hen I was young, my mother and I used to go to the library on rainy days. On one occasion I brought my books with me into an empty vegetarian restaurant. We were alone in the restaurant. It had brick walls and warm orange lamps.
When I was a teenager living at my father’s girlfriend’s house, I went to the small pond down the street and slid on the ice. I almost kissed it looking for fish. One winter, I fell through. I tore through the ice until I got to shore and raced home to rip off all my wet clothes.
Between these scenes my parents were fighting over their recent divorce. What I recall is painful and blurry in my memory, but it shaped me to become who I am today. I wouldn’t change it if I had the chance.
I still think about what my life would have been like if my parents had not divorced. I’ve never had traditions during the holidays or family trips. I’ve had to organize how to visit family members when I go home to be sure I get the same amount of time with everyone.
These what-ifs of life have me yearn for something beyond plain nostalgia. It’s the twisting ache of bittersweet endings, or the untranslatable German noun, sehnsucht. As C.S. Lewis says, it is “the desire which pierces us like a rapier at the smell of bonfire, the sound of wild ducks flying overhead,…the morning cobwebs in late summer; or the noise of falling waves.”
It’s the same as missing someone who is sleeping in the next room over. Thinking about each person behind each window and door in the city skyline, who you might meet and who you will never know. It is the feeling I felt when I first read my mother’s journal.
My mother put her journal in the trunk of old books I took back to Boston with me at 23. The journal’s faded cover is blue cloth with tiny pink roses and white pansies. There are only twenty pages filled with writing.
My mother first writes on August 2nd, 1992, a little less than a month after I’m born. She addresses me directly. She says “your Daddy,” not “Kevin”, and says she took me to her best friend’s garden to pick tomatoes. She notices how well I sleep and says she misses my dad who is “working long stretches.” She says I miss him a lot, too. Two years later, she writes my favorite question is “what’s that?”. She says that I seem happy when we’re all together as a family.
“There are so many things Daddy and I want to experience with you and share with you.”
My relationship with my father has changed. We see the world in very different ways and it’s been hard to find equilibrium, especially in my adult life. For both of us, it was different then. My father writes in the journal once with his chicken-scratch handwriting. “You are the best baby. Every father probably says that, but you so far really have been good. You’re very easy to care for, and I have lots of fun and joy taking care of you.” He says in this entry that I’m crying because I’m either hungry or I don’t like Jimmy Buffett’s music. He writes again an hour later: “You were hungry, you still like Jimmy Buffett!!”
There is an entry by my mother in 1994 on my birthday that reads:
I couldn’t believe this beautiful little girl was really mine, that you grew inside me all that time and we’re finally here, of how much love I felt for you and still feel for you. I hope and pray the world will be good to you and for you, and that we will be able to be a close and loving family. Happy 2nd birthday little girl. I love you.
The next entry is in the year 2000. My parents will have separated by then. I will have already cried in the bathtub after my parents tell me they will be divorcing. At this time, my parents are going through a vicious custody battle which my mother eventually wins, but I spend the next years of my childhood confused about who is right and who is wrong.
How long it’s been since I’ve written in here. So much has occurred in these past years…I am overwhelmed with tears, and you see this. I never could have imagined that you would be subject to this, but it’s unavoidable, and I just pray you will get through it all without any scars.
This is a glimpse of the life I don’t remember. It was what could have been. It’s something I’ve never seen in either of my parents: pure love for each other and a little life they created. The simplicity of seeing their child in love with paper towel rolls and the world. It was something I will never see again from them.
My grandmother felt this, too, in the gift her brother Leo left her before he died in World War II. Before he left, he gave her a tiny box that he painted with the word ricuerdo (memory) on top. Inside the box is a rosary that would be better suited for a mouse. On the back of the box is his handwriting: From your loving brother, Leo.
My grandmother gave me this box after telling me stories about him when I was a child. Those stories haven’t left me. I still wonder if he had time to fall in love, how much he missed his sister, or if he knew his friend would later come to his parents’ door to say Leo saved his life. Leo’s grave is in Normandy, France, one of thousands of crosses. No one has visited him yet.
This sehnsucht is different. It is more abstract. While my parents are tangible and I can view their history, my great-uncle’s memory has made me form my own.
I search his name and find his records to see he died on July 10, a day before my birthday. Fifty years and a day before my birthday, as though a part of his soul spent those decades waiting to pass onto me, not content to be willed into the memory of a stranger.
Sehnsucht feeling makes the universe bigger. It’s the same feeling when one looks at the stars at night, wondering if they’re tiny holes in something we can’t see. The famous Voyager I picture of the earth on a sun beam, and Carl Sagan recalling the servants, kings, mothers, and fathers who have lived on that little sphere. If I’m lucky, I will be a memory like them. I wonder about the billion who have come before and will come after me, the longing that comes with their stories, and how I will never know.