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Excerpt from Memories of the Future by Siri Hustvedt, plus links to reviews, author biography & more

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Memories of the Future

by Siri Hustvedt

Memories of the Future by Siri Hustvedt X
Memories of the Future by Siri Hustvedt
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  • First Published:
    Mar 2019, 336 pages

    Mar 2020, 336 pages


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Book Reviewed by:
Norah Piehl
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My sister and I were going through every object that belonged to our mother because she was leaving the five-room independent-living apartment that had been hers for almost a decade after our father died. Her destination was a single room in the assisted-living wing of the same retirement complex, which meant we had to travel yards not miles, but the move required that our mother's possessions be drastically pruned. While not a joyous event, the change was less painful than it might have been because in between her nine and a half years of "independence" and her new location that required "assistance," our ninety-two-year-old mother had been the frail, recumbent resident of the third wing on the same property known as the "Care Unit." Ten months earlier, the medical man on my mother's case had declared her nearly dead, without using those words, of course. Dr. Gabriel had told us to prepare for her demise, without choosing that word either. Instead, in early October of last year, he had pointedly asked us to consider an "early Christmas," Christmas in late October or early November, the implication being that our mother was unlikely to find herself anywhere in December, so if she was to suck some small pleasure from her favorite holiday we had better hurry it up.

Although neither of us said anything to him in response, my sister and I found the suggestion that we finagle the calendar year to accommodate our mother's probable death preposterous. The months follow each other one after the other, and if she died in October or November, we weren't going to pretend Halloween or Thanksgiving was Christmas, and, although our mother had become confused about time in general and had forgotten the series of health emergencies—the broken foot, the broken arm, the congestive heart failure, the pseudo-gout that bloated her thin legs into excruciating red logs, and finally, the infection that entered her bloodstream and caused her to hallucinate dead friends, children's choirs, and elves with top hats that waved at her from outside the window—she would have strongly disapproved of us tampering with the seasons. She has always regarded herself as "philosophical." My mother's idiosyncratic definition of the word is the following: we all suffer and we all die. "Never, ever," my mother said to me when I was eleven, "say 'pass away' for 'to die.' People die. They don't evaporate."

Our mother lived through Halloween and she lived through Thanksgiving and she lived through Christmas and she lived through Easter and by the time summer had come and gone and the leaves of the trees beyond the Care Unit had begun to rust, she was no longer dying, and because she had pulled herself back from the ultimate threshold and the administrators of the Care Unit needed her bed for a person who truly stood, or rather lay, "at death's door" (words also never spoken aloud), they bumped her up to assisted living but did not approve a return to her old independent quarters, which precipitated the move, my discovery of the notebook, and the writing of this book.

My mother is now well settled in her new room, and I wouldn't be surprised if she lives another decade, but she forgets. She forgets what I have just said to her on the telephone. She forgets who it was that just entered her room with a pill or glass of water or raisin toast. She forgets that she has taken the pill for her arthritic pain and she forgets whether she has had any visitors, and she speaks to me instead about the orchids on her windowsill. She describes their colors and the number of blooms that remain on individual stalks and how the light hits them, "some clouds today, so the light is even." She is articulate, and she remembers much about her life, especially her early life, and these days she likes to revisit the old stories. Yesterday, she told me one of my favorites, a tale I asked her to tell me again and again when I was a child. She and her brother had seen Eva Harstad's face in the second-floor window of the house at the end of Maple Street in Blooming Field where she grew up. "Oscar and I were walking home at sunset. There were pink streaks in the sky and a strange light. We both saw her in the window. Impossible, you know, because she had hanged herself the year before, poor Eva. We didn't know her well. There was a baby on the way, you see. No one ever found out who the father was. Her death saddened everyone in town who wasn't mean-spirited, sanctimonious, or hypocritical, but there she was, her long blond hair hanging around her face. I know I've told you this many times before, but there was something wrong with her lips. She was moving them crazily, the way some singers warm up their mouths to get them ready to sing the song, but nothing came out. We didn't run, but our hearts froze, if you know what I mean. We walked fast. Oscar never liked to be reminded of it. I think it scared him more than it did me. I should ask him. Shouldn't I? Now, where is Oscar?" Uncle Oscar died in 2009. My mother is aware of this fact on some days but not on others.

Excerpted from Memories of the Future by Siri Hustvedt. Copyright © 2019 by Siri Hustvedt. Excerpted by permission of Simon & Schuster. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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