Que Será, Será

Conjuring a long-forgotten memory of my mother

Sven Birkerts

"All these memories. I imagine them compressed to the size of a dot somewhere deep in my psyche. How they miraculously open when the prompt is right." Illustration by the author.

The image comes, unselected, apparently of its own volition. A row of tall black boots lined up against the wall just inside the door that leads to the playground—the boots that everyone had to have back then. I see them with surprising ease some sixty years later, fixed in the light that slants in from over the rooftop, gleaming in their little pools of smudgy ice-melt. The boots are there because it’s after recess. It must be winter. And we are all lined up single file outside the cafeteria door. I’m standing there with everyone else, but toward the rear of the line—because I’m staring at the boots, intent and covetous. Everyone else in my class seems to have them, rubbery and shiny, with those clips with jagged teeth you can buckle tight or else leave loose to clink when you walk.

I suppose the trail can start anywhere and lead anywhere. My wife and I moved very recently from Arlington, Massachusetts, across the state to Amherst, and everything out here is new, taken in as if for the first time. On these early spring days, I like to go out to sit in the little screened-in porch at the back of the house where there is nothing to be seen but the tall old trees on all three sides. The greenery is dense and soothing and after a while the ear starts to wake up. I begin to hear the birds. The more I listen the more I realize that they’re everywhere—their calls, each its own sound, are coming from all directions, layer upon layer. I lean my head back against the cushion and try to see how far in I can hear.

My daydream begins with those rubber boots, but the boots are only there to mark a path, to start a chain of association. They’ve already led me, who knows why, to the end of the long wood dock at Walnut Lake, where I can almost feel myself pressing my weight down with one leg, rocking the platform so I can watch the ripples echo out. It’s a floating dock, supported by a long row of empty barrels positioned at intervals. What I love to do in the water is dive under and then surface in the hollow, echoey space between the barrels and under the boards. The undersides of the barrels are covered with algae, and just out of reach. Curious but skittish minnows come close from time to time, then flash away in a split second as soon as I stir. Thin bars of light show in the spaces between slats, and every so often I hear a muffled pounding that gets louder and louder as someone walks down the dock and passes right above my head, momentarily blocking out the light. The thudding stops, and I hear the faint grumbling of a motorboat on the far side of the lake, a sound that is always there, like the buzzing of lawnmowers in our neighborhood in the early evenings.

These are the kinds of images and sensations that come to me lately, each like the end of a separate piece of thread waiting to be pulled out. Are they just happenstance, these isolated instances, or do the strands want to weave together and create a design I would see if I could somehow step away from myself?

"Earworm"—that's the odd word for a particular kind of visitation. I recently had a flash of my mother in my grandparents’ old kitchen. She is singing “Que Será, Será.” I have no memory of my mother ever singing alone, so I’m thinking now that she was probably chiming in with Doris Day on the radio. Why did this melody come to me at this moment? I don’t remember any recent reference to Doris Day, or to the song. Do our earworms, too, choose us?

Whatever the trigger, while listening to the birds I had a clear image of the little kitchen in my grandparents’ second-floor apartment in the house at Cranbrook. A key location of my youth, it turns out. My grandfather worked at the Art Academy museum there, and my grandmother was one of the dorm mothers at Kingswood, the girls’ school. In this memory, I am not yet in school. My sister and I are staying with our grandparents, Mike and Um, while my parents sell our little house in nearby Birmingham and finish the move to a bigger house out in Bloomfield Hills. By the time I start first grade at Walnut Lake that fall, we are living in our new house.

I imagined a future from which, looking back, all of us, and everything in the room, would be gone.

Eyes closed, I can bring back the feeling of standing in that kitchen. I can fill things in—stove and sink in the corner, the one wide window at my back, the table in the middle with its rounded corners and bright deco finish. I have a very distinct sense of the ambiance, the quality of light, the places of shadow, how everything seemed just then. My mother is standing on the other side of the kitchen table, my grandmother somewhere by the sink, and picturing the moment, I am very aware of the dark gap of the open kitchen door behind my mother. Is she really singing, or have I just embellished what was playing on the radio? It’s the words that matter. When I was just a little girl, I asked my mother, “What will I be? Will I be happy . . . ?” There by her side, listening, I was suddenly pierced by a sadness I had never felt before—a time-filled sorrow about all things passing and perishing. I imagined a future from which, looking back, all of us, and everything in the room, would be gone.

And here I am, sixty-five years later, having just six months ago lost my mother. She would have been in her late twenties in that memory; she was ninety-three when she died. Such a long time between. My sharp recollection of her in the kitchen settles on top of my very last impression of her—the profile of her body as she lay in the bed, which I stared at while waiting for the undertaker to come. All that life inside the brackets.

On the other side of the kitchen, behind the open door and across the hall, was the large walk-in closet that was for me the heart and central mystery of my grandparents’ apartment. This was where my grandfather kept his paints and brushes. I see the shelves lined with tubes, each banded with its colored stripe—the whole array, some almost used up, the bottoms rolled tight, others yet unopened. There was a tall paint-splashed easel collapsed against the wall, a brightly smeared palette on a nail, and hanging right above the door, a flat, worn horseshoe. Its simple crescent curve seemed to bless the space. I’d been told that it was there to bring luck, so everything in that room was connected for me with the idea of luck.

Some months after my mother died, my sister and brother and I set about cleaning out her apartment, setting aside what we would donate, and deciding what each of us wanted for ourselves. Such a shift in perspective to look on things this way. A possession, something for so long integrated into a person’s life, suddenly becomes an object to be dealt with, accounted for. Each one had been part of my mother’s life, and they could not really be assessed separately. Yet they had to be. The decorated plates, the glass prism, the paintings and framed photos, the box of earrings and brooches, the vases, even the blanket she covered herself with when she sat in her recliner. Just like that, the order of her living was gone, each thing abruptly stripped of its context, like a puzzle suddenly shaken back into its box, each piece holding just a trace of what had been the whole.

A possession, something for so long integrated into a person’s life, suddenly becomes an object to be dealt with, accounted for.

Among other things—certain paintings and books and boxes of photographs—I asked to keep my grandfather’s palette, which had hung in that closet at Cranbrook all those years before, and then, for years afterward, had leaned against the wall on a high shelf in my mother’s apartment. It now hangs on a nail in my study, another kind of talisman.

The ashes—my father’s and now my mother’s—were the hardest thing to reckon with. The older container and the new would stay together. My sister agreed to keep the ashes until the time was right for us three siblings to bring them to Riga, to inter them in a designated space in the moody old cemetery with its trees and winding pathways. My father’s mother, Merija, is buried there. Several years back, the whole family gathered by her grave: our parents, my siblings and me, our spouses, our children. We had traveled to Riga for the opening of the Latvian National Library, which was the crowning achievement of my father’s architectural career. He had hired a van and driver to take us to all the places of his and my mother’s childhoods, bringing us at last to the cemetery and convening us in front of the movable slab he had commissioned. “This is where we’ll be,” he said. “Our ashes.” And I saw my mother look away, I’m sure unable to bear the thought.

All these memories. I imagine them compressed to the size of a dot somewhere deep in my psyche. How they miraculously open when the prompt is right. Que será, será.

Sven Birkerts is the author of eleven books of criticism and memoir and co-editor of the journal AGNI. He is exploring the uses of obliquity in a photo-cum-text in progress. He lives in Amherst, Massachusetts.
Originally published:
April 11, 2022

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