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  • michelle grierson

Inheriting memory

Updated: Apr 3

My mother loses pieces of herself daily, hour by hour.

She goes to sleep reluctantly, clutching the blankets as though dreaming were a fast train ride, taking her places she doesn't want to go. There is no stopping or switching directions, or even slowing down on this trip. There is only rushing forward, into dark tunnels of oblivion. I don't know what happens in these pockets of lost time, only that she awakens bedraggled and diminished, uncertain of the simplest things: her own name. Who sleeps beside her. Where the door might be.

The train is a thief, and my mother, its treasure.

I hold her hand.

I repeat names of things and people and places. I point to photographs and remind her of happier times; she nods, albeit hesitantly, as if she understands.

I tell her over and over that I love her. That what she forgets, doesn't really matter.

I will be your memory.

Most days, she cries more than she smiles.


She used to tell me as a child, "I love you to pieces," in a tone that sounded more like a warning. As an adolescent, the words clanged inside me, an unwanted ringing that triggered claustrophobia and rebellion. I would imagine my body cracking and splintering, limbs and organs dropping off and falling away, the more she clung to me.

In my teenage angst, I didn't even consider that it was her, not me, who was splitting apart, every time I turned from her.

Now in my 50th year, I am in a perpetual state of worry, circling my mother as though she were a toddler, holding my arms aloft—a safety net with too many holes—as fragments slip and sink, disappearing from my grip.


Susan Griffin once wrote:

"I am beginning to believe that we know everything, that all history, including the history of each family, is part of us, such that, when we hear any secret revealed, a secret about a grandfather, or an uncle, or a secret about the battle of Dresden in 1945, our lives are made suddenly clearer to us, as the unnatural heaviness of unspoken truth is dispersed."

When I read A Chorus of Stones the first time, my whole body vibrated. The truth of it, visceral, palpable. The image of a stone, absorbing everything into its essence, a powerful metaphor. I wondered at the time: what had I inherited, without conscious awareness? What traumas, what joys? The secrets my mother held so carefully inside her, I knew, had somehow imprinted and fossilized inside me.

I resented such a heavy transference, however unconscious it was; I didn't want this inheritance.


But as my mother fades away, I find myself running after her, screaming at those secrets to stop, to ring louder so I can record and write and re-member. So I can sift through this inheritance. The past doesn't seem to care for such cloying. What's buried inside her, no longer has language. Elusive and soft, it has become a butterfly's wing. Unlike a bell, I cannot force it to speak. Unlike a stone, I cannot hold it in my hand.


Perhaps this cruel forgetting is her survival; a forced and unwelcome consequence, more like water on stone.... All the moments of a life, worn down by years of cruel currents and crashing tides. The result, smooth; the evidence, washed away.


My mother reaches for my hand in the dark.

"Don't leave me." Her words are slurred and drowsy.

I open my palm to feel her fingers, feathery and light, barely there.

"I'll be right here," I tell her, knowing she has to go.







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