On Memory & Why I Can't Remember My Mother's Face


Photograph by Mayr

by Janice Lee

The memories are like stutters. Sometimes I inhale for air, and exhale a shaking chain of memories. A choking hazard. I for the ghost. The ghost for me.

When I close my eyes and try to remember my mother’s face, I see instead a blurry image that comes to stand in for my mother. That is, all I can really see is a blur with hair, a face without details, a body without specificity. There is no characteristic that marks this blur as my mother, yet I can confirm that it is her, even if it’s not really her, even if none of the details are visible. I know it’s her because I can feel it. And in these moments, in the after, this is how memory works. Feeling and approximation standing in for physicality and presence.

The entire world forms along a wound. And the deeper the wound, the more intimate the relationship. Loss as a chasm that can’t be closed, rendered through an inarticulateable restlessness that persists and severs a person’s trajectory.

I knew briefly who I was, where I came from, and where I was going. And then suddenly these questions became terrifying. Who I was, where I came from, and where I was going. Question marks that dot the periphery of the horizon line. A setting sun is devastating because the magnetization felt from the dimming light guarantees a certain surrender, a certain uncertainty, traumatize without a frame, just the resonant light.

The hardest part about losing someone is that marked feel of their absence. It creeps up genuinely and creates a paratactic assault. Symptoms include peculiar changes in behavior, revelations that ruin rather than inspire, schemes that disappear, and dietary changes.

While she is alive, even if you are out of touch, even if you haven’t spoken to her in months, you know that she is there. And the knowledge of that existence is enough to keep you complacent. In the knowing of her alive-ness, the knowing of her presence, whether or not you are sitting there with her, she is there.

But when she is gone, you realize suddenly and violently that she is gone. Suddenly you have memories, memories that did not exist before because there was no reason to remember. And you try to remember those memories because you know that you won’t ever be able to see her again, yet because these memories are created through a death, carefully cut holes that offer glimpses, the previous complacency becomes condemnation becomes denial becomes a forced extraction. The memories become more difficult to reach, more elusive. You want to to reach out and beckon for the ghost because you need her to affirm that your memory is still accurate and reliable, but she is reluctant. Beyond the givenness of anything, she hides from revelation, or, you are unable to to decipher it.

The absence is so marked by the knowing of her presence in life. That is, you only feel her absence so much now because you suddenly realize how present she really was, during all that time you weren’t talking to her, weren’t there with her, weren’t spending time with her, all along she was there.

The conjuration is a false and hopeless one, reliant on old photographs and ashes. She lives and dies, lives and dies all over again in every speculation of context, every reconstruction. The blurred image is tattered, torn apart by reckless pulling, and a memory born of a wound is a wound in itself.

You realize that she doesn’t exist anywhere in the world, not in any tangible form. You realize that she now only exists in your memory. And that is a terrifying thought. It shakes you, bitter and nauseous and you fall to the floor choking, gagging, laughing madly, tears streaming down your cheeks.

I ask myself, from a safe distance: How can I rely on the fact that somebody who was so important to me now only lives on in the most unreliable parts of myself? I can’t even remember her face.

It’s only the general feeling that lingers. And this feels like a fucking copout.

Memory loss isn’t simple or gradual, like a body of water moving through a canyon. It’s more like a series of catatonic attacks. Dreaded feelings that are so visceral I feel like I’m tumbling down a flight of stairs, landing in a spotlight of dust. Then, a new scarring from indelible impressions that are murky, resurrected with little or no evidence. Accuracy isn’t a term that is relevant here. Neither is truth.

In the end, it’s as if the phrase “I remember” is a performance. A performance of remembering that indicates remembering but “remembering” is so different now. Always susceptible to modulations of terror in the middle of the night, in the morning, in dreams.

While driving and inching forward in traffic on my way home last week, I happened to gaze upon an older lady, dressed in a flowery dress over a long-sleeve shirt, thick black stockings, and orange heels. Though there wasn’t anything obviously wrong with the scene, the details seemed to add up to something a little bit odd, a little bit off. Something about her hair perhaps, as if she was wearing a wig, or the way that she walked slowly, limping a little bit with a cane, or perhaps her outfit, seemingly inappropriate for the extremely warm weather. The entire experience was of watching a movie, as if I wasn’t really watching this happen outside my car window, but somehow I had been transported into a parallel dimension and this was the set of a comedy movie in which a middle-aged actor has dressed up as a woman, and this is the beginning of some bad joke. And then, a group of people cross the street and walk past the old woman, while a man gets off work and exits through a metal gate holding a lunchbox and a sweatshirt draped over his shoulder. He stays hidden from the sun with a baseball cap, and his pants are baggy and soiled. The scene seems entirely natural, entirely choreographed, entirely strange. The old woman then hobbles around the corner to a bus stop where she waits but only a few seconds before a bus pulls up to pick her up. Right on time. And at that moment, when I’m absolutely sure I’m watching some televised scene somehow through my car window, when I feel that I’ve broken some distance wasn’t meant to be breached, observing something up close that was meant to be seen from a far, I suddenly feel a rustle along my right arm. A slight tingle or breeze that feels like a finger brushing against my arm, intentionally, conceivably. A certain presence: known and felt. I run my fingers along the hairs on my arm to acknowledge it, garner a feeling, a memory. I remember my mother.

The sun is setting and I watch the light that pushes through between the trees. The dogs are sitting on the dirt, holding their paws up expectantly. Darkness creeps in quickly above the orange haze, layers of colors embedded into the dimming fabric of the sky, darkening and spinning and flat and weary. The darkness starts off blurry, then crisp edges in the periphery, then murky black and deep-blue. Here, the wound revealed by the setting sun is not so different from the others, and what I remember, is a face.

Cover image by John Morgan

About the Author:

Janice Lee is the author of KEROTAKIS (Dog Horn Press, 2010), Daughter (Jaded Ibis, 2011), Damnation (Penny-Ante Editions, 2013), and The Sky Isn’t Blue (Civil Coping Mechanisms, forthcoming 2016). She currently lives in Los Angeles where she is Editor of the #RECURRENT Novel Series for Jaded Ibis Press, Assistant Editor at Fanzine, Executive Editor at Entropy, and Founder/CEO of POTG Design. She can be found online at Reconsolidation: Or, it’s the ghosts who will answer you, an essay in fragments written after her mother’s sudden death, is out this month from Penny-Ante Editions.