Distances

After The Conclusion: “Maya” And Others

Yesterday morning I had started writing a letter to my niece in Northern Ireland:

It is finished now, mailed, and headed to Belfast.

A few hours after I’d made that Insta-post, by coincidence my wife sent me this piece from Fast Company:

The internet is changing how we converse with the dead. While the bereaved have traditionally visited graves or burial sites to talk to deceased loved ones, some are now turning to digital spaces to continue their bonds with the dead.

Research has highlighted how some bereaved people use Facebook to talk to the dead, keeping them updated with family news by logging on and leaving messages with some expectation that their dead loved ones may read them…

It is an interesting article worth a full read. I have various messages from my now late mother. However, I have little in terms of video or voice recordings of her because she hated being videoed and disliked her voice and made it very difficult to record her. And I can’t even bring myself to review what little I do have.

I do also treasure my Messenger exchanges with my now late uncle – his last message especially – much as I would “old-fashioned” letters. He was also on television regularly years ago and some of his appearances I’m told are found on YouTube; but I can’t bring myself to watch him either. Indeed a relatively recent video of him posted to Facebook by his daughter shortly after his death, and seen by a friend of mine here in Britain who had never met him, led her to remark, “I really wish I’d met him” – which, I recalled thinking, is why, in a way, I have fictionalized him in three novels.

I don’t post comments on their “legacy” Facebook accounts acknowledging their birthdays; and I don’t “talk” to them online. Nor do I spend any amounts of time scrolling through old posts they had made. (My uncle posted constantly it often seemed; whereas my mother rarely posted anything, preferring I learned to “lurk” mostly, to see what the rest of us were all doing.) Indeed I have stopped largely using my personal Facebook account because I don’t want my uncle and my mother shoved into my face for Facebook’s memories, anniversaries, when we became friends milestones, etc., blah, blah, blah.

Personally I seek to treat deceased family and friends not as if they are here and try instead to remember them for having been here. Maybe that’s the historian in me? My mother ridiculed others she saw leaving posts on Facebook for dead people’s anniversaries, so I’m sure she would be dismissive of me if she knew I was writing “to her” posthumously on that or another site. My uncle, I suspect, would have laughed at the “idiocy” of people doing so. And neither has a grave to visit as both were cremated: my father has my mother’s ashes (someday, I will bury both of them properly together); and my uncle’s ashes were split between, I believe, my cousins.

[Excerpt from Distances: Atlantic Lives, 1996-1997. Photo by me, 2019.]

That conversation in Distances was related to me by my mother weeks after a midday visit she had made with my uncle to a Long Island shopping mall restaurant shortly after the death of my grandmother: he was trying to catch the eye of the young bartender and made sure the girl knew my mother was only his sister. I believed she was probably not exaggerating. I had myself witnessed similar behaviors over the years.

My uncle read my first two novels – Passports and Frontiers – and did not mind that I had fictionalized him, but he did not live long enough to see Distances; he also did not mind the occasionally, uh (what I believed), accurate, if unflattering, representation of him. On the other hand, my mother never knew any of my books even existed because I was certain she would have been unhappy with them; I didn’t see the point of creating trouble and my uncle had agreed with me on that; she once told me he had better not write about her or “I’ll sue his a-s off”; they once also had an argument over him having helped another writer describe my grandfather inaccurately in her opinion; she also blew her top at my uncle over a non-fiction contribution (so real names were used) to an anthology about Italian-Americans and baseball that my uncle had shared about my grandfather (“You make Dad sound like a communist. He was a New Deal liberal, you f-ckin’ moron. You didn’t know him at all.”). All things considered, I thought silence was the better choice if I was not to feel the need to write some “watered down” – even dull – version of her to placate her feelings… and perhaps even to avoid her wrath.

I decided to let Distances go forward to publication even though they had both died suddenly two weeks apart in October 2015 after I had finished mostly writing it. Their attitudes towards being remembered would I believe be basically that their lives are now concluded… so, yes, remember them fondly, but don’t obsess over them. In fact some twenty-five years ago my dying grandmother (their mother) once point blank told me that I must live my life, that it is now “my time” and that her time was about over.

Life comes at us at full speed. We never know what is around even the next corner. I had written the end of that novel with entirely someone else in mind…

[Among the last paragraphs in Distances: Atlantic Lives, 1996-1997.]

…and naturally unable to see the future, it would a few months later take on a poignancy (in my mind, at least) in applying in its way to my mother and to my uncle too. I would never write about them again as living people. From now on, they would be only memories.

I do wonder now if my niece, nephews, or others, have kept letters or anything else of mine for… someday?