The work of remembering takes patience, persistence, and an attention to detail. So I am finding out as I painstakingly sort through almost four hundred photographs from my mother’s stay on Cyprus in 1923-25. As I brighten, crop, repair, and clean these old photographs sometimes I see a figure in the background that I hadn’t seen before. I see a smile on my mother’s face that I later saw when her hair was gray. I see a profile in my grandfather, the Superintendent at the
Skouriotissa mine, that lets me know that he has always been in me, even when I didn’t recognize it. And then there are the innumerable faces of people I never knew—of smiling women hauling mud for bricks, and grimy men in mine tunnels probing veins of copper amidst the rubble of explosions. I see an old priest standing before the little Church of “Panagaia Skouriotissa,” whose work in worship and in caring for these miners’ families I will never fathom. “Who were they?” I ask. Is there someone on the island or abroad who can remember who they are? Have I unknowingly been talking to their descendants as I visited to get a feel for the land, the people, the culture they passed on or that died out with their demise?
But here is a ruined castle I remember, now cleaned up for tourists. And a medieval church that has become a mosque, a harbor that I recognize, now crammed with different
boats, but still protected by an old stone quay. These mute landmarks only want me to hear the comments from my mother’s family as they sat by the sea on that rock, the squeals of delight among her girlfriends whose summer sun suits tell me of a birthday party or an afternoon spent swimming at the shore. And here’s the sheep they called Daisy, indulging their patting hands among their myriad of animals wandering around their compound at the mine. I see but I do not hear, or smell, or touch. And even then, I only see a black and white snapshot, a mute slice in time, a sliver of the spectrum of their colorful life.
It is like the mining work itself, digging into the earth that holds us up, nourishes us with food, delights us with its sparkling beauty, awes us with its tremendous power. In mining for these memories I restore lost pieces of my self, my temperament, my scientific wonder, my perseverance in a project. And I hope
that I am helping to restore the memory of a people, now torn apart by haunting memories going back to Homer’s time, to successive empires — Roman, Crusader, French, Venetian, Ottoman, British—that have molded layers of their memory, like the metamorphic rock that makes Cyprus a Mecca for geologists. Yet the rock itself still is that self-same substance with its own intrinsic properties, the properties that make it Cypriot.
Even as I have worked on these pictures and documents, people have come to me thorough the internet, the mails, and in meetings on Cyprus to help me understand the meaning of these pictures, these places, these people. Just as my wife and I increasingly rely on each other to hold together our personal memories, so this larger network is helping to reconstruct this wider memory of which I am a part.
The work of memory is a work of restoration. So I am trying to exercise in some small way a work of restorative justice, of restoring rightly what was before, even though it itself rested on layers and layers of previous destruction and restoration. Just last night we saw “Woman in Gold,” in which Helen Mirren powerfully portrays the search by Maria Altmann to recover the long-lost art treasures stolen from her family by the Nazis in Vienna. Though the painting of her aunt by Gustav Klimt was valued at well over 100 million dollars, it was finally the healing of her memory which became the prize of her decade-long struggle. Michael Lapsley, the South African priest who lost his hand and an eye in the struggle against Apartheid, has spent the rest of his life in what he calls “The Healing of Memory,” for without a healing of memory there can be no restoration of social relations, of law, of our relation to the earth. His work has made a powerful impact on thousands of people traumatized into amnesia by the horrors of violence and war.
As I dig into this mountain of memory for a people and for my own family, I am also working with my sister as she finds proper care for her husband, who is suffering from Alzheimer’s disease, in which the memory of a person is whittled down to its infant core and slowly flickers out in a return to the spark that began his or her life. It is a cruel disease, whose ravages for the afflicted person are incomprehensible, but whose destruction of the bonds with friends and loved ones robs us of what makes human community possible—a common memory.
To remember, to remember rightly, to remember in common—this is what it is to be human and to be capable of love as well as forgiveness. In the restoration of memory, even its most humble remnants, we engage in the work of what Jews call “Tikkun Olam”— the healing of the world.
I was really moved by this piece, as my husband and I are sifting through so many things as we prepare to downsize into a smaller home. Remembering and sharing your memories is an important part of the end of life work.