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Sunday, March 24, 2019

The Irrelevance Of Reconstructing The Past–A Complete Love Needs No Reassembly

Bickford Roberts died young, a sad, untimely end for such a beautiful, talented, and exciting woman who had far more to give than her short life allowed.

She and her first husband had been married only a few years before their divorce – a divorce of inconvenience rather than discord.  On the contrary, few such young loves -in the main immature, naïve, and naturally untested – could have been as sincere, lasting, and unforgettable as theirs.

The reasons why she and Harley divorced are less important than the fact that despite their wrong assumptions about the nature of marriage, this couple who loved each other innocently, without reservation, and before the tethers and traces of a more prosaic life were fitted and strapped on, chose to go their own ways.  Of course there were reasons but never any good ones.  He could have survived her sexual adventurism and social ambitions and even found them the answer to his very predictable, conservative upbringing, the consequences of which – sexual timidity, propriety, and conformity – he was very much aware and angered by.  She could have used some of his rectitude and caution, faithfulness, and principle.   Yet, they went their own ways. 

Yet Harley could never forget Bickford. How could he have divorced her? How could he have ignored the fundamental – no, existential – relationship between them? Youth, perhaps and certainly. Ignorance? Even obtuseness? Probably since no one expects wisdom when young. What, then?

There were many things that Harley wished to shake from his memory – failed loves, idiocy, stupid remarks, cowardliness – but he knew that the bitter-sweet, lovely, and often painful trace of Bickford was there forever. A sentinel perhaps even in his old age. A beacon.  Love does exist, but never the same love twice.

The hardest thing was not the forgetting, the filing away of seminal memories, the relegation of love to an unrecoverable past; but dealing with the decision.  How, he wondered in his later years, had he been so intimidated?  How could he have curled up, snuggled into a relationship of predictability and good sense when his life had been correctly navigated from port? What was it about himself that he had tried, quite unsuccessfully as it turned out, to hide?

Months before their final decision to divorce, had gone to Bickford and said that he was willing to live her way – off any social grid, far from the Fathers of St. Maurice, even farther from the prayers and solicitude of New Brighton.  She could have been brought up anywhere or nowhere, a woman of unheard of sexual and emotional liberty; a woman who, despite her own nuns, priests, and Midwest piety, was having none of it; who elided with the Andy Warhol generation without preparation, ambition, forethought, or concern.  It was in her blood; in her genes; and Harvey had no idea whom he was marrying.

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On the surface she was the ideal match – similar education, solid bourgeois, respectable family; beautiful, smart, talented, and ambitious but within acceptable borders – but who knew what was percolating up and out?  How the bits of Victorian libertine Hubert de Villiers’ genetic code got caught in her wires; or how she inherited some of  her father’s truculence – he was always thought obstinate and disagreeable, but he had a niggardly defiance of imposed social borders - or her grandmother’s well-kept secret passion for young boys?

In other words he had no idea who he was marrying but was naively satisfied with the image – the respectable, status-well image of certain success – but fell impossibly in love with her; and even discounting the fact that she was his first love, it was something else – part Petrarch, part chivalric ode, part Hollywood romance, part Romeo and Juliet, part Shakespeare's sonnets to his young man, and part some indescribable late adolescent longing for intimacy, womanhood, and sexual security.

Romantic Love

Harley remarried and for years was content with his wife’s monogamy, his desultory love affairs, his grandchildren, and his uninterrupted trajectory.  He never, until much later in life even admitted that he might have been wrong – not just wrong in divorcing Bickford, but in dismissing the idea of love and especially first love.  Hard though it was to admit, Petrarch and the Shakespeare of the Sonnets might well be right.

There was peril in opening this particular chest.  Admitting that he had not only given up his one and only chance for a truly fulfilled life – one that was consistent with his personality, character, and ambition – and admitting that there was indeed something that he had both missed and missed out upon – could be very painful.  One would need a lot of nihilism and resolve to look therein and be able to look away with some measure of equanimity.

He did look finally.  He revisited their early years, their church marriage, their short life together, and their divorce; but as much as he tried to relegate these memories to memory, he could not.  He had loved her, had always loved her, and had loved no one but her. His life since their separation had been deceitful, and dishonest – not dishonest in itself since he had respected convention and propriety to a large degree – but dishonest in essence.

After a while, he let the memories go.  He unhinged himself from bits and pieces of memory, fragmentary and ultimately unsatisfactory recreations of his love.  Incomplete, randomly selected memories necessarily restrict a reconstruction of the whole.  An emotional whole is not the sum of its recollected parts, it is an undifferentiated, indefinable composite of them.  When he thought of her, it was nowhere, with no one, without appurtenance or context.  The relegation of specific memories allowed for a recreation of her, an indefinable woman but a complete one.

The assembly of fragmentary memories, however, is for some the only way to preserve the past.  Aunt Bertie on the beach at Rehoboth in her bloomers.  Uncle Harry in the Model T motoring to Arizona.  Granny Wiser in knickers, in a canoe.  Dede Farnsworth with his Turkish wife Emriye on the Bosporus.  Assemblage is a tribute, they say, the only way to keep those who have died very much in the present.  However, once the albums have been assembled, shared, and put away, each of Dede’s descendants have forgotten them and returned to their own, prior, and very personal composite feelings about those who have died.   Thoughts of Dede are not flashbacks, but gestalt images –contours, and shapes of feelings rather than recollections.

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Without being aware, we create our own personal emotional shape – more than personality only made up of incomplete memories of loudness, impatience, or friendliness; and certainly more than character defined by moral principle or lack of it, courage, honor, justice; but something simply Dede, Granny, or Bertie.

If after all these years, an album of Bickford had appeared, Harley would not have looked at it.  It would have disassembled the now undifferentiated, complete woman he knew.

Vladimir Nabokov was a self-described memorist who believed that only the past validated the individual.  The present was at best milliseconds.  The future only possible and never probable; but the past existed and could be retained through memory.  Nabokov trained himself to commit to memory the scenes of his childhood that he knew would be important, and to keep the memories alive through constant repetition; but his extended relived memories were only broad pastiches – extended remembrances of family outings to Deauville, St. Petersburg, and Siberian dachas; old jittery mind movies of childhood friends, Victorian dresses, parasols, and mustachioed uncles.

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Harley cared little for a Nabokovian past.  There was no need to recreate Bickford, nor place her in context, nor develop her chronology.   The specific events of his marriage meant little and were only explanatory factors of their divorce.  Those few memories of Bickford which were distinct had little to do with what had happened, but how he felt about her – an emotional image which had no particular parameters. 

After she died, the memory-feelings of her increased. Perhaps because any lingering, impossible thoughts of remarrying her were finally laid to rest; but more likely because with her death, only the essence remained – the very gestalt images of shape, contour, and feeling that he had husbanded since their divorce – but an essence which was made even more palpable and impossible to dismiss.  He cried more after her death.

Memory, however conceived and constructed, is a very personal affair.  For some aggregation is the key to remembrance.  For others like Harley it was the final dismissal of specific memories that freed him to recreate the past.

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