A Capital of Memory

28 Mar

-Andre Aciman grew up in Alexandria, Egypt. A Jew, he left Egypt with his family when the Jews began to suffer persecution. He settled finally in New York, becoming a teacher at Bard College. When he returned thirty-five years later to Alexandria, he recognized the landmarks and many of the buildings, including the apartment house of his childhood, but so much had changed that he felt like “a B. C. person in an A. D. world.”

This feeling intensified when Aciman searched for his grandfather’s grave. He made inquiries, but the people he talked to knew nothing about the existence of a Jewish cemetery. Finally, he located the cemetery and his grandfather’s headstone, covered with soil and vines.   Aciman tried to fantasize what his life would have been, had he never left for America. Overwhelmed by this exercise, he concludes that for him Alexandria will always be “the capital of memory.”

As I read Aciman, I recalled my own visit to Denver in 1990—the hometown that I had left in the 50s, not to return for thirty-five years. There was not a single skyscraper in the city when I left. I retraced the pathways of childhood. My old grade school is now redone for condos. The church on the corner, where I was a janitor, was torn down to give way to a movie theater. I couldn’t believe the sight of the house I called home: the big front porch was gone and the red brick house was painted a garish green. That was enough for me—I was definitely a B.C. person in my own hometown.

But this failed attempt to connect with present-day Denver strengthened my bond with Denver of the 30s and 40s—in the days before my home was colored green, when that school building teemed with kids. Denver became in that moment the capital of memory for me. Aciman tried to imagine what his life would be like if he had stayed in Alexandria—where there are more skullcaps stored in the narthex of the synagogue than there are Jews in all of Egypt and where people do not even remember the Jewish cemetery. He would have a different wife and children. Trying to reconstruct what would have been was too much for him.

I, too, attempted such a reconstruction, but it soon hit a dead end, because I felt no connection at all to the Denver of today. My memory was certain—I know I was a Denver boy, and I know how it shaped me; I am forever a “Westerner.” But memory is my only tie. The older we become and the farther our youthful haunts recede into the past, the more important the memory becomes. Some, like Aciman, leave home under duress, fearing for their lives. Others, like me, are beckoned by educational chances or jobs. Still others found their homes stilted and stifling. Memory transcends all of this—and won’t go away. Memory is witness to how the places of home have forever molded us.

Thomas Wolfe said, “You can’t go home again.” He was right, and this underscores how precious a place the capital of our memory is. We can go there as often as we wish.

(c) Phil Hefner. 3-29-2019

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