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Connections

July 25, 2011

On Saturday, I spoke about my lack of memory and my writing to my parents’ community. While an MFA student, and especially during my final residency, I spoke quite a bit about it all, and this blog gives me the opportunity to go public with whatever aspects of my memory void/recovery/writing I wish to share. But my parents’ community, this was a first.

My mother and father were married forty years ago. A few days after their wedding, when they’d settled into an apartment in southeastern Connecticut, they joined Our Lady of Lourdes Parish. They baptized each one of us there and added us to their front pew domain. Daddy read during mass. Mom taught CCD. They volunteered at the summer festival, as we did when we were older. Daddy joined the Knights of Columbus. I know he did a lot of good, and I know spaghetti and donuts were involved. Three sisters received communion. An OLOL priest accompanied a police officer to tell my mother the news of my father’s death. My father’s funeral was at OLOL, my mother bending to reach his coffin from the front pew she’d been sharing with him for almost twelve years. Another priest taught us how to swim. I received communion. We continued to go and grow until the pew was too small. A church member told us of an available rental house after the fire nearly ruined ours. Church members set up a rotation of food delivery and donated clothes and toys, too. We were confirmed at OLOL. We developed crushes on boys as they waited for communion. We sang the harmony parts to hymns. We tried to make each other laugh. I kissed a boy at the top of the ferris wheel and we both tasted of cotton candy. Then we broke up, since we’d be going to different high schools, but we still finished our cotton candy. One by one my sisters and I left for college and my mother continued to go to church. My sister was married in OLOL. My mother started working for the pastor, served on the parish council, created (and still maintains) a memorial garden behind the church. The church. Always, the church, my parents’ community. No matter the paths our adult lives have taken, for my sisters and me, our childhood lives played against that blue carpet, the honey brown pews, the tiled hall, the grotto.

On Saturday, my parents’ community—church members, Knights of Columbus, some of Daddy’s colleagues from the nuclear power plant, some of his Navy buddies—gathered for a chicken dinner to benefit the Edward C. Farrell Memorial Scholarship Foundation, and to witness my mother giving this year’s award to a high school senior named Breanna, someone I count as one of the kindest and most giving people I’ve ever met. My eldest sister and her family were there, too, as was J, his camera and new flash extender in frequent play. The photo above is his.

This year, my mother asked me if I wanted to say a few words. I’d chaired the selection committee, so it seemed fitting to become a public voice in the presence of my parents’ community, especially since so many donate faithfully to the foundation. I spoke about my memory, my father. This is what I said:

I don’t remember my father. It’s been an unusual thing for me. So many people in this room—my mother and sister, of course, but also members of the community and church, of the Knights of Columbus, remember him—his openness to learning, his commitment to family, his sense of justice, his willingness to serve, his love of reading.

Just the other day, when I told my mother that my husband and I would be seeing the final Harry Potter movie for his birthday, she said, “Daddy would have been first in line. He loved science fiction and fantasy. He took Beth to see Star Wars and loved it!” This “Daddy,” he’s been a stranger to me, even as his DNA makes up half of me, even while I, as an adult, am told I have a lot in common with him.

I was so young when he died that I ended up losing memory of him, but more. Because of the suddenness, the awfulness, of his death at the hands of a drunk driver, the ripping-out-of-life while doing something so normal as driving home from work, because of that, at six, I was so traumatized that I shut down. And, sadly, by my late teens, I had lost memory of all my childhood years. Aside from my father’s death—that’s my earliest memory, my very first one, the doorbell, a priest from this church and a policeman delivering the terrible news—and the fire that ravaged our house two and a half years later, I remembered nothing—literally, nothing—of being a child before twelve years old. The consequences of drunk driving spread wider and dig deeper than we can even imagine.

For five years now, I’ve been on a quest. I’ve researched the science of memory, tried many different types of memory recovery, and attempted to recover my lost childhood and get to know my father again. And I’ve been writing a book about it. At one point, I had such a breakthrough, not of remembering Daddy, but of feeling him, that I was finally able to put a picture of him up in our apartment. It’s right by the bed.

Serving on the scholarship foundation’s selection committee, and chairing it for the first time this year, is more than an honor. It’s crucial for my connection to my father, to do something in his memory, even if I can’t recall him in mine.

This brings me to Breanna. Getting to know Breanna through her application, through the words people said about her, through her own words in her essay, is special to me. She is very much like what I’m told my dad was like. I know from Breanna’s application that she’s made learning a habit, that she’s committed to her community, that she’s willing to serve, that she carries with her a sense of justice. And I know she’s a reader, as my dad was, since she’s volunteered at the local library.

And so in getting to know Breanna, I’ve gotten to know my dad a little bit more, too. That’s what makes this scholarship unique. We get to know, and stay in touch with, recipients. We choose recipients who possess all the best qualities as they enter adulthood, recipients who are ready to make good choices and enhance the lives of those around them. My dad can’t be here anymore to do those things, but our recipients, like Breanna, can.

Although Breanna has already said thank you, I, too, want to thank you, Breanna, for applying, and for sharing with us, and with your community, the qualities that I’m told my dad always shared: leadership, carefulness, and as much light as the luminaries you use to enliven the neighborhood.

After dinner, which was unbelievably tasty, as in the best-chicken-I’ve-ever-had tasty, Tom, a Knight and an old friend of my dad’s, came up to me and said he wanted to tell me a story. Seems that he knew my father before my mother even did. They were both in the Navy and had crossed paths up in Windsor, Connecticut. Later, after Daddy had retired from the Navy and started working at the nuclear power plant, Tom was looking for a job. He sent out so many resumes, sometimes multiple times to the same place, with no luck. Disheartened, he mentioned it to my dad. “Ed told me to give him a copy of my resume. Three days later I got a call—an interview, and then I was hired. That’s the kind of man your dad was.”

It was very good to share.

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