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What We Choose to

Missing Man
Swan's Way, 1998
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What We Choose to Remember

Proust taught me that memory is triggered by our senses: the whistling of trains, a glint of sunlight on a city street, and of course the particular taste of madeleine cake and tea. The memory-inspiring sensations Proust wrote about are spontaneous and unexpected, like the exquisite pleasure the narrator feels in the overture of Swann's Way when the combination of tea and cake startles his palate, sending him on a journey through the vicissitudes of memory toward the discovery of his own essence.
        On the other hand, some sensations are planned, the products of intention and will, designed to provoke memory, like a parent or child thumbing through the pictures in a family album. But even planned sensations may lead us into new and surprising landscapes.
        When I was young, Mother explained to me that the black and white photograph on the cover, which I first discovered in an album she'd put together, is a picture of my father, Steve Sr., and his brother Louis, whom I called “Oodie,” when they were seven and nine. The photo was taken behind Grandpa Heller's shed behind an alley off Fairmont Street in Kansas City.
        It's the Roaring Twenties, though you could never tell it from the way Uncle Oodie is standing there stiff as a cardboard soldier, his knickers stuffed into his high-top boots, a goofy Alfred E. Neuman “What, me worry?” look on his face. But the funny one is Father, sitting on a big block of limestone with his legs crossed, staring straight into the camera with a constipated Jimmy Swaggert “God is watching you through me” expression. Father has a full head of fluffy light brown hair, the promise of a future that will never arrive. By the time he is forty, Father will be nearly bald. He and Oodie are both ornery, but from this picture you can tell Father is the misfit, the one who'll always get caught with his pants down, even when he tries to do right.
        But the odd part is this: Although the image certainly fits the characters of Father and Uncle Oodie as I remember them, when you turn the picture over, you discover it's actually a postcard. Are the boys in the photo really my father and uncle? Mother swears they are, but can't remember or explain how the picture came to be a postcard. Other photographs of my father and uncle at similar ages do not reveal their faces well enough to decide the issue.
        Whoever is pictured in the postcard, the following is true.
        When he's in his middle teens, Father will attempt to impress his own father by secretly building a Model T Ford from junk parts. An entire automobile from scrap. He will build it in a neighbor's barn, bolt by bolt, and paint it cherry red. When it's finally finished—when it actually runs—he will invite his own father, Louis Aloysius Heller, to come see it. “I made this all by myself,” he will tell his father.