This piece appears in my book A Creature Wanting Form available now.
There’s a wall devoted to the dead in my mother’s house. Some of the photos are big and some are very small from when photos had to be small by necessity and they’re all mounted in ornate-looking frames although I imagine they are actually pretty cheap yard sale shit like wood painted gold.
My grandmother whose name I definitely know used to love to go to yard sales and she would bring me along sometimes and I’d dig through the weird old people’s sad old shit and get depressed about it when they didn’t have any comic books.
How much for this once-cherished reminder of your brief stay on Earth people would ask the yard sale lady and she would stand there on her lawn smoking a cigarette and think about it for a second and go for you I can do that today for one single quarter and the other person would go like hmm I don’t know how about a nickel?
The way the photos are arranged it looks like something you would find in the drawing room of an insane magician’s haunted mansion and you’d go did that one’s eyes just move what the fuck? Meanwhile the magician is sneaking up behind you and he honestly believes he’s invisible.
I’ve been thinking about it all weekend because I read something that fucked me up and made me try as hard as I can to remember the names of the people in the photos on the wall most of whom are my great-grandparents. I can’t really do it and it’s stressing me out.
It was a quote from this book called The Happiness Myth which I didn’t read but I saw a screenshot of on Twitter which counts as close enough to having read a book nowadays and the writer said she had asked a bunch of people she knew how many of their four great-grandmothers they could name. Only a few knew even one or two.
“These are the mothers of people you have loved, spent days with, and possibly mourned,” she wrote.
To be sure I know the names of a lot of my great-grandparents because once a year at Christmas I’ll ask my parents to tell me who the people in the photos are and explain what they know about them and I’ll think about them for a while like ah the rich tapestry of our shared ancestry is a marvel indeed. Then I’ll have fifteen plastic cups of warm Dewars and almost instantly the information will leak out of my porous sieve-like brain and be gone until the next time when I have to ask all over again.
The guy from Memento except it’s not my own life I forget every day it’s the lives of the people who came before me.
My own life too but less so.
Worse tattoos than that also.
One of my great-grandmothers is named Nora I want to say. There’s a Lillian too. A bunch of old-timey names like that that people are giving their babies again now.
I did a poll on Twitter asking how many of their eight great-grandparents’ names people knew and about 2,000 responded. Forty percent said 1–2. Thirty-six percent said none.
In that passage up above from the book I didn’t read the author wrote “Koheleth was right. We are not going to be remembered.”
Koheleth is one of the names for “the teacher” in the book of Ecclesiastes. Some people think it’s supposed to be King Solomon and other people don’t think it is and who is to say certainly not me. I don’t know anything and even if I did I wouldn’t remember it.
He is described as a king and the son of David and the text is essentially some heavy existential shit that can be summarized thusly:
It’s also written in a surprisingly ironic tone which is weird to think about. That they had irony 2,500 years ago. Then again the general point of the whole thing is that nothing about human life ever changes and it’s all one long slide toward oblivion and that there is nothing new under the sun so I guess it’s not weird that this fella would be any different from you and I.
That phrase nothing new under the sun is one of many things from the text that has lingered in our collective consciousness. It’s also where the whole for everything there is a season and a time for every purpose under Heaven bit came from that you hear people read at funerals or in that one famous song with the pretty harmonies.
Everything we do is meaningless and life is nothing but striving after wind the guy writes. Better to have never been born he writes.
At least I think that’s what he meant. Just between you and me it honestly feels sort of weird to be sitting here reading passages from the Bible on a Sunday morning like some kind of pervert.
“Meaningless! Meaningless!” says the Teacher. “Utterly meaningless! Everything is meaningless.”
“What do people gain from all their labors at which they toil under the sun? Generations come and generations go, but the earth remains forever. The sun rises and the sun sets, and hurries back to where it rises. The wind blows to the south and turns to the north; round and round it goes, ever returning on its course. All streams flow into the sea, yet the sea is never full. To the place the streams come from, there they return again. All things are wearisome, more than one can say. The eye never has enough of seeing, nor the ear its fill of hearing.”
The sea is never full.
“What has been will be again, what has been done will be done again; there is nothing new under the sun.”
Then he goes:
“A man may have a hundred children and live many years; yet no matter how long he lives, if he cannot enjoy his prosperity and does not receive proper burial, I say that a stillborn child is better off than he. It comes without meaning, it departs in darkness, and in darkness its name is shrouded. Though it never saw the sun or knew anything, it has more rest than does that man.”
It all sounds really bleak and nihilistic I guess but then at the end there’s a conclusion tacked on which essentially says anyway that’s why you gotta love God and follow all his rules or else!
I am no Bible scholar but I think maybe someone else added that part in post-production like when a really dark movie doesn’t test well with audiences and the execs are like ah let’s make this a little more appealing to consumers. Pep it up.
The Bible was basically a Google doc where everyone had editing permission turned on.
My mother called me back just now and told me all the names of my great-grandparents that she could rustle up and there was Maude and James and Friedrich and Lillian and Nora and Patrick.
Then she told me she recently found a toy wooden truck that someone had apparently given to me when I was a child and on the bottom of it it read from Dick Callahan, Round Pond, Maine and she said she was sad to realize she had no idea who Dick Callahan was anymore and what was even sadder than that was she said she had no one left who she could call to even ask about him as they were all dead now too. Everyone was dead.
I don’t have any clue what toy truck she’s talking about. I don’t remember ever even having a wooden toy truck never mind who the hell this nice man Dick Callahan was.
Thank you for the truck though Mr. Callahan. I found your obituary eventually while I was writing this and it seems like you were a fella with a loving family. It said you served honorably in World War II and then worked as a well driller and at the ironworks in Bath. It said you made beautiful hooked rugs and loved woodworking. I now know more about you than any of my ancestors I named above until I get a chance to ask again next Christmas and all you ever gave me was a wooden truck unlike all of those dead people who gave me all of everything else inside of my blood.
That was a nice gesture on your behalf though and someday I’ll be dead too and maybe I’ll come float over to whatever the Maine section of Heaven they have up there is with the rocky cold beaches and I can thank you. Every lobsterman in Heaven Maine going out and his traps never empty.
I don’t know how Heaven works maybe we’ll both be men in the prime of our lives forever up there and we can shake hands and have a beer or maybe how you see it will be I’m a little boy driving a toy wooden truck around at your feet and you’ll be looking around like does anyone know whose kid this is? Nora is this your great-grand kid you’ll shout and she won’t even remember either. Lillian?