“When it comes to sorting out identity, it’s the memories we don’t have in common that define us.” This is a line in my novel, Better You Go Home (forthcoming October 2013). The line is a paraphrase of something said to me by an American who grew up speaking a Baltic language as well as English. Her parents owed their survival to having fled Latvia just ahead of the in-rush of the Soviet tide of occupiers following the Nazi retreat. I was accustomed to thinking of shared memories as the source of identity. This, she pointed out, is what everyone thinks who grows up belonging to the dominant group. She explained. Her identity had been formed by everything in her childhood that made her different. The Saturday schools, the summer camps, the church. Everything in Latvian. The devotion to music and singing and song festivals. It was as if her childhood had not been her own. Her childhood had been devoted to one urgent quest: the quest to keep alive a culture the Soviets were doing everything in their power to erase from the face of the earth.
The question of identity first mattered to me in 1999 I spoke with an elderly relative in farmhouse Number Seven in Pisecna (eastern Bohemia, near the border with Poland). I had a translator with me, a notebook, and an agenda. I wanted to find out why my relative had suddenly fled this large, well-to-do estate, and gone to Iowa with the woman from the farm next door and half of her brood. Yes, Bedrich remembered some stories. I was shaking with excitement. Pen poised. There was a suicide involved. A child who went unclaimed. This was certain to be a juicy story. But it was not the story he wanted to tell. By and by, he kept saying. There would be no other stories told until he had shown me his little black book, a pocket-sized spiral notepad in which in pencil over a period of ten years, from 1948 to 1957, he had recorded every bit of produce or meat he’d been forced to give to the coop. I took careful notes. Below is a passage in the novel that replays that conversation:
After glowering over his shoulder at his doubting daughter, Bedřich
eagerly reads the ledger’s entries. In the ten years between 1948 and 1957—in
1957, following the Hungarian uprising, there was a crackdown that changed
everything—he handed over: twelve thousand liters of milk, six thousand
kilos of potatoes, one thousand six hundred kilos of beef, one thousand
three-hundred kilos of pork. The egg count was spotty and highly variable.
He scrunches up his forehead, estimates two thousand a year. So, roughly
twenty thousand eggs…Winter of 1957-58 was worst ever. If farmer still believed in workers’
revolution he put his tongue behind his teeth.” They were forced to deliver to
the co-op every liter of milk. Every kilo of pork and beef. Every egg. Most gave
up the farm and went to work for the co-op rather than face starvation.
The first chapter I wrote and actually called a “chapter” attempted to dramatize a meeting in that farmhouse in which a character resembling my relative delivers this information. I could not forget how urgently Bedrich wanted to share his memory of those times. This had defined his identity. This had been his signature experience and this was the story he was going to tell. Everything else could wait.
Reflecting on that later, I realized that the identity-defining memory for me was not my idyllic (for an athletic boy) childhood in Security, Colorado, but an earlier memory I had formed in South-central Iowa. In the passage below, I summarize a memory drawn from growing up in Sulphur Springs, a tiny burg at the crossroads of two county roads, that was home to the county school where my father taught:
My grandfather’s eyes were watery and pale and his slender fingers would
have better suited a pianist than a farmer. Like my own father, he seemed
to have been meant for a different life. Sometimes he understood who I
was, sometimes he mistook me for his son. He’d gone mostly deaf. When
he did speak it came out in an idiolect of Czech and German and English;
a conversation was out of the question. On the several occasions when
I returned to Sulphur Springs, usually without letting him know I’d come,
I’d walk along the railroad tracks, and when the season was right, I’d climb
the pile of feed corn spilling out of the trap door at the bottom of the grain
silo. The words “Superior Seed” were painted on the cylindrical metal silo
in large black letters. One cold wintry afternoon, I realized that no matter
how many times I walk these tracks and look at the seed spilling out of the
silo, I will never know what it felt like for him to be torn from his family in
Czechoslovakia and forced to live out his life in the end of nowhere.
Later in life, I took endless solace walking along railroad tracks, especially if cornfields were part of the landscape. The area and the size of things and the pace of life around the Czech family farm village closely resembled my childhood memory. The memory at the core of my identity is defined by quiet, seeds, tracks, simplicity. His by watching that stripped away and growing up bearing the shame and guilt of knowing that he and his family and the villagers were in some ways complicit with the fate that defined their identities.