Tag Archives: palimpsest

Days that persist in invisible ink

 

These are the ghost days.

You know them, if you don’t call them that. They are the days that are so layered with the past it’s hard to see that you’re living in the present. But they aren’t national holidays or official anniversaries.

They are personal. We call them ghosts because the people they honor are gone.

My parents’ anniversary was last week, for example. They were married on July 12, 1947. In a black and white snapshot, there’s my father, in his fedora hat and suit, and my mother in a blue suit and a hat with a floppy flower. Seventy-one years ago – of course, they are both dead, so there’s no one to send an anniversary card to.

July is full of these dates. My father’s birthday was July 16 – he would be 95. My sister Mary Jane, and my father-in-law, were both born on July 2. Their birthdays pass with a Facebook post of remembrance, maybe. But there are no gifts to purchase, no candles to blow out, no song to sing.

It’s nice that we can mark these days on social media, but Facebook also makes no distinction between the trivial and the elemental. Its algorithms ask me to celebrate friendships with casual acquaintances, while making no note of other, deeper days to remember.

I imagine ghost dates written on a calendar in fading pencil, so only those who know their significance can read them. And when the last person who remembers is gone, the ink will fade away forever.

The one place we can visualize this impermancy is the beach. No sooner do we make footprints in the sand than a wave comes along – first, to soften the impression, then to erase it altogether.

Yet as we walk along the shore, we still look back reflexively, as though to make sure our footprints are still there. Some even make grand castles in the sand, a universal human metaphor for the folly of big dreams.

These dates are like that: long-ago footprints on the palimpsest of sand. From the Latin palimpsestos, “rubbed again,” palimpsest means a medium on which original text has been erased to make way for new.

I like that “rubbed again” (some dictionaries have it as  “scraped”), because it evokes not only the vigorous action of an eraser turning marks into dust, but the irritation it causes to the paper. Think of a child erasing a test answer until a hole appears on the page. Now imagine such a vigorous erasure on our skin, and the pain each time a date has to be scrubbed off forever.

The “again” also implies the repetitive nature of change and grief. How many times do occasions vanish from our lives, and how long does it take our mind to forget them? The answer, of course, is that dates may be erased but the mind imagines them still there. So we rub, and rub again, trying to retrain the heart, to stop squinting at our emotional calendars, to cease looking back at our own footprints.

Ultimately, ghost dates may make us sad, but they are also testimony to the human spirit. Each June 30 I remember my grandmother. Born in 1903, died in 1994, she was a woman of another century, gone 24 years now. Yet in my heart her boundless affection lives on. Written in permanent marker, my memories of her attest to the power of love, to the persistence of the intangible.

 

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