All We Know of Heaven
by Max Page
Apologies to architects: Memory often does not demand a designer, other than the individual mind. The most powerful sites of personal memory are often the anonymous places made full of meaning by an individual. Such is the case with one of the more forgettable corners in an unforgettable town.
On your way to see the Emily Dickinson Homestead, where the poet once drew for inspiration on her own “old Grounds of memory,” you would be forgiven for walking right by the dusty northwest corner of the Amherst town common, next to an ill-conceived parking lot bitten out of the grassy rectangle, otherwise nobly framed by the buildings of Amherst College on one end and the Richardsonian town hall at the other.
But for me, looking down at this ragged edge of the Amherst town common is like peering into a Technicolor well, rippling with my own past.
It was in 1966 that the Amherst Common Peace Vigil began, running on Sundays from noon to 1:00 pm without fail into the early 1970s, making it one of the longest-running protests against the Vietnam War. The tradition has waxed and waned, but to this day, our own version of Hyde Park Speakers’ Corner draws antiwar protestors to make their plea to passing motorists and pedestrians.
I see myself there, on my father’s shoulders, as he strolled back and forth, smiling, with a pipe in his mouth, no doubt. The image I have is from across the street, so it may be a memory constructed from family stories, and those black-and-white photographs stuck into the fat albums that line my childhood home. Memory is no “sacred Closet” as Emily called it (all of us from Amherst are on a first-name basis with the poet), where memory is a solid object that rests unchanging, if gathering dust. Memory is more like the “reverential Broom” she mused about, whisking words and images, sounds and smells together to construct an emotion-filled scene.
My memory of sitting atop my father’s shoulders — the shoulders that are now a visibly old 89 years of age — is not something that has resonated forever, with a consistent, kryptonite glow. No, this memory site has waxed in power, as my father has declined and as my own activism has grown. This memory gives me both my father back — at the height of his full, ebullient life — and a foundation for my own political efforts today.
I was told a few years back that the town had placed a memorial plaque in the ground. But I could never find it, until one day I saw it, covered in dusty dirt. It seemed a shame, like no one cared to keep the plaque clean. But now it strikes me that this is as innovative a memorial as I could imagine: It is visible only if there are people, marching and protesting, kicking up dirt and awakening outrage, reminding us why we find ourselves at this very spot, still working to heal a broken world.