Fathers and Memory

A woman I dated in college later gave a female friend the self-published autobiography of her dad. Mr. H was a complicated guy, something my old love seemed to indicate by her inscription on the inside cover of her gift:


If “Fathers!” meant he was narcissistic, she was right. The long account of his life mentioned his two children in only one paragraph. Their mother received a little more coverage, but the self-preoccupied writer failed to get their correct divorce date. He missed by a couple of years!

Dads and moms are on my mind because both my folks were born in November. I therefore offer you a few thoughts on how we remember people.

For example, I had several of Milt Stein’s baseball caps, but recently threw out most of them. I saved them after his death, all still holding his scent. His unique human fragrance was the whole — the remaining all one could then retain of his physicality. Now, lacking that redolence, they mean less to me. So long as I keep a couple I am satisfied.

My father’s electric razor held his presence, too; in the bull dozed bits of beard and the detritus of flaked skin. They reminded me of my face momentarily next to his in an embrace, the roughness of his after-workday epidermis, the substantial musculature of his body, the manness of his being.

I’m not alone in this attachment to aroma and sensory memory. My friend Mel, after the abrupt death of his wife, kept all her clothing for a time — and for the same reason.

We all remember people in photos, but our search for such vanishing wisps of creaturely residue recalls a closer closeness. Scent, sounds, and strands of hair are the evidence of physical nearness beyond what can be seen. They retrieve the touch, sonority, and smell of the other. In this we recapture the animality of our senses and the story they tell us of our past.

Mel agreed to be interviewed by me for an oral history late in his nine-decades-or-so of life. He was something of a father figure after my dad died in 2000; one generation younger than Pops, but still not young. So I have his voice, as well as a similar four-hour video interview I did of my father.

My treasure chest also includes not precious stones, but audios of a few of those who meant and mean something to me. Among these are my adult children when they were little. Mom’s spoken words own a place there, too, coupled with a bit of her singing. Though she never acquired vocal training, the tape displays undeveloped talent.

Jews, among others, remember people symbolically with illumination, lighting a Yahrzeit candle on the anniversary of a death. They also memorialize the name of the departed by giving it to an offspring whose birth happens soon after. Thus, the name does not die, despite Goethe’s assertion that “names are like sound and smoke.”

The usual explanation for this practice is the parents’ hope that in receiving the name of an admired family member, the child will emulate in life the virtues of the deceased namesake. To a certain extent, too, it is believed the soul of the loved one lives on in the child who now bears his name.*

All this, of course, takes no account of any convoluted feelings we might have toward parents. But these memorials assume a kind of idealized love for (and from) one’s guardians. Such emotions are baked into the cake of the connection between any small child and his sire; any small child and his mum. Therapy deals with the complications, but the remembrance remains.

Judy Collins created a different tribute to her father in a semi-autobiographical song. She emphasizes the sentiment, not the factual details, in her short introduction:

A prominent physician with whom I went to Chicago’s Mather High School dedicated his life to medicine because of the early death of his dad to cancer. Such stories aren’t hard to find.

When my best school friends and I established the Zeolite Scholarship Fund at our alma mater, we gave awards not only in honor of deceased and living classmates, but recognized several surviving teachers. They all appeared grateful to be recalled 40 years or more after we graduated.

The most touching story I know about ways of remembering involved two “star-crossed lovers,” no longer young as in “Romeo and Juliet,” from which the leading use of those words derives.

When their relationship came to its inevitable end, the woman told her beloved she would never wear a particular dress he favored; at least until such time as they again met. Only later did he emerge from his stupefaction and realize he too had reserved shirts he connected to her; and — so he said — purchased for her. Until then he didn’t grasp why he hadn’t worn them any other time. His unconscious alone kept the secret.

As William Faulkner wrote, “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.”


The top image is Salvador Dali’s Portrait of My Father. It is sourced from http://www.Wikiart.org/ The Missing Painting is the work of En-cas-de-soleil and comes from Wikimediacommons.

*The quotation regarding Jewish naming practices comes from http://www.Kveller.com/

17 thoughts on “Fathers and Memory

  1. I’ve been thinking of the “tree of life” all day today and your memories are a beautiful expression of that “tree.”


  2. Very beautifully written, Dr. Stein! Faulkner is one of my faves, but I am not much of a reader (yet), though I first read Faulkner in a literature course at a Jr. College and loved his work. It is interesting that you use his quote, which reminds me of existentialism for some reason. I have always wondered what it was like for men to have various father figures in their lives, and how important those are. I also wondered how father figures differed between genders. Interestingly, the loss of a father and the need for olfactory rememberances makes me wonder about the importance of olfactory memory, if there is such a thing. There is something about smelling a person’s scent that brings back their spirit, I suppose. That is, if the scent was memorable and pleasant. The scents I remember in the past were not so pleasant. My mother’s scent was that of metal, which brings back the memory of her blackened eye hidden behind the sunglasses she wore at my first communion. My father’s scent was old spice or lilac, which was not pleasant to me. My mother is still alive and we talk so much now – sometimes about my father. He hurt her, but he loved her and us kids. The after-effects of experiencing World War II as a merchant marine left my father traumatized but hostile, as if to find peace with those who reminded him of the enemy. My mother, a Japanese woman, loved my father no matter what. She trusted him and forgave him in more ways than I could forgive myself. Father figures in my life are not always reminiscent of my dad, but the protectiveness, guidance, or love is there to varying degrees, depending on the boundaries allowed.


  3. After my mother died I tightly bagged a few of her clothing items so I could hang onto her scent. I would open the bag every couple of years and press my face into them and inhale her scent and the memory of her came flooding back to me. After it dissipated many years later. I discarded the clothing as it no longer held any relevance for me. Dr. Stein, I am very sorry about the massacre that occurred today at The Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh, this act of terrorism, this personal 9/11 for so many people of Jewish faith, and I would like to say my heart goes out to all the people affected by this horrific act of hatred. Not knowing you personally (blank slate) my hope is you can read my sentiments.

    Liked by 2 people

  4. For me it’s never been about smells, but rather memories and the strong feelings still evoked by them even though my dad has been gone for decades. I too have been thinking quite a bit about him of late, because in a short while I will be older than him and that is a very weird concept to me. How can I be older than my father, how can my father be younger than me? Feels surreal!

    Loved the Judy Collins video/song “Who Knows Where the Time Goes”. Spoke to my ponderances on this age reversal issue.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Indeed, our relationships to important figures don’t so much end as change. Vantage points alter with age and reflection. Thanks for this, Brewdun.


  5. Thanks for your beautiful reflections on fathers and memory. Like Brewdun, my memories are not linked to smells. Rather, I remember the music my father loved and placed in the evenings. Time has tempered the harsh and terrifying (to a young child) sounds of his angry expletives.


    • Thank you, Rosaliene. Yes, we remember in different ways. I also have some olfactory memories that don’t attach to anything in particular that I can remember, beyond knowing they come from childhood. Cedar and alfalfa. Since I was raised in the city, I am at a loss to understand why alfalfa’s aroma has some significance for me.


  6. “Who controls the past controls the future; who controls the present controls the past.”
    George Orwell, 1984

    Thank you for another interesting essay.


  7. Our sensory memories are so powerful.


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