I remember when I was counseling others, one of the things that came up was the power of memory. Whatever happens to us, our body doesn’t forget. The joys, the sorrows—they’re all tucked away only to emerge at the most surprising times. To recall what once was can help us make sense of our lives.
Memory marks the writing of my baba’s story, given to me through the lips of my mother. She was the storyteller in the family, repeating what her mother had remembered, what her family had endured in Russia during the first world war and afterwards under Polish occupation. As I write my family’s saga, I hear their voices, or at least my memory of them. And though I wasn’t there, the power of memory, my grandmother’s and mother’s, affects me and I end up crying or laughing at my computer. I’m also left with a greater understanding of my family’s personal sacrifices, ones that have served to enhance my life.
So it was with great interest, that I went to the Vancouver Art Gallery to hear a curator speak of how Martin Honert, a German artist, uses memory in his sculptures. The curator mentioned that Honert is the product not only of his family but of his country. His parents were the ones who questioned the generation before on what had happened during the dark days of Germany, when the National Socialist Party had committed many crimes against humanity, chiefly, the Holocaust. His parents were the ones who wondered about the silence, the denials, and their countrymen’s attempts to reframe what had happened.
But Honert is one generation
removed from his parents and his art, though it doesn’t speak directly to those questions, conveys a settling or a return to childhood wonders. Perhaps he speaks for his generation, a need to move on, to distance oneself from what was. Or perhaps it’s me, the viewer, that is putting this kind of meaning into his work.
Of his pieces, I was particularly struck by the young boy sitting at a table. It was executed realistically and colored in muted shades of maroon and grey and beige. He shaded the boy’s face, one side dark, and one side light. For me, it represented the light and dark of the country, and perhaps of all our souls.
Another artist, whose work I recently saw at the Vancouver Art Gallery, was Art Spiegelman. He worked with his father’s memories of what he’d experienced as a Holocaust survivor. Art Spiegelman used his comic genius in his graphic novel, Maus, to document his father’s struggles and agony during that horrific time. This novel won him a Pulitzer prize. It also connected him to his father, a man he had not understood until he’d listened and digested his father’s painful memories.
I’m almost finished writing my grandmother’s story, but I know it won’t be the end of my family’s memories. I hope to pass them on through this memoir, to enlighten generations to come, to help them remember what once was.
For another take on memory, check out Marylin Warner’s blog. As a tribute to her mother, who’s lost much of her memory through dementia, Marylin posts stories from the past and comments on how this loss has affected her mother and those around her.
How do you use memory in your work? Do you feel it’s power? Does it seep in when you least expect it? I’d love to hear your comments.