Old Things and Other Lifetimes

Perhaps it’s just the mindset in the aftermath of death, but I’ve been sifting through documents and photographs in the wake of my father’s passing and it suddenly seems to me as though someone else, someone different from me entirely, has lived those long vanished years now recorded only in obscure words or fading pictures.
It doesn’t really help matters that my life has spanned a particularly rapid evolution of technology.
My baby pictures are tiny squares of stiff photographic paper, black and white images with white frames around the picture and often artistically scalloped edging. In them, my twenty-years-gone grandmother is a young laughing woman who was younger than I am now. My parents are young and vibrant and gleamingly happy new parents. And I… I was surely never that chubby cherub with fat little feet clad in dainty baby shoes dangling out of a baby stroller or stuck straight out in front of me as I was posed on a park bench whose seat was as wide as my baby legs were long.
I was still black and white when I was seven or eight or nine, a grave-eyed child standing before a black-and-white Santa Claus somewhere.
And then the color started creeping in, and here are the reminders of the rich mahogany chestnut of my twelve-year-old hair, the spindly long legs of my early adolescence emerging from denim shorts, the technicolor hues of the Africa where I spent my childhood – the bright blossoms on exotic trees, the vivid sunsets in wide African skies, the sometimes eye-watering color combinations as worn by random people in the street who are no more than background to a picture of me standing in front of something deemed interesting.
Then come the later pictures, the ones where my hair is graying and my parents’ hair is already white – and the pictures of lost pets, long gone, long mourned, now buried and left behind in the garden of some house we lived in and loved and then left or with their ashes now living, carefully stacked one on another in their little wooden urns, in a bedside cabinet.
Then there are no more pictures at all because they’re all digital now, and on my computer hard drive – and it is suddenly scary to me that I might lose an entire era of my life by one single simple computer crash.
I keep finding little snippets of paper – things my father kept, things I had written when I was seven or twelve or fifteen, poems I barely remember writing. And poems in manila envelopes and ratty folders that were written TO me by my grandfather. Finding them is suddenly like hearing my grandfather’s voice speak from across the chasm of the years that he has been gone.
I was a baby once, cuddled and cossetted and carried hither and yon in various people’s arms; I was a toddler with fat little legs and quite round like a little snowball in my white winter coat and all the layers that went underneath it; I was a schoolgirl with long hair worn in two thick braids and several times decorated with actual bows at the ends of them; I was a leggy young woman posing in a blue bikini and movie-star dark glasses on a long lost beach somewhere.
I was all of these strangers, and all of them are supposedly me… but right now it seems to me that those memories are as about as two dimensional as the photos which represent them. They may as well have been implanted, and I myself am not a real human being at all. I am an android, a replicant, and none of these things actually HAPPENED to me the way I seem to recall them. I was just told about it all by someone or had it downloaded into my brain while I was in standby mode for memory upload and I woke up with all of these things in my head but they’re all just these still photographs, no movement, no sound, no scent, no texture.
Maybe I’m still working through loss. Maybe it will come back again, someday. Or maybe this is how you start to lose yourself, by losing the people and the things and the memories that you love, and they all take little bits along with them when they go, and in the end you are nothing more than those fading photographs and the words that once haunted your mind hard enough to bring forth a poem.
Maybe I’m still asleep and dreaming all of this, Maybe I”ll wake up one day soon and be alive again like I… like I… I was going to say, remember being once upon a time – but is that memory to be trusted either?
Was I  just always like this, two-dimensional and fading? Or is it still just the grief that’s veiling it all and making it seem lost and unreal and never-had?
(This first appeared at Storytellers Unplugged here)
A review
Lois Tilton reviews Journal of Unlikely Architecture, in which my story ‘Go Through‘ appears. She’s known to be hard to please, so I’m quite happy that she has slapped a “recommended” on this one.
Here’s what she has to say in her intro, and about my story in particular:
“The Journal of Unlikely Entomology has mutated into a more general form encompassing different subjects: this one is titled The Journal of Unlikely Architecture. I have to applaud the decision…this new incarnation is fresh and crisp, surreal and weird, highly unlikely indeed.
Go Through by Alma Alexander
A metaphor come to life: doors. This fiction is a vision, surreal and symbolic.
Doors that never allow me to pass them by, once I’ve seen them. Once seen, never unseen. Always there. A door ignored will return — again and again and again — until I reach for that key, for that handle, and crack it open. A door that should never have been in my path; a door without which my path would not exist.
There are alternating sections, first-person and third, but the difference is inconsequential since we don’t really know who “I” is, or whether it’s the same “I” every time, or whether “she” is the same as “I” or someone else, but in effect they all are “you” or everyone who might read this, as the message is universal: this is life.
Lois Tilton reviews at Locus Online
Alma Alexander
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