For me, the problem is not remembering. My mother died when I was almost three and a half years old, but I don’t remember her at all. This last weekend I was at a retreat, where we had half-hour morning meditation on Saturday and on Sunday. No sooner do I make a concerted effort to clear my mind, thoughts of her come up – but they are all questions. This time I had the courage to try to remember what the physical circumstances of my first three years were.
As I understand it, most of the time it was me, my mother, and my big sister in a house about 14x16 feet. There was no bathroom or pantry or electricity or hot water or central heat. It consisted of a very small bedroom, a smaller kitchen, and a main room which was a bit deeper than the others, and as long as the two of them together. Did my mother sleep in the living room, my sister and my crib squeezed into the bedroom? Or, since my sister was a teenager and my mother a manic depressive, was it the other way around? Did I have a crib, and if so, whom was it borrowed from? If not, did I sleep on the floor, or were chairs arranged around a narrow cot to keep me from falling out, or what? Were there curtains? Bedspreads? Pictures? Books? A mirror? Where were clothes hung?
When I moved into that house again at age 14, my father had added many amenities, including a tiny closet for me in the bedroom (my room), another for him and coats, a pantry with room for the electric refrigerator, and a very small toilet with a shower. And, luxury beyond the beyond, a telephone.
But back to no memory of my mother, I cannot picture the house, or my place in it, or my mother. I had a fleeting idea to ask my sister to describe it for me – maybe that would trigger a memory – but I’m afraid that’s almost hopeless. She’s going to be 94 in August, and is past reliability. She has, however, two photographs of my mother: one is a formal studio picture taken of her standing by a tall pedestal, one elbow resting on it, in her late teens, a relatively new immigrant; the other sitting on the steps leading into the above-mentioned house, in a summer cotton dress, my father sitting next to her, bare-chested, in overalls, and my sister standing nearby in a bathing suit, with her hand resting on top of my mother’s head.
So, just as there are no physical artifacts -- except a hand-made, falling-apart, much painted-over little wooden stool, too rickety now, almost in its 90s, to trust standing on -- there are no memories of my mother.