Last night I dreamed I was at my aunt Dell’s house and she was washing clothes. Such a common thing, this doing the laundry. But when did I start calling it “doing the laundry?” Doing is without depth or emotion and has no life or reverence in it. No, we washed clothes and that rings right and true. Washing, like hard and honest work, is a strong and active word that gets right down to it.
If what I saw in my dream is a memory, the original scene unfolded half a century ago. My aunt Dell—Iva Dell—was much younger than I am now. Much younger than the widow she is now, with her multitude of great-grandkids. Was I dreaming in class while that basic multiplication was being taught? I mean, all those new cousins who I don’t even know. I wasn’t there. I was busy building a life apart. For me, only education mattered. Family could wait. “Don’t blink,” people say, “or you’ll miss it.” Blink or not, your family members fade away and are gone. They don’t wait for you or me.
People also say, “You’ll always have the memories,” but that’s not true either. Is there anything more fickle than a memory? From its start it will lie to you. Witness a robbery—you and five other people—not ten minutes after the excitement ends no two of you be able to agree on the details. Give any storied memory time and it will ripen—that is to say, mutate. It will take what was once green and bitter, or tart and tangy, or in some other way fresh and alive and turn it into something overdone, all too sweet, verging on spoiled. And even if it crystallizes, becoming preserved like thickened blackberry jam—or like briny pickles hand packed in a jar in the heat of summer so that you can enjoy them once the cold winter comes—even then you’ll taste only a smidgen of the original. A suggestion of the natural sweetness of berries. A trace of the earthy taste of a cucumber. And with memories, at best you’ll end up witha shadow, an echo, a hint of what really happened.
Most memories fade away quickly and completely, all rotted and absorbed back into the ground, all merged with the background they sprang from. They are fruit with a bite taken out, tossed without care into the roiling fog of some morning long past. But some memories linger, even as details fade. Memories that haunt you with their distinctive voices and expressive faces. Precious memories of relatives glimpsed but unreachable from here. Here in the blinding light of the present. Rays beating down like pelting rain on bare skin, without mercy. Merciless flow carving channels in your face. Lines looking like roads going nowhere. Nowhere good.
In my dream, Aunt Dell was conversing with me, calmly and cheerfully, and adding something to the wash. It wasn’t her battered tin dipper heaped with soap powders. It wasn’t a cup of carefully measured Purex. Whatever I saw her adding seemed real, solid. And recalling the dream in my waking, I needed to know what it was. A whitener? Some kind of grainy salts meant to grind out the gritty dirt left behind from that week’s physical labor? What was it?
Later that day, I called my aunt, thankful that I still could. Water. Clothes. Tide. Purex for the whites. Nothing else. She was certain. No fabric softener, either. Softeners existed, but that was a luxury her family and mine couldn’t afford. No fluffy, clumpy, gray-white wads of cottony … what?—additive that I saw in my dream. No mysterious secret ingredient. No magical manna. Only my faulty memory, and maybe an imagination gone wild.
Why such dreams of times long gone? Why now? Why at all? I could rationalize it. I could say it’s a scene stirred up by thoughts in my wakeful world. I am shopping my big, unwieldy family to literary agents. So it’s true that I have pulled each person out of the deep recesses of my mind. I have shined my spotlight on their light laughter and on their dark shenanigans. But then, my memoir has been reduced to words for some time now. Not reduced as in less, but reduced as in flavors intensified by slow cooking. Words simmered like a stew until the broth grows rich, dark, and thick. Simmered until every word bends the present back to the past so that delicious moments almost lost can be sipped or slurped and appreciated, as they should have been from the start. This doesn’t feel like the answer, though. Somehow it’s related. It’s in the same family, a cousin to the truth. As I start to assimilate what I’ve written, to finally see it as a whole, I’m sensing something I didn’t know before. It does have to do with family. And connections.
I’m like a fish in water that gets asked, “How’s the water?” only to respond, “What’s water?” I never fully appreciated the value of my loving family. I was lucky in my birth. Not materially, certainly, but emotionally. My hardscrabble family—immediate and extended—had love in abundance, and they believed in sharing. I partook of a large helping and passed it on like a big bowl of garden-picked greens at the dinner table. Passed it on, but mostly I just took. I didn’t put in nearly as much hard work as I got back out in sustenance. In such matters, family—a giving family—does not complain. The good people in it just keep giving.
In time, if we are smart or just lucky, we learn to take the scraps of memories we have managed to salvage—faded, stained, and musty as they are—and sew them into a crazy quilt, one with a pattern that only we can fully decipher. Once our quilt is made, we have a warm and cozy comforter to crawl under. It insulates us, for a little while, from the cold current of time coursing past us. We all know that, in God’s good time, it will sweep us away as well, to show us what’s really waiting across that darkest of seas.