Memory and identity: a personal history

My father is in the early stages of Alzheimer’s. He will be 90 this year. He grew up close by the docks in Beckton, East London, which are now long gone. He remembers seeing the first wave of German bombers flying over London on September 7, 1940.

He was stationed in the Pacific when he joined the Navy in 1944; he has photos of Nagasaki taken a few weeks after it was destroyed by the atomic bomb.

At Cambridge after the war, he joined the Communist Party only to leave in the 1950s, disheartened by the party’s refusal to fully endorse the democratic process. At least, this is what I remember being told long ago, when facts seemed more stable than they do now.

He spent almost his entire working life in the trades union movement.

I write these things not because my father’s life was remarkable in itself. Every life is surely as full with meaning as a spider is with eggs. My father simply had the fortune – was it good or ill? – to live in more remarkable times than our own.

I write these things because now, when he and I talk, I wonder about what it means to me as a historian, as well as a son, to see those points of personal history that make my father who he is pulled further apart, the way the threads of a cobweb recoil from flame.

It is true, to paraphrase JG Ballard, that the resilience of the decaying mind gives hope to us all: the stubborn persistence of memory and story, the indelible certainties of felt events, of sight and texture and sound.

But if I am honest, oblivion yawns more widely than it did. Yes, a version of his life could be constructed from the record – from material fact and the collective memory of his children.

Yet the things that distinguish his life from countless others of his generation, the stubborn salt of individuality and unexpectedness that gives history its savour, would surely be erased by his greater forgetting – all those numberless thoughts and feelings that have never been recalled to us.

And I can’t help but think now – now that it is too late – that omission is a species of sin for historians, too.

The present – this now of ours – is forever falling from our grasp.

Perhaps, when I have been elsewhere in archives and more distant reaches of the past, I should have been here in the present, finding a way to save more before it is gone, to hold a small beachhead against oblivion, instead of trying to rescue the already lost.

What duty, I wonder, does the historian hold to the present, and to the historians that come after?

After all, this very personal history of my father’s, as with all private histories, weaves its own awkward and often unpredictable dance about the political and intellectual rhythms of public life.

And if history is to have a human dimension, as I would argue it must, then it should surely focus on precisely that: the impact of the private on the public, and vice versa.

I was reminded the other day of Livy’s maxim that the study of history is the best medicine for a sick mind.

I have always thought – perhaps glibly – that this said more about Livy’s anxieties than it did about history per se. But circumstance is making me feel the substance of Livy’s point more acutely.

History is an art, as fiction and poetry and drama are. It is, among other things, a way of contending with what time and decay and death do to human identity.

But history is more than art: history is art plus memory. Watching my father fade from the present into some other, merely somatic life is an acute reminder that memory and identity are the closest of bedfellows.

It is easy to despair. And if I am honest I can catch myself thinking more about the impact of the illness, on the decay of my father’s faculties, than I do about the man still living and breathing in front of me.

I am far from proud of this, either as a son or as a historian; it is, in a way, a denial of history.

If, as Livy said, the study of history is a means of ordering a disordered mind – of restoring its identity, its certainties of self – it is also perhaps a bulwark against a decaying one.

Perhaps it is never too late.

In the end, we all forget and are forgotten, in sum or in part. Remembering, and honouring the remembrances of others, is one of the most human and important things we can do.

As historians, we must believe in the recoverability of data, of sources, of life.

We must all, in our own way, be optimists at heart, however dark the horizon.

77 thoughts on “Memory and identity: a personal history

  1. A very moving post, Matthew, and my heart goes out to you, your father and the family in coping with the Alzheimer’s. I was always questioning my parents about their experiences but only my mother was able to give me a fair amount – my father always said he didn’t really remember, not because he’d had a ‘bad war’ but he just didn’t seem interested in passing it on. None of it was ever enough and I wish I’d spent far more time with both of them in order to draw out further memories. You’re right in that that generation lived through momentous times and while the world may be in a parlous state, we don’t know we’re born!

  2. You put your quivering finger on quite a quandary, highly personalised as it is. I enjoyed the read really. Nietzsche said something about having to forget in order to remember and if we remembered everything we would go mad. Maybe forgetting gives us that frailty that defines us as humans as well, a sanctuary to which no one is ever admitted.

  3. A very touching and wonderfully written piece Mathew. I often wish I could remember more of what my dad told me, wish I’d written it down. Thanks for sharing and god bless our Dads.

  4. My mother-in-law recently passed away. She had Alzheimer’s but her illness and death did not define her, it was all those moments from her past that we shared and cried and laughed over after her funeral. The expressions she used, the music she liked and the many ups and downs she experienced raising a large family on a small income. In her final years she didn’t recognize her own sons and that was very difficult for them at the time, the sense of losing your mother even though she is still with you. Thinking back, we realize that she most likely knew who she was in those last few years, albeit a much younger version of herself and one that none of us could have known, as it was long before we were born. She will never be forgotten as long as we have our memories of her alive in our hearts and this is what can be passed on to the next generation. I never met my g g grandmother, who was born in 1846, but my mother was 12 years old and by her side when she died at the ripe old age of 102. I feel as if I knew her too because of just a few stories handed down about her and I now pass them on to my grandchildren. I wish you strength and courage, Matthew, as you go through this with your father. Your words at the end of your post are so true and worth keeping in mind; ‘Remembering, and honouring that remembrances of others, is one of the most human things and important we can do.’

  5. As I watch my mother-in-law fade away, piece by piece, I’ve thought often about what makes us who we are and how memories are such a critical part of our individuality. Most of us live unremarkable lives unless others make it more and it is incumbent upon us to do just that for each other. I enjoyed this piece, as bittersweet as it was. Thank you.

  6. It is a great gift for your father to have a son or family beside him during this tough times. Indeed an interesting story about the past. We need to look back to see how far we’ve come, to avoid the same mistake, to know what more we could do. No matter how bad it was, there’s always a lesson to learn. And yes, we embrace it in an optimistic way.

    Nice post.🙂

  7. Your dad is a blessing … you will carry on his history while you are writing your own because he is a part of who you are. I am a lucky one, my father kept a handwritten diary while he fought in the Pacific Campaign from 1941-1945. I miss him, but I have his written words to share with his grandchildren. God bless your father and you.

  8. This post touched me deeply and it is beautifully written. My father QM I called him…never father, for we were always at loggerheads, also suffered the same and died of Alzheimer’s in April of 2013. I never understood what WS happening to him until it was too late for he was always a very eccentric man. I will always have guilt about my lack of understanding and noticing when it was too late. But no you for your beautifully written blog. Namasté

  9. As a bereaved mother I am the memory keeper and historian of her brief life… my biggest fear is forgetting… what do I remember for? What is the meaning of her life? And when I am gone, will any of it linger?

  10. History is so powerful, it tells us exactly what our Father and forefather’s generations have been through , your piece is inspiring me to write about my Grandfather, he witnessed the complete Partition of Inida & Bangladesh and I have heard so much about it from my father.

    Thanks for this..

  11. Thank you for sharing your story. I have known people who have gone through this same process and members of my family are included within this. It is sad and a part of life that we may go through one day. I treasure the memories of my grandmother who faded this way and my father who is in the early stages of ‘forgetting’.

  12. Thank you for sharing Matthew, a very moving post. I lost my father to Alzheimer’s, he was only 64 when he died 29 years ago. I was hoping that by now research would be well on the way to eradicating this terrible disease and that I wouldn’t be reading posts like yours this very day. I still find it hard to describe how it was at the time, and since. You are so eloquent. All the very best to you and your Dad.

  13. Alzheimer takes so many life. Not just literally, but also by creating havoc in the lives of the people left behind. Thank you for sharing this, posts like these inspire me because they make me want to do research myself!

  14. This is such a heartfelt expression of yours, that I can so much connect with. There cannot be anything more painful than losing your loved ones. With the irreparable loss of my mother, my only brother who was 5 years younger to me and my father…. past memories are the only source of my energy to be able to live in the present….I so much loved the last lines in this post..Remembering, and honouring the remembrances of others, is one of the most human and important things we can do. Thanks for sharing your journey!!

  15. I agree. Remembering and honoring someone is an honorable thing to do. It contributes to learning, adds value, and espouses history. Thanks

  16. This is a touching post. I’m sorry for your lost, but through you and your stories that history will never be lost or forgotten. Thank you for this post.

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