In my parent’s kitchen, a glossy Kodak print appeared on the counter sometime last year.
In the photograph, my six-year old cheeks are chubby and rose-colored. Gleaming, my grandpas have made a semi-successful attempt to pull me onto their laps, leaving my corduroy-clad legs dangling just above the ground.
Now, more than a decade has passed since a yellow drugstore disposable camera first held this motion still. Both of my grandpas looked younger then.
Outside the frames on a 35 mm reel, pasts don’t stand so static.
In the popular imagination, grandfathers are often depicted as keepers of history. Seated in worn, leather armchairs, grandfathers recount the olden days before roaring fires as curious youngsters lean close, hanging on every word.
My grandpas don’t fit that image.
My paternal grandfather, Sol, stared up at the gates at Auschwitz when he was younger than me. His stories are veiled under sprinkles of Yiddish and an accent that at 90 still won’t let go.
And if you ever see Martin, my mom’s dad, he probably won’t hesitate to joke around a bit. That’s because Martin is by no means the stuffy armchair and cigar grandfather. He’s a boxer and spends a good portion of the day pacing his yard with a well-loved hedge trimmer.
But if grandfathers are supposed to be the torchbearers of history, I was confused about what that history might say.
Sol, whose Auschwitz number, B-4907, I had traced with my fingers for years, was forgetting fast. Of course, the images of bodies and smoke and fire cannot be un-etched. But from the time I interviewed him for an eighth grade project to last year, when I decided to record his history on tape, his memories have lost their vividness.
At least in articulating them, his once clearer images are now jumbled and vague. In aging, stories were lost, misplaced somewhere in the five decades since Poland.
And while Sol struggled to piece together the chronology, Martin’s past was becoming even more real.
In 2006, Martin was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease. Dopamine-producing cells began to die off, leading to shaking and difficulty performing certain motor skills.
On a drug called Aricept, often prescribed to Parkinson’s patients, my Grandpa Martin’s memories became more vivid than they had ever been.
He dreams every night now of his parents, his childhood in the Berkshires and being behind the counter at his father’s hardware store. Most of the memories are happy. But in the quiet moments, Martin’s past — his people, his childhood — are dug up and presented before him everyday.
In the last few years, he’s gotten up a few times to write things down, afraid his life is an unwritten memoir that might disappear. He’s also taken to collecting clocks. Dozens of them crowd my grandma’s piano, times ticking all at once.
While Grandpa Sol forgot, Grandpa Martin couldn’t help but remember.
As my grandpas age, I have started to think about my own past. Of course, mine has been short thus far. I certainly haven’t faced the destruction of the Holocaust or 70 years worth of living.
But as my life trucks ahead, I wonder how I will eventually confront my own history.
I have loved the past since I first arranged museum exhibits in my room, forcing my sister to brave my tours of coins and stamps and broken shells. In my painted-blue room, I had the power to arrange the past just how I wanted.
But now, as one grandpa forgets and the other remembers, I wonder how much agency we have in arranging our own histories. Is it impossible to remember what I want and to forgot what hurts the most?
In observing my grandpas confront their pasts in vastly different ways, it’s become clear I might not have too much choice in the memories I choose to retain or discard.
What I have found is a complicated picture about how memory works.
I’m no expert on how neurons fire or how the temporal lobe decides what to keep or let slip away. But as a journalist and a student of history, I have learned pasts are deeply complicated.
My grandpas have taught me the ways we process them are, too.