When I asked my husband what he thought most about from his past he looked at me blankly and said, “ I think about it as little as possible.” Then he gave me a list of people who had helped him in his life: the boy who had taught him how to swim; the friend who had told him to go into medicine; the woman journalist who had told him she let her husband correct her work, etc.
“That’s not what I asked you,” I said.
“I don’t like to dwell on the past. I prefer to think of the future,” he said and changed the subject.
Yet, seen from without my husband’s past seemed a happy one: two solid, sensible parents who loved each other and lived to a ripe old age; considerable success as a star student; two younger sisters who looked up to him; enough money for comfort but not too much to spoil him.
My own past, which returns to me so much more frequently, is not nearly as smooth: my father died of a heart attack when I was seven; my mother had a drinking problem; my older sister was killed as a young woman by her husband. So why do I return again and again to that garden where we two girls grew up in the sunshine and flowers, the ripe fruit which we plucked freely from the trees, the warm vegetables from the earth? Why does my mind return to the games we played: setting up a pulley in the jacarandas, sending secret messages back and forth, smashing mulberries on our faces for war-paint? Why do I see the line of dark cars driven silently and slowly down the long driveway and out the white gate after my father’s death? Why do I revisit the moment when the Zulu servant takes the burning cigarette from my mother’s fingers as she dozes under a lamp, to prevent her burning herself? Above all why do I see so vividly the interior of the car when my sister braces her hands and feet against the dashboard on the dark and silent road as her husband drives into a tree?
Is it because, as Freud suggests, I hope by revisiting these moments, writing about them repeatedly to alter them; to change the outcome, to bring my father, my sister, my mother back to life? Is this an attempt to control what I was never able to in life?
Why do we have such a different perspective on our past? Is it a question of temperament or character that makes some just close the drawer not to see, and others compelled to watch? Why does my husband ignore his childhood while I endlessly revisit my own in my mind and in my work ? Or is it the fact that my mother, for all her faults, took a great delight in her girls, gathering us to her chest as she said, “I love you!” and that my husband’s mother would look at him and say to her handsome little boy, “Ugh! You are just too thin!”
Ultimately, the ability to revisit the past is a necessary part of the writer’s life. Memory and imagination live very much in the same house and without the one the other cannot expand. My husband as a doctor does not need to revisit his past, it seems, whereas my own recollections have provided a source of inspiration for my work.
Sheila Kohler is the author of Dreaming of Freud.