Bearing Witness

When I was a boy, the bayou Bonne Idee flooded. I remember because my father and I walked on water. We had driven to the edge of our farm and discovered that the flood had enveloped our fishing dock, and when my father crossed the wooden deck just below the bayou’s surface, I followed beside him. We moved slowly, fearing the boards might have fallen away, but with every step, the pier met our feet and buoyed us across the silty opacity. Looking back toward the bank, we stood atop the bayou with the cold spring water swirling around us. The incongruity was thrilling.

One square mile. When I think of my hometown, it seems much larger than its physical size. As with this memory of the Bonne Idee (the “good thought” that its name recalls), all of it is familiar, and I can map the landmarks and contours of the land—south from our farm into town, down Oak Street, over the rise of the railroad tracks, past the churches, Newtown Service Station, the Baptist cemetery and out of town across miles of farmland.

Now I live hundreds of miles away from where I grew up. My parents no longer live there, and the place is transformed in just one generation. Yet my memory is populated with its people and places. Like the mnemonic landscapes from classical antiquity, all of it is immediately accessible and very real in recollection.

It’s odd how something that no longer remains—at least not as it was—can have such reality in memory. I think of my great-grandparents’ home that no longer exists, but that I remember in totality: its dimensions, textures, rooms, and furnishings, the view from each window. It was full of sensory associations like the thick smell of bacon and biscuits that filled the house in the early mornings; the sting of showers on sunburned skin in their brightly colored bathroom; the taste of watermelon with salt, the way my German-American great-grandfather prepared it, which I ate standing barefoot on their patio in the evening, the concrete still warm from the summer sun. If I close my eyes, I can pace the floors, see the pictures on the walls, feel the carpet under my feet.

Another illustration: when I took a teaching job after graduate school, I boxed the most valuable books I owned—including a signed collection of poems from a friend lost to cancer, a worn Augustine biography from a favorite teacher’s student days, a book on classical rhetoric that had wonderful marginalia in a beautiful and obscure hand—all of them cherished for one reason or another. After I mailed the package, it broke open in transit, and I arrived at my new apartment to find an empty box on my doorstep. With a feeling of disbelief and nausea, I knelt and ran my hand along the broken cardboard, realizing the books were gone.

I can still remember all the covers, the look and feel of each one, and the bookcase in my tiny grad-school library carrel where they sat until being boxed for oblivion. Sometimes without thinking, I will search for one of those books and then recognize, painfully, its absence.

The Roman rhetorician Quintilian says that the classical memory method—mentally putting items in familiar spaces and recalling them in sequence—comes from the power of place to prompt recollection. In a kind of reversal of Quintilian’s point, when I recall childhood memories, they take me to a particular place. My hometown was the setting for all my earliest experiences, the ones that Vladimir Nabokov says are sweet and strange to ponder, and like a geologic map, it was layered with memories; the terrain I knew by heart.

Some of my first recollections are from my grandparents’ house, and when I think of it, I recall the room at the back of the house where my siblings, cousins, and I played as kids. The room had a pool table in the center, and it was lined with glass gun cases filled with rifles, shotguns, and one small pistol. My grandfather was a gunsmith, and often there were parts strewn about, and always the smell of gun oil and cigar smoke in the air. When I was fourteen, my grandfather gave me a shotgun, complete with a case, two silver snap caps for dry-firing, and a cleaning rod and oil. Opening the case now with its redolent contents produces a burst of associations—the transgressive thrill of handling my grandfather’s pistol when no one was around; smoking one of his cigars in the woods behind our house; crushing it out in a delirium of tobacco and guilt, with my mouth tasting like the gun room.

My hometown featured remarkable people, all living in proximity and accommodating one another’s eccentricities. When I teach Southern literature at the college where I now work, the students see the stories as strictly fictional creations—as if such people and places could not exist. Demographic trends suggest that rural life is much less common, which perhaps explains their disbelief. Our college sits at the edge of a city with a metro population of half a million, and my neighborhood alone is bigger than the town where I grew up. But as I tell the students, the communities that William Faulkner, Flannery O’Connor, and Eudora Welty depict are deeply recognizable based on my experience. When we read Faulkner’s “A Rose for Emily,” I usually start by telling them about Miss Sadie who drove around our town with only limited eyesight. When people saw her coming, they would simply pull to the side of the road. The comparison to Faulkner’s heroine may seem incongruous—Emily Grierson is a murderer and a necrophiliac after all—but the narrator’s sympathy is familiar.

Flannery O’Connor said that the South is not so much Christ-centered as Christ-haunted. Home’s version of this haunting certainly “cast strange shadows,” to use her phrase. Waiting to sing “Happy Birthday” at a friend’s party, all of us sweaty from skating to Starship’s “Nothing’s Gonna Stop Us Now” at the Rayville skate rink, my friends and I received an impromptu homily from one of the staff before she lit the candles: “Twelve years old—you’re at the age of accountability now: your sins are on your own head.”

In a kind of reversal of this moment when our fun was punctured by grim doctrine, my first kiss happened at a local revival. Since the preaching went on for hours, we were mercifully free to play outside for portions of each service. Flushed from playing chase, Esther and I stood at either end of the music room of the church annex. I remember her Buster Brown haircut, matted against her forehead, and the muted sounds of the revival as we stood amidst instruments and music stands. Wordlessly, we crossed the room, kissed, and left by separate exits.

Describing memories of her Mississippi childhood in One Writer’s Beginnings, Eudora Welty portrayed the subjective experience of time as a “continuous thread of revelation.” In my experience, this thread includes tragic moments as well. Our region was beset with suicides, and each self-destruction followed a terrible precedent, each one commemorated by communal grief and reckoning with the strange, sudden absence of a friend or family member. No one was unaffected. Recently my parents gave me some old family movies, including footage from community events—church suppers, Christmas programs, birthday parties—and I was struck by the people on film who are now gone, and all the families shaped by this horrible form of loss.

When I was in graduate school, my grandfather called, and he was unusually talkative. We spoke for nearly half an hour, and I imagined him sitting at the wooden table in their kitchen where my cousins, siblings, and I always sat for family meals. At the end of the conversation, we talked about the weather—sublimating only God knew what. Reflecting on our conversation, I heard the alcohol beneath his garrulity, but not the pain. Only days later, he took his own life.

His death remains an emphatic aspect of his life, irrepressible for those who knew him, but it obscures so much about the man—above all that he loved and was loved. When I remember him, I think of his diffidence, and the time he saw me and then crossed a crowded visitation room, full of mourners for my father’s mother, just to tell me how sorry he was. It was the only time I remember his wearing a suit.

What is the purpose of reminiscences like these, evoked as they are by place and shaped according to the prompts of association? Just a cursory tour of memoirs suggests that our lives are so full, replete with meaning that we can’t see in the moment, and it takes retrospection to sort things out, a testament to the fullness of the present. It is bracing to recognize in the exfoliation of memories something like the truth of the thing.

But what about memoir’s risks? Reading works in this genre, one can get the impression that an eloquent rendering of the past may obscure the very object of its attention. Despite the power of prose to clarify, the artistry can seem vain, as if the narrative shaping, anecdotes freighted with import, and figurative portrayals are divorced from their point of origin. Worse even than obscuring the past is falsifying it—and doing so unwittingly. David Foster Wallace distrusted what he called “abreactive memoirs,” works with the “unconscious and unacknowledged” agenda of glorifying their authors. Since memories are malleable and can change in the handling, Wallace illuminates the subtle danger of narcissistic recollection.

Despite the difficulties of formal reminiscence—despite even the benefits of retrospective clarity—my own purpose is less about understanding. It’s something closer to bearing witness. Home is so full of life in my memories, but I look up to find that it doesn’t quite exist anymore, at least as I knew it, even as it continues to shape my understanding of the present. All of us are carrying a world of memories—like standing atop a bayou called Bonne Idee, the taste of salty fruit and a gunroom, a first kiss during a summer revival, a beloved grandfather sequestered by pain. My impulse to write comes from a desire to give account of the past, as if to hold it up to God and say, “I saw these things.”

Toward the end of the Confessions, Augustine muses on memory, a capacity that he represents as physical locations, and he marvels at its mysterious immensity: “I run through all these things, I fly here and there, and penetrate their working as far as I can. But I never reach the end. So great is the power of memory, so great is the force of life in a human being whose life is mortal.” His last clause is striking, a declaration of human vitality nevertheless bounded by mortality.

Today, prompted by the present—the joy I find in my son’s toddling gait, his delight in looking at himself in the glass of our barrister bookcase, the smile of recognition when he sees me over his shoulder—I think of all the evanescent moments of his childhood. I recall the delirium of his first summer when I rocked him outside as we both stared up through the limbs of the giant oak tree in our yard and he slept in my arms for what seemed like hours each day; or that second summer when he first learned hello and goodbye so that we were always greeting and parting in different rooms of our house.

In the end, memoir is a hymn for all that I saw that is—or will be—no more. So I write to remember. ■

Robert Erle Barham is an English professor at Covenant College in Lookout Mountain, Georgia, and lives with his family in Chattanooga, Tennessee.

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