Wednesday, November 18, 2015

Without the memories, is it still life?

In Apart from Love, I described a son, Ben, who comes back home, rebels against his father, and reveals a family secret: his mother, Natasha, previously a renown pianist, had succumbed to Early-Onset Alzheimer. 

My new novel, The Music of Us, takes Natasha a generation back, to the beginning of WWII, when she falls in love with her future husband, Lenny.

The story is told by Lenny. In 1970, he can no longer deny that his wife is undergoing a profound change. Despite her relatively young age, her mind succumbs to forgetfulness. Now, he goes as far back as the moment he met Natasha, when he was a soldier and she—a star, brilliant yet illusive. Natasha was a riddle to him then, and to this day, with all the changes she has gone through, she still is.

The series as a whole gives voice to several characters who are witnessing the same events, each one interpreting them from a different point of view, which gives rise to conflicts and eventually, to wonderful resolutions.

So, what is the meaning of the title of the series, Still Life with Memories?

This expression captures the longing we have for the past, which is symbolized by cherished objects. In my upcoming novel, The Music of Us, this expression is used twice, in two conversations between Natasha and Lenny. The first conversation is in 1942, when she longs for the home she lost and the vase of flowers that reminds her of the anniversary gift her Pa gave her Ma. And the second conversation, this time in 1970, is a reprise, which takes on a bitter sweet meaning, because at this time she is about to lose her memory, and therefore is in danger of losing who she is. Here is the first time this expression is used:

Once the crowd thinned out Natasha said, “So just like me, you too are going through a change.” 
“I am.”
“For me, it feels as if I’ve been expelled not only from a physical building but also from my past, from my childhood.”
“Don’t I know it! It’s hard to think that someone else is taking your place.”
“I miss home. I miss every little thing, every object in it, because it reminds me of what happened, of little tokens of affection that come back to me, like the crystal vase, which Pa brought for Ma nearly ten years ago to mark their anniversary.”
“When I came to Summit for our first date I saw it, set there on the dining room table.”
“It used to capture the light so brilliantly, Lenny! I used to put fresh flowers in it every Friday. D’you know the secret of a perfect arrangement?”
“Tell me.”
“It’s the spiral, where each new stem is slanted against the previous one. I would choose the best and biggest bloom for the center and arrange the other flowers at an angle around it, mixing the shades of white, pink, and purple and creating a wonderful dome of flowers.”
“Oh, Natasha, I can just imagine it.”
“Then I would stand back and enjoy looking at it, thinking what a beautiful painting it would make, with the lovely shapes of orchids, spray roses and Asiatic lilies brushed upon the canvas.”
“What would you call it?”
“Still life, with memories.”

And just for comparison, here is the second time:

I put my pants on, go to the kitchen, fill a small pot with water and bring it to a boil for the eggs. Meanwhile I squeeze grapefruit juice into two glasses and wait for the two slices of bread to pop out of the toaster. I set two plates on the table, one each side of the crystal vase. It is the same vase her Pa bought for her Mama to mark their anniversary a generation ago. 
I had been too drained to think about it until last night, when on a whim I bought bouquet of fresh flowers in lovely hues of white, pink, and purple. Why did I do it? Perhaps for old times’ sake. By now I have stopped hoping to surprise my wife with such frivolities, because she pays little attention, lately, to the things I do. So for no one in particular I stand over the thing, rearranging the orchids, spray roses, and Asiatic lilies as best I can, to create an overall shape of a dome. 
And then—then, in a blink—I find myself startled by a footfall behind me. A heartbeat later I hear her voice, saying, “Lenny?”
I turn around to meet her eyes. My God, this morning they are not only lucid but also shining with joy.
In a gruff voice, choked, suddenly, with tears, I ask her, “What is it, dear?”
And she says, “Don’t forget.”
“What, Natashinka?”
“I love you.”
Spreading my arms open I stand there, speechless for a moment. Without a word she steps into them. We snuggle, my chin over her head. She presses it to my bare chest. I comb through her hair with my fingers. And once again, we are one.
Then she points at the vase.
“For you,” I say. “Looks like some old painting, doesn’t it?”
“Still life,” she whispers. “With memories.”
Then Natasha lifts her eyes, hanging them on my lips as if to demand something of me, something that has been on her mind for quite a while. Somehow I can guess it. She is anticipating an answer, which I cannot give. 
Instead I kiss her. She embraces me but her eyes are troubled, and the question remains.
“Without the memories,” she asks, “is it still life?”

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