Digging up the past.

Excerpt from Exuviae by a Romanian author called Simona Popescu:

“What do you expect to find when rummaging for the nth time through the same old notebooks, the forgotten drawings, photos arranged chronologically, in an album you stare at passionately and with the same patience you once had with your insectarium with butterflies and mole-crickets, with dragonflies and horned bugs?”

“You ask others about yourself, about how you where back in the days when you didn’t even know what you were, you listen to the same stories about a someone you remember too little of.”

I have the same archaeological tendencies in relation to my past. The same desire to find out who I am now by uncovering stories about who I was, in all those many steps I took as a self, until I realized I was a self and started having doubts of my identity’s coherence.

So I’ve always felt drawn towards the drawers where I know we keep all the photo albums.

I dig them up every time I go home and go through them time and time again, looking for clues, things I had left out by mistake, people I had forgotten and that might provide me with different angles of who and how I was.

I listen to the stories my grandmother tells me about the tricks I’d play on her, the things I used to say. I read my mom’s notes in a little book called “Mara jokes”. I already know those lines by heart… It’s all the quirky things I used to ask and say (like: “Mom…are the nightingale and the skylark friends?”) and I treasure them as historical evidence that I once was that: a smaller and more receptive version of my current doubting self.

In many ways I am aware of this trick that my mind plays on me, for I am not my past. I am not a liniar evolution, starting from the womb and up until my current status. I am not a self built on all the remnants of my past selfs, or on their backs. There was no sedimentation, no building up towards something greater.

There were revolutions, denials, struggles. At times, tolerance was granted, I accepted the multiple pasts I held. But I still never manage to forget. And in this collection of random images flickering before my memory’s retina, I see myself as in a series of lantern slides, in all my ages, in all my voices and all my changes.


A year or so ago, while feeling stuck in the midst of a darker period of war with my self (which has thankfully passed!) I decided that I was surely suffering from too much memory. I had no more room left for the present, because I was full of too much past, and it was suffocating me. I couldn’t forget it if I tried and the more I thought about letting it go, the stronger it surged back from the depths of my compulsively collective self.

Every image from the present just triggered an avalanche of past images that were similar. In a tree… I’d see all the trees of my past, all the forests, all the walks I’d taken. And I still remember everything, or feel as if I do: my kindergarten teachers, my old room, my toys, their names, the first day I held my brother, the first day I bit him (these days coincide, and I am now embarrassed to admit it). I sometimes remember more than I actually do, because I integrate all the stories I heard about myself and all the photos I saw and make them mine. But do I really remember all that?


I’m a collector of myself, a disorganized one, at that. I still keep notebooks from first grade, second grade, drawings from the back sides of these notebooks, poems, plans, older definitions of myself. But this collector is starting to let go.

When we had a very rainy summer in my hometown, ten years ago, or so, the streets were flooded and so was our garage, which was under the block of flats. It was up to the ceiling in water, so almost nothing from it was saved.

I went there with my father and brother and we emptied dozens of murky buckets, with sickening water smelling strongly of mildew. And we took out the luggage that contained all the toys I had kept. We threw them away. All of them. I didn’t want to open them and try to rescue anything…because I knew that if I saw all those toys I would never be able to choose which one to keep.


It was 2004 and I was at a fleamarket in Vienna. Some people were selling photo-albums. Old photo-albums full of faded black and white photos (turned yellow by the passing of time). There were photos of some blond girl’s birthday, photos of a couple rowing on a lake, a young mother smiling while holding her one year old baby girl, etc.

Someone was selling someone else’s past! I felt hurt. Hurt that a son, a daughter, a niece, a pragmatic person decided to just give away the collections of photos that their relatives had left behind. They mattered only to those people now already dead. Those kids in the photos had grown up, had perhaps died too, and those photos could now be bought for a couple of euros by total strangers, by collectors of past.

But I also wondered if we could actually keep everything. Could we pile up all the photos and the dowry we received from our grandmother’s grandmother? We’d have a house full to the brim with past, and…just like I felt my mind was, too full to make room for the present.


I’m in New York, at my favourite hunting spot. It’s the Strand Bookstore, where you’ve got miles of second hand books all sold for one dollar and you can look through all the shelves and find treasures, books you’d love to have.

Sometimes I just buy on impulse. I maybe have heard of the author and think that the book title sounds promising.

That was the case for William Boyd’s The new confessions. And the best part of it all was finding, on the first page of the book, a confession.

It’s written in pencil. We don’t know her name, but we know it was for Michael, a guy who dumped her (and later also dumped the book she gave him. Did he even read it? I don’t know). She doesn’t seem to know how to write correctly, or perhaps she is too shaken up by the break up to control her spelling.

In that one paragraph I recognize the prototype of all the narratives we ever weave around our relationships.

“Do you remember the first date? Or the first time I saw you and you didn’t think I liked you? Did you know we had the same preference for a certain type of spaghetti, or that we both used to dance at x pub and we never met there? Or that time when you went out with a friend of mine back in 19yx and I was wondering who you were?”

I had found someone’s past inside a book. More than the author’s past, which is always in between whatever fiction he writes (he can’t hide himself perfectly and he knows it!).


This trip ends today.

I went to take out the garbage. And as I threw those bags in the big metal container outside, I saw photos floating around the puddles nearby, scattered pages of old letters (you can tell by the old-fashioned handwriting), postcards.

Someone was throwing away their… or someone else’s past.  I saw a negative lying face down, on a dry bit of cement.

I couldn’t help it. My inner collector had woken up. So I picked it up, dusted it off and put it in my pocket.

Back in my apartment, I took a photo of it. A young girl with two long braided ponytails, next to a dog.

I pressed invert while editing it, to see if I could go back in time and produce the actual photo.

And now I have her, smiling, anonymously, thrown out, with her dog next to her, in front of some old building. Bucharest or some other town in Romania? It seems to be Romania.

But I’ll never know. Her name, her age, her context.

But she’s mine now, and only I know of her.

oh. and so do you. Let’s re-write her story some day. Tag, you’re it.


About Mara Ambrosie

"I contain multitudes" W. Whitman. *poză de www.cataling.blogspot.com
This entry was posted in English, portraits, thought-flow. Bookmark the permalink.

7 Responses to Digging up the past.

  1. bells says:

    The memories of everyone and you, tied together and dispersed, in a constant maelstrom. Shattering somehow. Wonderful read.

  2. Andrei says:

    You and me both, sister. I try to save everything: old notebooks used for school but half drawn, train/bus tikets and reciepts for all kinds of things and write on the back the story behind everyone of them… memory triggers, sort of like keeping a diary.
    As for other people, here`s an archeological tip: graveyards :)). Seriously, you can find some interesting information about people from their gravestones, romanian ones are especially good because they use pictures. This was how I found out that my grandpa actually had a nickname, it`s written on his grave – never heard anyone call him that when he was alive. And maybe you`ll find something like in that old jewish joke “What was written on Itzic gravestone? <>”.
    Anyway, it was a good read, and the first thing that came to mind (and the reason I wanted to comment) was this quote that`s been stuck in my head for a few years, ever since I read it in a second-hand novel I bought in NY :). The novel is called Herzog (Saul Bellow) and it`s about this writer stuck in a midlife crisis – now I realize that most of the novel is him going through old memories – and at one point, he says “But I with my memory- all the dead and the mad are in my custody, and I am the nemesis of the would-be forgotten.”

    Oh, and second hand books written on them, are the best kind. By the way, was it a good book?

  3. Andrei says:

    Apparently the jewish conspiracy governing the internet has edited my joke :). So here it is:
    “What was written on Itzic`s gravestone?

  4. Andrei says:

    :-)) has smth to do with the quotation marks

    “What was written on Itzic`s gravestone?
    Rachel, do you finally believe that I was sick?!”

  5. Mara Ambrosie says:

    Poor Itzic. He had married a non-believer.:P

    I also have another story of a Saul Bellow book I bought in the States too:)) It was called “More die of heartache”. I’ll dig up the link from my blog’s past and send it your way. I liked the quote. It pretty much says it all …the would be forgotten that we always disturb.
    PS: The New Confessions by Boyd was a great book. Long and just right for a total immersion.

    PPS: of graveyards, some other time. There are stories of those too, somewhere in my mind.

  6. Andrei says:

    Then I shall remember to borrow it from you :).
    As for your ‘afghan girl’ I think we should start a search for her, a treasure quest.

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