters under the bed, he had his first breakthrough. The next day, he went to the garage, slipped on an old Halloween bat mask and a black cape and jumped out of the several closets around the house, noting his family’s reactions. At first their reactions were sheer terror, the kids’ flight instinct kicking in immediately, sending them screaming out of the room. This made putting them to bed harder on my grandmother, who eventually just threw away all the Halloween stuff. Anyway, with time, they had come to accept and even roll their eyes at him, and though they didn’t stop looking at him out of the corner of their eyes for a long time afterwards, he had to judge his experiment a failure. He couldn’t jump out of everyone’s closets, everyone in the whole nation’s, and anyway he didn’t want his memory to be a bad one. To make up for the frights, and to continue on a different tack, he treated his family to a day of ice cream and cake, giving them stomachaches, again to the chagrin of my grandmother, who really was quite content with being the wife of a senior electronics repairman and mother of three kids. Her interests outside of the family never gave anyone nightmares or stomachaches.
“You see him as a national hero,” my own father would sometimes say. “You don’t know what is was like for me, a kid, a little kid, having to put up with his less felicitous experiments.”
The two failures rankled him more than he let on at the time. He went back to his drawing board—literally, it stood propped up in his study, once the “nice” room my father and his siblings were not allowed in, then the “study” my father and his siblings were not allowed in. What is the nature of memory, he asked himself. What is it? A memory, he decided, is a record of a past event in a person’s, or persons’, mind, or minds. It is, by its nature, faulty: biased, limited by one’s age, often replaced by others’ versions. The best way to create a memory, especially the historical memory he was meaning to implement, was, he decided, through the induction of a powerful experience, followed, perhaps, by memorialization and mediatization, which is to say keepsakes, souvenirs of some kind, pictures, statues, documentaries, fictionalized accounts. He could see it all already, the mass of movements gathering about his memory, which remained for him a dark hole around which the acclamations swirled.
He outgrew the drawing board and quit the room, to my grandmother’s eternal relief. What he needed was a shed. A shed in the backyard, where he could really get down to work. Thomas Edison had a shed. George Washington Carver had a shed. He would have a shed. Not having one previously, he built himself one that was fully a third of the backyard, necessitating the removal of the kids’ swingset.
My grandfather, out in the shed with his cogs, his wheels, his levers, his pulleys. He roamed the aisles of the local hardware stores buying whatever he recognized, whatever he didn’t.
His first essays from the shed were a species of sculpture, mostly boxy wooden structures with metal hinges providing some articulation. He would wheel them out on a dolly and the family would regard them skeptically, walking around them with furrowed brows. The art-critic act annoyed my grandfather. His sculptures were strange and somewhat memorable, but what he was looking after was not art, sculpture wasn’t on his list of historical memories.
My grandfather, out in the shed, in the dead of night, not sleeping, not eating. He was in the middle of yet another in his series of glorified wooden boxes when he peered into the box before affixing a top. It was deep enough to evoke an abyss. He stared into it and experienced a kind of waking dream. It went by too swiftly to catch, but he knew this was the right direction. He couldn’t have everyone stare into a box in a sleep- and food-deprived state. The box itself would have to do the work of dream-making. Somehow. My grandfather laughed at himself. It would all have to be done with smoke and mirrors.
It took a few more nights, but the final product goes something like this: a series of levers, pulleys, hammers, and cogs in the wooden machine create small sparks that are reflected and magnified by several mirrors also in the machine, the timing of the sparks coinciding with the average human heart rate, say, or the average human brain wave, perhaps, or something yet to be determined by the multitudes of half-interested scientists the family has contacted over the years. The flashing lights, and the general sense of eventfulness occasioned by my grandfather’s showmanship, hypnotize the viewer into thinking they have experienced a highly-charged emotional event.
With the rest of the family, and soon, much of the neighborhood, a dazed mess from frequent experiments to make sure the machine’s results were consistent, my grandfather now had what he always wanted, but how would he get it across to the rest of the world? They couldn’t all come to the house, my grandmother was not so dazed that she would agree to that. With much support from the family, my grandfather decided to take his show on the road. This could only increase the sense of eventfulness. The contraption was on the model of a kinetoscope, more or less, and the idea was for people to have to travel to a specific place (tbd) to witness the event. It would be public, but each person would have to look into the machine by themselves, making it a private public experience.
And so began his grand tour of the country, every state, including Alaska and Hawaii, by way of ferry, the machine itself strapped to the back of my grandfather’s pick-up. He himself wearing his folksiest outfits (suspenders, white three-piece suit, panama hat, sword cane), calling out to one and all to step on over and get a glimpse of the latest instant-classic memory of our time. He calls every day but his family often do not see him for entire years, save for summer vacations, when they would meet up with him in Florida or California, the children more eager to meet Mickey Mouse than to see him again.
“After that, we never really saw him for very long,” my aunt Katie sometimes says after a long day, “we basically grew up without a father.”
Does he come back with a fuller, more comprehensive knowledge of America? His children cannot remember him talking about any one place very much, but going back into the family archive, kept at my aunt’s house, one finds evidence that he did know enough to tailor his spiel according to location: promises of quasi-religious mystical revelations in what seemed to him as backwaters, promises of semi-scientific breakthroughs in cities and college towns. Mostly he chose locations based on cost and accessibility: empty fields where carnivals are usually put up, mall parking lots, big box parking lots, strip mall parking lots. Not much opportunity for culture, for widening his horizons. Still, sometimes an older person would go up to him and tell him of their lives, of the old country, of their abandonment by their children, their children’s children. He would smile at them benignly, thank them for coming. One funny thing that happened on the road: my grandfather found that he had someone following him for a few hundred miles or so, yelling from the corner of whatever parking lot the machine had been set up, yelling about these shadows, these facsimile shadows unwinding off of a machine.
Kenny Roger’s wife gave my grandfather a Rolls-Royce, one of the older models, back when they were made entirely in England.
And what was it like for all these people who lined up, sometimes for hours, to look into the machine? Many reported a general loss of desire that lasted for several weeks to a year. Though they hadn’t seen anything they could speak about, the experience had muted something in them. Which was, you can imagine, not always met with jubilation. Many who had struggled for a long time, perhaps their entire lives, with feelings of inadequacy, frustration, felt quieted, calmed at last. But many felt the shattering of desire negatively—it threatened their sex lives, their marriages, their friendships and hobbies. They were left alone, without their own devices.
My grandmother at her book club.
The children at the park playground.
My grandfather at a grubby motel somewhere, not wanting to spend money on himself, hand-washing his socks, his invention out in the parking lot, on the bed of his pickup under a tarp.
It’s true I never got to know my grandfather. I mean, I was a child when he died. I mostly remember him sitting at the head of the table on holidays, somewhat withdrawn, possibly aching to get back on the road. I have, maybe, one good memory of the two of us together, though I was so young I can’t be completely sure it happened, or happened as I remember it. He was standing in a corner of his backyard, running his hands down several branches of a bush in the neighbor’s yard. He was gathering some kind of dark berries and shoving them in his mouth by the handful. When he saw me, he smiled a purple smile and lifted me up on his shoulders and we gathered and ate until the berries were too far away to reach.
The machine broke down a few years after my grandfather died and nobody could fix it quite right. It started giving people nightmares and there’s even a story of someone dying shortly after peeking into it, a story carefully suppressed by the foundation’s legal team. The box now sits as the centerpiece in the foundation’s permanent installation at the local museum and as far as anyone knows, no one’s asked if it works. Maybe the wall text is satisfying enough.
Although even in his own lifetime critics sneered that my grandfather’s memory was perfect for our time, manufactured and ultimately empty, he thought rather that it was an example of human ingenuity and determination, stick-to-it-ivness. Not that the two ideas are mutually exclusive. Though my grandfather’s been dead for a while now, the family continues, continues to run the foundation, perpetuate his memory, producing and distributing pictures, statues, documentaries, fictionalized accounts. There’s talk of a movie with Harrison Ford.
JOSE SILVA was born and raised along the Texas side of the US-Mexico border and now lives in New York City, where he is writing a novel about life on the border.