Saturday, May 05, 2007

Damnation of Memory 

Image hosted by Photobucket.comThe 15 minute internet computers have been relocated to the back of the building. All the desks are facing the other direction and it is difficult to keep a close eye on them. Predictably, many patron behavior problems - carousing, fisticuffs, drug dealing, line jumping – have blossomed there. Now that our backs are turned it is like a perverse game of Mother May I, and when we whip our heads around or the security guard patrols everyone is suddenly and peacefully waiting in line with innocent, doe-like expressions.

This beautiful Norwegian tourist couple, so polite, so fresh scrubbed, asked me if the library had internet so I reluctantly led them back to the 15 minute computer line. As we approached the area I saw a man sitting in line swatting at his hallucinations dancing around his head and another one muttering to himself and glaring at everyone in this alarming and menacing way. Although it was standing room only the chairs on either side of him were empty and even the most hardcore were giving him as wide a berth as a stick of sweating dynamite. As we approached the men all turned and looked at the female tourist as if she were a roasted Thanksgiving turkey adorned with leg frills. When I got close and I was struck by the rough crowd’s odor rising above like some foul, choking incense, I turned us all right back around and gave them internet passes to other computers. I have too much national pride to let them wait in line with that.

A patron called and had me look up a cool Latin phrase I had never heard of: Damnation of Memory, a practice in which all records and traces of a person were 'disappeared' were permanently erased by the state. Soviets, of course, were modern masters of this. I’ve always had a perverse interest in doctored Soviet photographs from Stalin’s time, when people who fell out of favor were expunged, sometimes with cartoonish and laughable efforts, from state photos. Imagine what Stalin’s people could have done with Photoshop.

Damnation of Memory was often carried out on a more personal, familial level. Often the family Bible acted as the official family record and was the only place where vital records such as birth, marriage and death dates were kept. Black sheep’s names were occasionally struck from the family Bible for disgracing the family is some unforgivable way, like eloping with a person of the wrong religion or gambling away the family fortune or abandoning her husband and children and running off with a Yankee officer, as my great-great granfather's first wife supposedly did. (My great-great grandfather immigrated from Kentucky to Texas shortly thereafter, and details are rather hazy as to whether he was official divorced before he married my great-great grandmother, which is why my great uncle always remarked, "I don't know why this family puts on such airs when we're all just a bunch of bastards.")

I have been revisiting the beautiful stories of Katherine Anne Porter. In Old Mortality, a fictionalized account of her grandmother and her constant companion, Nannie Gay, who had been slave given to her when she was a little girl. Her grandmother caused a minor scandal when at the age of nine she entered in Nannie Gay's name in the family Bible next to hers.

Nannie Gay,” she wrote in stiff careful letters, (black),” and though there was some uproar when this was discovered, the ink was long sink sunk deeply into the paper, and besides no one was really upset enough to have it scratched out. There it remained, one of their pleasantest points of reference.

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