My aunt Lillian lived in her Victorian gingerbread house in a small Wisconsin town for 60 years, and the furniture, the dishes, the books, and the pantry never changed. In my parents’ house, we ripped off wallpaper, shipped old books to Goodwill, and renovated the kitchen. This was the normal course of events. But in my aunt Lillian’s house, nothing ever changed.
The place was immaculate. Visiting as an adult, I felt keenly the untidiness of my own messy drawers, in contrast with her perfectly washed Corelle cups and spotless linoleum floor. Everything was sorted, labeled, put in order, and saved—buttons in jars, marbles and toy soldiers in coffee tins. The yellow pantry contained a shelf of riotous green plants and a collection of blue Ball jars. On the lid of each jar, my aunt taped small notes itemizing the contents, noting when they were purchased and how much they cost. Her possessions were ordinary, but they were transformed, burnished, by the attention she paid to them.
As my aunt grew older, she became a recluse in her house. And as she spent more time remembering the past, her memory became another kind of house she inhabited. This idea of memory as a house dates back at least as far as Augustine, bishop of Hippo, writing more than 1,500 years ago. For Augustine, the memory was where you stored your images, your entire life of experience and thought. Whatever we experience, we keep in the houses of our memories. Some of these memories, Augustine writes in his autobiography, the Confessions, can be recalled “on demand with ease and without any confusion in their order.” Other memories are secreted away or lost. You have to ransack the attic to find them.
Every room in my aunt’s house remains the same, as I have curated it in my mind. I can sit in an apartment in Singapore and walk through it, observe the closet with the board games and toys stored and carefully labeled, the rhubarb growing red and green along the back alley. Augustine marveled at the enormous space of the interior world. Even in silence and darkness, he wrote, he could see light, taste honey. “These actions are inward, in the vast hall of my memory. There sky, land, and sea are available to me. … There also I meet myself and recall what I am, what I have done.” We are the sum of our experiences, if we remember them. We know ourselves by remembering. In his commentary on the Confessions, the classical scholar James J. O’Donnell observes that “memory, which is in some sense the self, is the place in which the self experiences itself.”
Upstairs in the bathroom, for many years, my aunt had pinned up a poster in 1970s orange and green. It depicted the parable of the mustard seed. A man planted a mustard seed, and it grew into a tree, and the birds of the air came and lived in it. You could exist as a tree, and by doing so you would have done something meaningful. My aunt’s house expressed her love of the miracle, her belief in the power of the ordinary to grow and transform. Her house made sense. My aunt liked the word precious, which meant to her something or someone made valuable because you have loved them and thought about them.
Over the black telephone, she had taped a handwritten note in block capital letters: pay attention. My aunt paid attention. Upon our arrival at her house as children, she would lay out five or six types of bars and cookies she had baked for us. She knew which kinds we liked by the notes she had taken during previous visits. Then she would sit down at the yellow Formica kitchen table and say, “So tell me.” She remembered the names of our friends. “Wasn’t it Sondra who did research in India? Did she decide to become a wandering nun after all? Sadhu. I couldn’t remember the word for it. We don’t have many sadhus in Wisconsin.”
My aunt’s own story was sobering and small. She grew up on a farm during the Great Depression. The farm got electricity when my aunt was in college. In their own wrenching anti-miracle, my aunt was eight and my mother five when their young mother died, very painfully, from cancer. Even in the Depression in the countryside, families sent huge bouquets of white calla lilies to the funeral. My mother hates white calla lilies. In a black-and-white picture taken a month after my grandmother’s death, the two little girls—my aunt and my mother—are standing by a car. The picture was taken during a bleak midwestern spring. Neither girl smiles. Their arms hang slack at their sides. They do not touch each other. My mother has gone through her whole life as someone who lost her mother at the age of five. Older children, I have read, take a mother’s death even harder than younger ones do. My grandfather later went on drinking binges (said my aunt; my mother disagrees). My aunt Lillian eventually married an alcoholic. She taught elementary school. She quit when her daughter was born. She never worked again. Her husband died early. She spent her life in a small town in western Wisconsin. She watched the finches at the bird feeder, and wrote about them in letters. She died.
Memory for my aunt was not just recollection of the past; it was all of experience, all of herself, which she then considered, organized, classified, and stored. As the historian Henry Chadwick writes, “Memory for Augustine is a deeper and wider term than our ‘memory.’ ” And as O’Donnell notes, the memory, for Augustine, was not only a house, “a storehouse of images; it is a passive faculty, on which intellect and will exercise their forces. … [Memory] is the locus of the self, the force that links present with past and gives identity.” We cannot be ourselves without our house of memory.
My aunt kept the family photo albums with my dead grandmother’s handwriting in white ink above the pictures on the black pages. My aunt chose to be the family memory, “the force that links present with past and gives identity.” After the death of their mother, my aunt and my mother were shuffled around from relative to relative. My aunt spent a year with her grandmother in northern Wisconsin. My mother spent most summers with the glamorous aunt and uncle in Milwaukee. During one of those summers, my mother wrote my grandfather a letter. She must have been about seven or eight years old. Her letter, written in an uneven cursive, is too oddly ordinary to have been saved all those years—which is perhaps the very reason why my grandfather saved it. The sum of it is something like this: Dear Daddy, We went to a fair. Uncle Dave took us in the car, and we stopped by Lake Michigan. Love, Shirley. My grandfather carried this letter in his wallet for the rest of his life. He carried it when he disappeared to work on the Alaska pipeline. He then remarried. My mother and my aunt learned about the marriage from the local newspaper. After my grandfather died, my aunt saved that letter. Saving it must have caused her pain, but she still saved it, and left it for me after she died, in a carefully labeled envelope. Augustine pointed out that cogo (collect) was related to cogito (re-collect, cogitate, reflect). To remember was to re-collect, to sort, and to understand.
My aunt had so little experience. What happens if you have few experiences but remember them well, think about them, ruminate over them? “The power of memory is exceedingly great,” Augustine wrote, “exceedingly great.”
For all of her well-traveled interior life, my aunt lived a highly constricted physical one. She never learned to drive. She rarely left her house, except to walk downtown to get groceries, or to help make lunches for weddings at the Lutheran church. She refused to come to my wedding, three hours away by car. If we wanted to see her, we had to call in advance and check if it was all right. We could not visit if anyone had the sniffles, even if we had flown across the country to see her. Finally, my aunt stopped walking downtown to shop and had her groceries delivered, and that was the end of her contact with the outside world. Her life became her house. And her memory. What good is the life of a woman with curly red hair who became a recluse in her Victorian house and who spent all her time remembering?
The sadness of my aunt’s life was that she wanted to do more, but did not or could not. My aunt wrote gorgeous letters, ones you could not rip open and skim standing in front of the mailbox, a bag of groceries clutched in your arm. You had to go inside, sit on the couch, and take a breath first. Like her house, her letters were filled with ordinary things: the rosy finches in her tree; the white, solitary rosebush that she coaxed into blooming; the painter who had an affair with the owner of a bed-and-breakfast and who painted that bed-and-breakfast in the rain. Her letters rendered the luminous background of her existence scrupulously, with precise lines: the white houses, the rhubarb she cooked and sealed in jars, the sky that remained blue. She must have spent considerable time composing her letters.
My aunt’s letters helped me order my world. After my first daughter was born, many people said many things to me, but my aunt wrote the three lines I can remember: “From now on, your life will not be the same. It will always be different. Your life will be better. Love, Auntie Lillian.” Lillian had wanted to be a writer, her daughter told me. Apart from a few incomplete stories, my aunt never got around to it. She had narrowed her horizons to the four walls of her house with its narrow Victorian rooms.
Although experience terrified my aunt, she delighted in it vicariously. When my parents traveled, my mother kept travel journals, and my father took pictures. They sent the journals and the photos to my aunt, who studied them as carefully as The New York Review of Books and The New Yorker, both of which she read cover to cover each week. By studying my parents’ lives, she did not have to distance herself from the “I” in her memory. She could watch my mother and father walking through the Vatican Museums in their sensible black shoes or eating linguine alle vongole—which I am certain my aunt never tasted—at a restaurant on a cobbled street. My siblings the doctors have a different diagnosis: agoraphobia. But the clinical analysis is not incompatible with my theory.
By living vicariously, my aunt found a way to live with the paradox that we cannot think and experience at the same time, in the present moment. Once we are thinking about the experience, we are no longer “experiencing.” Augustine wrote about the self that was “itself the memory.” About this phrase, James O’Donnell writes, “Mind, conscious of itself in the present moment, does not quite exist—because to be conscious is to be conscious in memory, and not really in the present.”
To be conscious is to be conscious in memory, and to be outside time. The beauty of my aunt Lillian’s life was her ability to see and to save in the house of memory. My aunt conducted her life almost wholly in the mind and in the past tense.
But I have to be honest in remembering. My uncle screamed and yelled when he was drunk. My aunt believed that the neighbors never heard. But her town is a small town. Lillian also made an inventory of her wedding silver, one of her very few possessions of any material value. “11 teaspoons. 1 missing—Esau took and sold,” she wrote on a notecard in her tiny, precise handwriting, referring to her husband. This inventory she tucked inside the front of her recipe box, as if it were the first step to every recipe.
And this problem, of the dishonesty and inaccuracy of the memory, Augustine also recognized. “I cannot grasp the power of what I am,” he wrote. This phrase of Augustine’s reminds O’Donnell of a beautiful, plaintive phrase from Nietzsche: “We necessarily remain strangers, even to ourselves.” How can we not know all of what is inside of us? Augustine wondered. Augustine was not one to duck away from unpleasant conclusions. Augustine concluded, for example, that because of original sin, even infants were tainted and would go to hell. His opponent Pelagius wondered, “You would throw the innocent babies to the flames? The babies into the flames?” Augustine replied yes. “Yes, I would condemn the babies to hell.” But here, in considering the obscurity of the self, Augustine flinched. He moved to a different topic.
“People are moved to wonder by mountain peaks, by vast waves of the sea, by broad waterfalls on rivers, by the all-embracing extent of the ocean, by the revolutions of the stars. But in themselves they are uninterested.” To me, this passage is one of the most beautiful and difficult from the Confessions. I find it painful to look inside for too long. My aunt, however, was deeply interested in her own interior world. She considered why she had married an alcoholic, and thought about it; she was willing to talk about it. And yet even my aunt sometimes flinched and looked away. In the hospice, she was asked whether anything was still bothering her and keeping her from dying. “I think,” she said, “that I have not forgiven my husband.”
Like Augustine, my aunt Lillian saw the memory as the means through which humans experienced the divine. Augustine went inside his memory to try to understand where and how he experienced God. He concluded that God was already in his memory, but also transcended it. “Late have I loved you, beauty so old and so new: late have I loved you. And see, you were within and I was in the external world and sought you there.” The external world—the experience—distracts from the interior reality. Better, Lillian concluded, to be a recluse; better to search out the interior reality. Eventually, my aunt became her house, or her house became her.
“I will never see my house again,” said my aunt to me on the telephone. My parents had taken her to the Mayo Clinic. She had pancreatic cancer. (When they had arrived to get her, she had been sitting at her dining room table, the house immaculate, though she could barely walk.) My aunt would die seven weeks later. I did not know this at the time, sitting on the back steps of my mother-in-law’s house in Connecticut—sun on my legs, the hot August light overhead in the wisteria, children yelling in the pool, playing with frogs. I did not know how to understand this experience.
My aunt sounded surprisingly like herself. She was already stronger in the nursing home, with an IV and regular care. She knew but did not know what was about to happen. “I will never see my house again,” Lillian said. She wanted to organize her house and put labels on what should go to whom. She wanted to give me the jars with the buttons, and the letter my mother had written to my grandfather. Then she said, “I am afraid.”
Augustine said that he could recollect sadness and joy with dispassion. But now the memory of talking to my aunt on the phone is sadder than the immediate experience: the wisteria, the dry leaves rustling on the patio, the children banging the kitchen door. I hear my aunt more intensely than I did before. I will never see my house again. I am afraid.
I am afraid. I used to think that adults did not feel fear. Only children had fear. Night in my aunt’s house: I was a child in the bedroom with the Victorian ceilings and the dark carved doorways, my parents away on a trip, and I was afraid in the dark, my aunt whispering stories to me about each patch of the quilt that covered me until I fell asleep. But no, we are now all adults, and still we are afraid.
I never saw my aunt again. The children bumped up against me, the calendar roared louder and louder, and the students returned to the campus where I teach. I missed saying goodbye to Lillian in person, just as I had barely gone back to see her in my 30s, too preoccupied by the immediacy of babies, syllabi, footnotes, soccer lessons, kitchen renovations, to cogitate upon my future regrets.
Driving to work one September morning, I called my aunt in the hospice. She wanted to explain why she chose me, of my mother’s four children, to have the letter that my grandfather had carried in his wallet for much of his life. “We had been sorting Dad’s things, after his funeral, and we were driving back to my house. You were reading in the back seat. Your mom and I were talking away in the front seat. Oh, you know how we jabber away. Then a little voice peeped up from the back seat. ‘Auntie,’ you said, ‘did you mind?’ ‘Did I mind what, sweetheart?’ I said. ‘Auntie,’ you said, ‘did you mind that Grandpa carried around my mother’s letter in his wallet, and not yours?’ And it was so precious of you to think of me—you were such a little thing at the time—of how I would feel about that.”
I changed lanes.
“You and your sisters and brother,” my auntie Lillian said, “have been so precious to me. I love you so much.” Her directness shocked me. I saw in my mind the blue jars in her yellow pantry, the rhubarb in the alley, the quilt on the upstairs bed in her house, the black dial telephone, and the tree with the finches in its branches. I wondered whether I had ever said “I love you” to my daughters with that much emotion. My aunt was tired. “Goodbye, sweetheart,” she said. “Goodbye.”
Then, driving under the overpass, I knew. I knew she was saying goodbye for the last time. I would never again hear my aunt’s voice. Only in retrospect did I realize that her goodbye implied that I should not call her again. The present had moved past me, and I had never really experienced it.
In the evening, I say to both my daughters: I love you so much. Now I hear my aunt’s voice saying that to me in my head while doing so. I kiss the children—their hot, wanting selves, their feet dirty from playing outside barefoot. I try to pay attention.
My sister Kristina and I flew back from the West Coast for the funeral. My mother refused to enter the house. She stood in the front yard under the oak tree and waited for us. Entering it was the shock of the real. Kristina and I walked through the front hall, and everything was out of order, displaced, disorganized as it was reorganized for a different life at Goodwill, my cousin’s house, our house: boxes, the kitchen topsy-turvy, a cereal box untended on the counter. The house had entered time, and I with it. Suddenly, even in my aunt’s house, I was almost 40 and a mother. I could not stop being that, not even in this house. Now I, too, lived in time.
My aunt’s ashes clung to the jar, on the hill above the town where my parents will be buried. To see the ashes was, a second time, to experience the shock of the real: the body and the soul, the sign and the signifier collapsed, the experience and the meaning elided and burned together. The tree had burned, and the finches were flying. I was not sure whether even love could survive that experience. The ashes must be, and yet they could not be, my aunt, with her red hair, sitting down at the yellow Formica kitchen table, in her house of memory, and saying: “So tell me.”
Permission required for reprinting, reproducing, or other uses.