Dear Michael –
I write to you this morning via someone you knew when you were a very little boy. I do not expect you remember her, though perhaps you remember more from that time than most three year-olds. Habit can create memory, and you had little of that, but so can trauma. Perhaps people told you about the fire and it’s become part of your history, though that would require people to pass along history, and the people you knew then I don’t imagine were around very long. Also, they were people who made a point of not caring about history, they were going to shake off history, history, they said (when they were able to speak; the woman told us you had not as yet), was a burden, a plot.
The woman that knew you then, who sang you “Frère Jacques” in the car, did care about history. She cared about it very much. Caring about history was what brought her to you, to watch history’s destruction, its shredding at the hands of children somewhat older than you and those older still who let go of certain duties, who were soft on themselves and distractible and pretended there would be no cost for this distraction.
Your mother was distracted, though I can see she also had some homing instinct. What speaks more of home than baking bread? She might not have thought of it this way as she formed the dough, which (you may not know) feels very much like a living baby. The woman wrote that she was struck by “how it is possible for people to be the unconscious instruments of values they strenuously reject on a conscious level.”
I have seen, if fifteen years later, what your mother rejected: the 19 year-old in the apartment over the train-tracks in Middletown, a living room/kitchenette of her parents’ castoffs, the infant asleep on the floor, his father stricken in his varsity jacket, “thanks for coming by, guys.” They were people your mother, could she have seen to 1981, might have called square, might have called trapped. They were trapped. It was easy to hear the shriek of time in that apartment, the tick of the clock, too. They were not allowed the soft distractions (her father made sure of that); they put what they learned on its feet, their son would be ten years graduated from the college they were forced to drop out of.
I wonder what happened to you. She wondered, too. She had been alarmed at what perils she saw rush in when the center did not hold, at men who did not after the fire reach for you but instead searched for more forgetfulness beneath the floorboards. Perhaps these men told your mother, “You should be watching that boy.” Perhaps she got you out of there.
The woman, I could tell, wanted to get you out. She had only one way to do this, to introduce us. But maybe too, she was pressing something in your palm that day in the car. Maybe the song was a signal; maybe she was thinking your first words could be, “Mom, the bells are ringing.”
For Joan Didion on her 82nd birthday