How Should a Person Remember?

Here is something only my mom and I know:

She always liked to hear me sing along to the radio. I was a surly, unresponsive teenager and I might go days without saying three words in a row to my mother. I didn’t have a good singing voice so I can only guess she liked to hear me sing in our Dodge Caravan because it was the only time she’d hear my voice at all. She would let me pick the radio station—usually Star 92.9 from Burlington Vermont, or Mix 96 out of Montreal—as we ran errands in Bedford or drove around aimlessly on the back roads as country people sometimes do.

One day, as we pulled into Stanbridge East, where we lived and where I grew up, I was singing along to “Angel,” looking out the window as we drove slowly down Maple Street, past the tennis courts, and toward the centre of the village.

“I want you to sing that song at my funeral,” my mom said.

I looked at her facing forward in the driver’s seat. My mother never talked about what she wanted after her death. “What do I care?” she’d say. “I’ll be dead.”

“Yeah?”

“If you only do one thing I ask, do that,” she said. I didn’t take her seriously then because I figured that by the time she died, she would have already forgotten and it would be like she had never even asked.

The day my mother died, almost 20 years later, my brother and sister picked me up from the airport. As I sat in the backseat of Tyler’s pickup truck, the fog I had been in since the morning lifted and I thought: Now I am the only one responsible for the memories I shared with my mother.  

Only I remember begging her over the phone to come and get me from basketball camp.

Only I remember how she kept my supper warm in the oven and sat with me while I ate it when I got off the late bus after swim practices.

Only I remember how she told me she had seen my future husband at the Bromont Flea Market the summer I told her I was a lesbian.

Since the morning she died, all the things I might want to remember about my mom and those I would sooner prefer to forget all belong to me and me alone.

I had my first girlfriend in high school, a small miracle in a small country school in 2001, where it wasn’t safe to be queer. I never lied to myself about being gay, but I did lie to everyone else. Nicky complicated that, but they were everything that made that year worth remembering.

Soon after my mom died, Nicky was diagnosed with non-Hodgkin’s Lymphoma. We haven’t seen each other for more than a decade, but we follow each other on social media and reliably like each other’s posts. This is how I found out Nicky was sick.

Maybe it was because there has been so much physical and metaphorical death in my life in the last year, but I was terrified Nicky would die and I would be the only person who remembered our first kiss, the way they took my hand in the movie theatre in St. Albans, how we were stopped on Sherbrooke Street in Montreal the last time we saw each other and asked if we knew where all the gay people hang out.

That fall, I kept asking myself and anyone who would listen: How can a person carry memories alone that used to be carried by two?

When we die, do we still have memories?

This is a question Ali Smith asks in How to be both.

I was still grappling with my mother’s loss and how to honour her memory when I read How to be both a couple of months ago. I felt anxious about the first anniversary of my mother’s death as I read the book. I feel anxious now about passing that milestone and entering a new year where I can’t look back on the year before and know that my mom was still alive.

I have written a lot about my mother in the last year, spent a lot of time remembering not only the person she was as she died but the person she was in the years before that, and the person she was in her 50s and 40s and 30s, and the person she was before I was born and the person she was to other people who are not me.

By remembering her and listening to others as they remembered her, my memories of my mother have changed. I haven’t thought a lot about whether this degrades my memories of her or brightens them.

We buried my mother on the first Saturday after her death. A hundred people stood among the gravestones in the cemetery on South Street in Phillipsburg. The minister invited anyone who wanted to say a few words about my mother and her life to share a memory. After a few people had come forward, my uncle stood in front of us and said he would always remember my mother as his bitchy sister.

I would like to add a follow up to Ali Smith’s: When we die, what responsibility do the living have in preserving our memories? 

I knew my mother was dying and I felt all the things you might think of someone who has some time left with their mother but not enough: I wanted answers to my questions, absolution for my bad deeds, and assurance that she remembered things that had made her life worthwhile. But I didn’t get any of it. In the last months of her life, if she talked about her memories at all, they were memories of her childhood. For her, everything else had already faded away.

The week before she died, as we sat outside on her back porch, I asked my mom what was thinking. She told me she was thinking about what would happen next. She said she thought she would go to heaven and see her mother and father. I’ve read that a lot of people think back to the beginning of their lives as they near their end. My mother had survived a difficult childhood, and when we were kids, she talked to us about it a lot mostly, I think, to protect us from the kind of abuse her parents had not protected her from.

On that weekend, in the spring sun, as I watched my mom think about what might be next for her, I saw her as the girl she must have been, with her parents in their prime, as if the rest of her life had not yet happened.


Logan is currently completing a Certificate in Creative Writing at the University of Toronto.

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