The Saturday Rumpus Essay: Heirlooms

By

These are the things that I choose to remember, more powerful than the things I’ve already forgotten.

*

My mom once asked if memories are composites of what we build over the years. I told her that that’s exactly what memories are; my version is different from hers is different from my dad’s. Memories are just encoded patterns of neuronal firing, and neurons that fire together wire together: that is, the secret to decoding the truth of memory is understanding the electrical signals that are turned into chemical messengers and back again. Long wires feed into the memory-filled hippocampus from areas like the decision-making frontal cortex and anxious amygdala, carrying ionic currents to cascade chemical signals—thereby winding our memories tightly to even the little things.

*

It is vital for me to understand this, to follow the action potentials as they leap from one neuron to the next. I have to understand: why are the memories so scarce, why do they fade from my fingertips, and why can’t I trace the beginnings of my inherited sadness?

*

I can count my childhood memories on my fingers. My earliest one is of a dark room: I’m in kindergarten, waiting for my mother to pick me up, unable to—or afraid to—fall asleep for naptime. One summer, when I was eight or nine or ten or eleven, there was an epic storm that flooded our basement, where we spent most of our time. I remember grabbing towels as my dad, drenched, tried to clog the door. That same summer, or the one before, or the one after, I created a dance for my camp’s talent show to a song from the Rugrats movie. I was too embarrassed to audition.

I remember the feeling of drowning, the heaviness and peace as it settled into my lungs. The kickboard had shot out from under me, and the pool was too stuffed for the lifeguard to notice. I was eight, or nine, or ten, and what I remember is my hand above my head, floating as I stopped fighting to breathe. Then that hand was on someone’s back, and I grabbed onto her swimsuit and pulled myself up, coughing, hauling out of the pool. I choked up water and apologized with the little breath I had as the girl and her brother stared at me. The family friend who had brought me there, with my brother and her nephew, waved off my story. The last thing I remember is what I don’t, the things I wanted to say to the teenaged lifeguard and didn’t. I was too preoccupied with my first headache, the beginning to take to a list of doctors who would try to understand why they occurred.

*

My mother and her mother and her mother before her pass their childhood trauma down from one to the other, propelling each into a similar story, tightening the strings of genetics and heritable traits. Evolution doesn’t promise something different for me, but I look at my experiences and wonder not where the trauma isn’t, but where the trauma is. It’s not in the wax ripping spindly wires from my face, or sitting on the plush couch, across from my first therapist. No, my childhood is the belly-clench before the biggest slide in the park, the sweat from too many layers before stepping out in the winter’s cold, the blackened layer of marshmallow stripped away to ooze melted sugar.

*

I cultivated my depression in careful shovels of self-hatred and self-harm, but I was never sure where or when the seeds had been planted. At four or five, I swept the cement patio in our backyard and thought someday, my prince will come. When I was seven, I told my mother that I knew I’d be successful but was not sure I would marry. I remember the hatred for my body stretching back even beyond that. When I was thirteen, in one of my various journals, I wrote about an entity called DH. It stood for Depressing Hatred. I tried to manifest my feelings into a thing with which I could reason. Reason failed.

*

But I have fond feelings of my childhood. My father built circuits with me, teaching me about physics. My mother and I watched Masterpiece Theatre on Sundays. My brother would pour chocolate syrup into the peanut butter jar, its sticky remnants left on the walls and cabinets. No, my family loved me; I was the one that did not.

Then where did it come from, those pebbles of doubt, the whispers that I would sink in my brother’s shadow, that I would lag behind my father’s legacy, that my mother would be ashamed of me? Why did the razor nicks find their home in my ankles and shins, my calves peppered with red lines that faded back away into my skin? Why can’t I find the reasons for the ache that has followed me through the years?

*

My family is no stranger to memory loss and self-deception. My mother’s memories are tied to trauma and then forgotten. She remembers even less than I do: her mother pulling a comb through her hair, yanking at the knots; cooking for the whole household when she was eight because her stepmother was cruel. When she mouths the words, it’s a rehearsed script. Her first stepmother was abusive. Her birth mother was abusive. What is abuse, anyway? She puts those aside and tells me of uncovered thoughts, pictures she found in her mind that she forgot she’d ever taken.

It’s the little details, and the big ones, that she can’t summon: the name of the man she once loved; her early months in America, unable to speak English; how long it took for her brother’s blood to multiply in his marrow and kill him, from the inside out.

My mother’s childhood was an expansive house forty miles outside of Tehran, in a town called Abadan. Her father was the Chief of Police and implicated in the fire that started the Revolution of ’79. Once, she wouldn’t have recalled that she lived without him for four years. She lived with family friends in the city, rather than her mother.

I don’t know what my mother was like in her formative years, and neither does she. I imagine she was quiet and shy, because the woman I know today isn’t outspoken or loud. (I got that trait from my father). I imagine her stepmother called her a whore whenever she saw her dance. (At my wedding, my mom said it was the first time she’d danced in thirty years.) I imagine she loved her older brother so much that when he left to attend high school in America, she never forgave him. (Maybe, anyway.)

The last time she was in the house she grew up in, the Revolutionary Guard was storming into her father’s home, looking to arrest him for sympathies with the Shah. He’d already fled Iran.

*

When I got married, three of the thirty people that were at my reception were the family my mother lived with during the Revolution. My something-uncle took my hands, tears in his eyes, and told me I look just like her at that age. How else do I resemble her? How else will I, as I age?

*

Maybe my mother’s early-life trauma and subsequent amnesia imprinted itself on genes forming my hippocampal neurons, and this twisted what I can remember. It’s the concept of epigenetics: methylated cysteine-phosphatase-guanine islands control gene expression. Maybe cortisol and corticotropin releasing hormone receptors were up-regulated in the amygdala, signs that our physical stresses feed into centers of fear and anxiety. The brain is a curious, malleable thing, and just as cigarette smoke and alcohol can be tucked into a fetus, so can trauma. My mother’s experiences settled into her eggs and shaped me.

*

I wish I’d asked my grandmother about both her and my mother’s childhood before she died. She probably didn’t have memories of it, either. She was no older than seventy-two in her last days, but her mind had been lost to bipolar disorder or schizophrenia or Lord knows what mental illness decades before. Any memories of her childhood, of the reason for her early onset arthritis or polio’ed legs that could never properly hold her or the teenaged tumble down the stairs that gave her lifelong back problems would have been erased with the death of her son nearly twenty years before her own.

The grandmother I remember twisted her ankle under her to walk, flattening it like puff pastry. She moved from walking around her apartment to, in her final years, being bedridden in our downstairs guest room. The doctor told her that she could get hip surgery, but her fears tied her hands until she could no longer use them.

But there are memories I wouldn’t have access to, and she might not have either. If my grandmother had any childhood resentment towards her own mother’s abandonment and subsequent return, it would have been buried when she held her second-born infant girl after the baby’s death in a car crash. Instead, I remember my mother crying as she hung up the phone or drove away from a visit, and the lifelong understanding that my grandmother hated my mother. Could hate and resentment bury into the epigenome? Could the misery of a childhood rape that I imagine she experienced turn my grandmother’s eggs into inhospitable environments, places where she would teach my mother to hate herself as she did? Did falling in love at nineteen with her distant cousin, my grandfather, just stave off the inevitable?

Maybe none of these happened or existed. They might as well not have.

*

In some ways, my grandmother followed the footsteps of her mother before her. My great-grandfather married a prostitute when my great-grandmother was pregnant. After she gave birth, she left him and her infant daughter to go be a nurse in another city. My great-grandmother was a sexually liberated career woman, someone who would have wrinkled noses even today. She waltzed back into my grandmother’s life sixteen years later, after my grandmother had already lived without her, after she’d built a life with her father in whatever way she knew how.

My mom remembers being afraid of her grandmother, but has never mentioned her grandfather. I wonder if he scared her in a different way. I wonder, with all the memories of childhood she doesn’t have, if he was one she decided to forget.

*

Just as my mother passed her trauma to me, her mother surely passed her trauma to her. Like a rite of passage, all of us had moments marked either on our skin or neurons or genes. My great-grandmother, abandoning her toddler. My grandmother, with the death of two children. My mother, with her abusive childhood. And me? And my kids?

*

The memory snippets piece together my mother’s reality, creating the woman that I one day learned to love. The mother that raised me loved me while I was young, but then, with only her own mother to guide her, lost me. Watched me grow into my father’s arms, become the son he wanted and failed to have. As I grew into my body, breasts pressing against cotton t-shirts and thick thighs slipping into jeans, she drifted away. And so I left her, too, until my grandmother lay on her deathbed in the guest bedroom, eyes glazed white in her final blind day. As I watched her die, I stepped out to wipe my tears. You must be strong for her, I thought, and that’s when I knew I loved my mother.

And yet, our true history is unclear.

*

I look to my own past to predict my own patterns, whether I fall into the cycles that have settled into my genes. But little comes to me but in senses. Still, I sit with them and look for the clues of who I will become, if I haven’t already.

My childhood smells like esfand, harmel seeds my mother would burn on the first day of school to ward off the Evil Eye. I don’t remember when she stopped doing it, but I ask her about it even to this day. I taste ramen noodle stir-fries with Polish sausages and barbeque sauce, or scrambled eggs and hot dogs, choice food in the cold basement where we lived. Sometimes I smell tobacco leaves and I am always coming up on the basement stair, meeting my father in one of the rug-filled prayer rooms as he prepares a pipe he probably no longer has. The smoke is sweet and soothing, like his hand on my head, stroking my hair and massaging around my eyes after a long day. My childhood sounds like high-pitched eeeeeee’s in the background, the thumps of my brother’s hard run. I remember cramps that curled me in the back of the car, ready for a hospital, or headaches that saw me lying on the floor in the middle of gym class while the other students thought I was faking.

Unhappy memories are not summoned when I remember my childhood. I think of the House with the Big Blue Sign, the Sufi spiritual center where we lived. I think of my mother’s garden and my father building the gazebo. I think of cucumbers with salt and estomboli, the rice dish I requested every day after school. My childhood is my father singing Ya Doost, O Friend, and me rolling Persian hand drums called dafs across the floor. My childhood is the white and purple flowers that peak out from the grass when spring is beginning, the Amazon deliveries of Harry Potter when the next book was released, a run-down movie theatre’s showing of the Lord of the Rings movies with my dad.

*

The strings of our DNA mark us as one, but it’s the roots of our memories that bind us. Between the increased cortisol in our blood, our body’s cry for help when stressed, serotonin levels dropping, dropping, we are left with—what? Why do my dopamine levels trickle out and then storm back up in the nucleus accumbens, the deep parts in the brain which hug addiction and pleasure, when I feel the gnawing hunger in my belly, or the sting of blood under running water? Does it happen to my mother? Did it happen to my grandmother?

*

Where did I learn the language of irrational guilt, the alphabet that dictates my future? When my mother first held me in her arms, did she promise to break the cycle? Did she promise to teach me what her mother and grandmother could not, or to shield me from knowledge she learned too young?

The screams of memories long lost deny me my answer, the reasons why I count my pills out in the mornings and nights. Would I break the orb of inherited pasts if I found it? Would I prevent my unborn children from suffering our fate? Perhaps it is better to let it tumble from my fingers, questions unanswered. Yet still I search, my nails scrapping the cobwebs of things we no longer know.

***

Feature image: “The Old Windmill,” photograph by Peter Mackness.


Naseem Jamnia is a non-binary writer that finds herself starting a PhD program in Philadelphia instead of her native Chicago. To follow her writing, join her weekly Tuesday Telegrams. To save her from impending research rotations, reach out on Facebook, Twitter, or at www.naseemwrites.com. More from this author →