"Not only your memories, but the things we have forgotten, are 'housed.' Our soul is an abode. And by remembering 'houses' and 'rooms,' we learn to 'abide' within ourselves."
—Gaston Bachelard, The Poetics of Space
I often dream about my childhood living room. I rarely dream about any other room in the house—the living room is the specific physical space my unconscious mind takes me. I have read that when we dream about our childhood home, we are really continuing to process aspects of ourselves that were developed there. Perhaps making a space to feel those original feelings, or to feel them in different ways.
I was sitting in this room when I found out that my dad was dead. Unknown to 8-year-old me, he had been missing for a few days after checking himself out of a psychiatric facility. Family friends were over for a barbecue (to take my mom's mind off of this possible reality?) when the phone rang—my uncle on the line, telling my mom that his body had been found. "Your daddy's dead." I didn't cry. I screamed.
The place of trauma is often complicated, populated with warm memories as well. The light flowing in from the big picture windows looking out onto Richardson Bay. Reading in front of the fireplace. Listening to my brother practice the piano. Countless toasts, songs, and silly stories on Christmas Eves, my mom's 40th birthday party, and my mom and step-mom's Thanksgiving wedding reception. This living room was the physical place where the deep connection with people who became other parents to me began, my particular version of poet Dana Ward's "many-gendered mothers of my heart." I am someone with many mothers of my heart; someone who desperately needed (needs!) those many mothers. I needed to know that even though people who loved me had and would abandon me, others would step in and want to stay.
He was reading the paper, sitting in his well-worn spot on the couch, when he looked up, and almost nonchalantly told you that he wasn't going to speak with you anymore. He said it as if he were telling you to turn off the television, very matter of fact.
You stood there frozen for a moment, literally stunned by his words and their implication. "You can't do that," you said—to him, to the unwritten parental code, to a sense of ethics that filled all of the philosophy manuscripts he made you study. But he just looked back at his newspaper and you were dismissed. You were in his past now.
You had always had a fraught relationship, much more so than the relationship between him and your sister, but you could always get him laughing again. But on the couch that day, somehow his switch turned off, and he excised you from his life, like a scorned lover who cuts out faces from old photographs.
You didn't see him for almost twenty years. You ran into him on the street in Frankfurt, a city you never meant to end up in, when you were pregnant with your son. He looked at you with his mouth agape, like he was seeing a ghost. "What are you doing here?" You hadn't come here looking for him. You had long ago stopped looking for what didn't want to be found.
A few years later, when your mama told you that he was dead, you broke down and sobbed for 10 minutes straight. Your emotions surprised you. You had barely seen him since that day on the couch decades ago; you had already said goodbye to him many times since. You have spent so many hours explaining to yourself why he had chosen to leave. You have reminded yourself over and over that you are not to blame and made peace with his behavior. But his death was absolute—there would be no reconciliation.
There is a concept in psychology called counterfactual thinking: our tendency as humans to think about other possible alternatives to events that have already taken place. Sometimes we focus on the alternate realities with regret, sometimes with relief, sometimes as a reminder to do better next time. What if we could rewind the tape of our lives and make a different choice? What would have happened if you had asked him to tea on that day in Frankfurt? Even though many years had passed, you were longing for him to admit that he had been mistaken. You would have been willing to quietly acknowledge your past hurts and forge a new future together. I know that you feel cowardly that in response to his silence, you caved. But you couldn’t handle a fresh rejection and so you became strangers again.
In her poem, "Mistaken Self Portrait as Demeter in Paris," Meghan O'Rourke writes, "You can only miss someone when they are still present to you... the absent will only be absent when they are forgotten." You don't know which You you want to be: the You who will forever miss him and your could-have-beens. Or the You who has forgotten him and doesn't even have your loss to hold on to.
The poet Eleni Sikelianos says that "biology is remembering. Our cells remember ancient chemical interactions, pre-life, and our limbs remember salamanders." The home itself may not remember, but it helps us remember -- prior traumas, ancient tastes and smells, people we have known, people we have been. As Judith Butler reminds us in her afterword to David Kazanjian and David Eng's, "Loss," "this past is not actually past in the sense of 'over,' since it continues as an animating absence in the presence."
In their video for "We Used to Wait," the band Arcade Fire taps into this sentiment with the help of Google Earth. Before the video starts, we as the viewer type our childhood address into the computer. The music video starts as music videos always do, but then with the help of technology, our childhood home, our childhood street, our childhood views all become part of the video. The combination of the music, the lyrics, and sense of home is extremely visceral and moving. Our houses and our childhoods are here all along, an animating absence.
Passing the time while waiting for brunch to arrive on a busy Saturday morning, my mom shows my 5-year-old daughters photos of themselves as infants and toddlers. They squeal and coo, already nostalgic about their past selves. My mom swipes her finger and there is my dad as a 17-year-old boy, beaming in his fake tuxedo on Senior Portrait Day, beautiful smile and bright eyes belying his inner turmoil.
“I met him!” Zoe exclaims.
“Oh, sweetheart, he died many years ago, when I was a little girl. But he would have loved you so much.”
“If I know you, I met him.”
I don’t remember the sound of his voice, but I know that right after his death I could still hear it and its cadence. But like his scent, his voice receded. He died the year answering machines were starting to become widely used; he died long before cellphones existed. I don’t have a physical memento of his voice to help keep it present for me. Perhaps I have forgotten that I remember. Every now and then someone or something reminds me that part of his essence remains, housed in me.
Jennifer Tennant is an associate professor of Economics at Ithaca College. A health economist by training, her research focuses on disability and mental health policy. She is a lover of all things literary and has a particular affinity for essays, theatre, and poetry. She has written a number of articles on health economics and disability policy, and has recently started writing creative nonfiction. Her first piece of creative nonfiction, a personal essay, will be published by Pleiades in January 2019.
Nura Qureshi is a photographer and mixed-media visual artist. Based on archival and interview research, Qureshi’s work explores themes related to collective memory, the historical archive, and people’s relationships with their shared past. She is represented by and has exhibited at the Roots Contemporary Gallery in Nairobi, Kenya. Her photographs have been exhibited or are forthcoming at the Edward Hopper House, the Gene Frankel Theater, and the Addis Foto Fest, as well as shortlisted for the PhotoWerkBerlin award and the Contemporary African Photography Prize.