Place and memory

I’m currently reading Janice Kulyk Keefer’s fantastic memoir, Honey and Ashes. It’s a memoir of an immigrant family in Toronto, full of stories from the Old World, stories that revolve around her grandparents, her mother and her aunt, in the western Ukraine. Those stories were about a world that felt in some ways far more real to her than the Toronto in which she grew up. Her book reminds me of my own relationship to my grandparents and their stories. On the one hand, I wish that I had paid more attention to their stories so that I could recall them with Keefer’s vividness. On the other, the yawning chasm between Keefer and the Ukraine is different from my experience — my paternal grandparents never left Greece, I and my family went back often, almost every summer of my life, although of course my experience of Greece was very different from theirs. My grandmother was from a mountain village in the least populated part of Greece, after all, and my grandfather was one of the refugees who were forcibly moved from their homes in Turkey to Greece in the population exchanges of the early 1920s. When they were married they were strangers, my grandmother always used to say. The Greece I knew as a child was a radically urban Athens and its suburbs (especially Glyfada) in the 1980s and onwards.

The other dimension of Keefer’s work that interests me is the extent to which her stories about her grandparents’ village are bound up in place, and how important place becomes when she travels back to the Ukraine as an adult to explore the remnants of ‘home.’ Places anchor these stories, prove their authenticity, bring them alive. In this respect, one of the stories I was told by my grandparents — although it barely qualifies as a story — has profoundly influenced me. One night I went out to dinner with a prehistorian friend in the Athenian neighborhood of Kaisariani. When I told my grandmother where I had been the night before, she nodded and quietly said that many people had died there during the war. Almost word for word, her youngest sister Elli independently repeated the same to me later that morning. I didn’t ask for any more details. 200 communists were executed there on May 1, 1944, and this is now commemorated by a memorial.

I was struck then by the way in which traumatic memories were so stronly associated with particular places, such that my grandmother and her sister immediately responded in exactly the same way, and I don’t think that it’s a coincidence that more than 10 years later, I wrote an article in GRBS in which I argued that traditions and memories associated with the Athenian Acropolis — in particular the slaughter of the followers of Kylon circa 632 BC — exerted a powerful effect on Athenians in the Archaic and Classical periods, so strong that it influenced the performance of an annual ritual on the Acropolis known as the Dipolieia and the Bouphonia. Memories and family traditions reside in places, they haunt them and define them, no less I would argue then than they do now.

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