Laughter and Forgetting

[Statue in Opatija, Croatia (from Google image search)]


I read Milan Kundera's The Book of Laughter and Forgetting for the first time two years ago. I think about it now and then, especially a passage (which I won't be able to excerpt now), wherein the narrator speaks of the glut of publication in our world. He attributes it to the lack of listeners--to the lack of people willing to sit at someone's feet and hear a story told. Children do not want to remember with their parents and their grandparents any longer, they want to read someone else's stories, or act out their own on the television screen.

And with no one nearby to listen, people have taken to pen and paper, hoping that they are visited by some muse of good writing who will help translate their stories from memory to prose.
But there is a great power in the spoken story, in the memory weaving together a tale instantly and without the benefit of editing or revision. This power is something disappearing from our quotidien lives, and from our basic abilities to tell and to listen.

My grandmother passed away last Wednesday, after 91 years of life. She was my only remaining grandparent and a woman who I had only recently begun to know. All of my grandparents were formidable people. I never knew my mother's father and her mother, my Nonie, remains in my memory as a woman who always had a story to tell, and a delicious meal for us to eat. She had a lilac tree in her garden which we loved and a treasure chest full of trinkets which I still wear. We visited her hometown, in Italy, a number of years ago; when she came to America with her family her name was Ophelia Grace Muraro, the officials at Ellis Island changed it to Ethel.

My father's father was a true old world patriarch. He emigrated from Croatia and brought with him a way of life I will never truly understand. His name was Mirko and during the same trip we took to Italy, we also swung around the adriatic to visit Kukuljanevo, the small town where some of my family still live. What does it feel like to visit places where you have history? History you never knew, would never have known until going there?

I think it was actually going to Italy and Croatia, walking the streets through towns that could have been my own, hearing languages that I could be thinking in, that's what made me realize the power of memory and listening. This small realization happened in 2003; I had already lost my mother's mother and my father's father, but Anna, my father's mother was still alive and well, though with her share of health problems.

I can't say that we became much closer, or that I made an enormous effort to get to know her, but I did start listening. Really, truly listening. And she had stories to tell. She had a fantastic memory and clear image of the past. She came from a very different world, lived a very different life, but we shared a heritage. Learning about her life and about the country from which she came (the Istrian peninsula, which has been Croatian as often as it has been Italian), has made me realize that there is much forgotten in my life. There are dusty tracks that I never knew existed, there are tendencies and affinities and affections which may stem from a past that does not exist in America, but rather on the coast of the Adriatic, immersed in the dust of centuries and underlined by violent pasts, difficult life, pungent flavor, and the poetry and music of those particular hills.

The ability to hear the stories of those people who are closest to you is a gift. It is the gift of an entire world, of an enormous, living book, and it is most of all the gift of a deeper past and a richer history.

Both of my grandmothers were wonderful people; I can only hope that in my tiring, ceaseless quest to discover something about life that I reach something close to their innate understanding of what everything is about.