Food for Thought: An Introductory Look at Memory Through Place

I don’t trust memory. When I was younger, I believed that Nona, my great grandmother on my father’s side, died after getting stuck in a vintage elevator that connected the study to a bedroom in her house, which happens to be the very same house that I grew up in, and still live in today. I thought that I remembered my parents telling me this harrowing story, and it haunted me, in all its fantastical glory, throughout my childhood (however, I was always reassured by the fact that the elevator let out in my sisters room, and not my own…). Yet, as it turns out, this was not the story that my parents had originally told me, despite my vivid recollection of it. In actuality, they had related to me that it was my great grandfather, on my mother’s side, who died in a freak accident, after slipping down the stairs that led to the basement of his house (Oddly enough, my mother’s grandparents lived down the street from my father’s—a connection that was never made until after my parent’s marriage).

Nona remembered our house being built in 1921, and thus she relayed that date to my father, who relayed it to me. This house, at 307 Bushnell Ave, was built by a developer by the name of Shook. Shook lived in the house until 1946, when my great grandparents bought the property after deciding, like the rest of their fellow San Antonians, that the end of the war meant that a new start was necessary—and so they moved in, along with my then 18-year-old grandmother, Frances. And then, in 1993, a year after my birth, it was our turn. My parents and I, and later my sister, made our way from our house on Rosewood to the Bushnell, and like my grandmother, it became the second place that I would call home.

However, according to the Monte Vista (my neighborhood) Historical Association, the Bushnell was built in 1924, which makes Nona’s memory of its 1921 conception seem obsolete. And yet, is her memory really less real, less accurate, then that official documentation? When do we simply have to override the doubt of memory and begin to trust simple remembrance—is it always so unreliable?

Some would argue no, however, I wonder if the truth is an unfortunate yes? As I stated previously, I do not trust memory. It is too easily morphed. Too often what we believe to be true remembrance is simply a story—a fabricated reality masked by the synthetic form of a memory, as was the case with my “memory” of hearing about my grandmothers supposed death. Because I incorrectly remembered the story that my parents recalled to me, I spent my entire adolescence believing in a falsity. In realizing my mistaken memory a few years ago, when I was retold the real story, it only made me wonder how many of my supposed “memories” are really these unknowingly fictitious recollections.

This is my house. Or rather, this is the Bushnell according to the Monte Vista Historical Association website. Formed in 1975 by a group of stubborn architectural enthusiasts, these MVHA members, in an attempt to prevent the annihilation of these “architecturally diverse” houses, unwaveringly petitioned until San Antonio recognized the area as a historic district (3). It was these very efforts that transformed Monte Vista into the largest, and additionally one of the oldest, historical districts in the country.

They say that Monte Vista was created during San Antonio’s “Gilded Age,” which is defined as the supposed period of progression and transformation in the city that lasted from1860 to 1930 (4). Yet, in this photograph, the Bushnell does not strike me as an enlightened and progressive structure. Behind the mangled and confused trees, you can see but a glimpse of her—bits of a white stone body coupled with a few murky roof tiles. The MVHA categorizes her as “French eclectic,” but I do not see the romance of French décor in this picture. Instead, I am disturbed by this image of my own home. It seems not romantic, but eerie, and distant, as if something dark consumes the house, and those inside.

This is my Bushnell. To me, this is a proper representation of the house that I have lived in for almost two decades, my family for almost seven. Although this photograph does not reveal her characteristic cracked paint, creaking wooden floors, and the broken tiles of the patio that no one has bothered to replace, it does reveal the Bushnell’s hospitality, her charm.

And yet, this is an inside view—you cannot take this photograph from outside of our gates, as the MVHA historians were forced to. From the outside, oaks, pecan trees, and heavy bushes that never ceased growing skyward once Nona planted them, veil nearly the entirety of the structure. Consequently, Bushnell’s representation in the outside world is morphed, like only too many memories. I am frustrated by my inability to present our house, my modest slice of history, as it truly should be portrayed. However, despite my frustration, this is the mere matter-of-fact of history—it preserves by its own accord, the way it sees fit. Because the MVHA, the technical historical database of my neighborhood, has publicly portrayed the Bushnell in such a way, with their own photograph, structure birth date, and architectural style definition, my family’s memory is belittled. Now, the true Bushnell exists only within the memories of four people, as the rest of the family is now deceased, and with our future passing, so too goes Bushnell.

—————————

“ I am neither subject nor object but a subject who feels he is becoming an object: I then experience a micro-version of death (of parenthesis): I am truly becoming a specter” (Barthes 14).

This is another reason why memory unsettles me. Simply speaking, I fear it. That we have no real control over how we are remembered is disquieting. Although Barthes, in all his melodrama, is describing photography, his statement is in line with the workings of memory. Like my family, most Monte Vista houses are inhabited by the descendants of the so-called pioneers, oilmen, ranchers, etc, that first built or lived in the houses (3). We cling to these defenseless structures because we are fearful of what they will be transformed into—we fear the possibility of a public memory claiming them. Like Barthes sitting before a camera, we are subjects becoming objects through memory. Progression brings with it transference, for, in time, we all transfer into these specters, into ghosts, into, memories. And thus, we must begin to trust the unreliable, as fearsome as it is, because, it is simply what we become—it is how we survive…

 ***Discussion to be continued***

Works Cited

1)    Barthes, Roland. Camera Lucida. New York: Hill and Wang, 2010. Print.

2)    “Homes By Street Bushnell Ave.” Monte Vista Historical Association. 2008. Web. 11 April, 2012. http://www.montevista-sa.org/pages/3112/page/4/

3)    “The Association.” Monte Vista Historical Association. 2008. Web. 11 April, 2012. http://www.montevista-sa.org/pages/associationMain/

4)    “The District.” Monte Vista Historical Association. 2008. Web. 11 April, 2012. http://www.montevista-sa.org/pages/districtMain/

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