Temporal Vertigo.

Grandma Lenore and Mom, 1959.

Grandma Lenore and Mom, 1959.


People have always, ever since I can remember, told me that I resemble my father, and I never really saw it myself, but when FaceApp returned its “aged” photo of me, I was startled at how much it had decided I was going to look like him. My father is 85, and the photo is, to me, a dead ringer.

Later that day, my sister texted me a FaceApp photo of herself, saying, “Looks like you’re Dad and I’m Mom.” Looking at the altered photo of my sister made me suddenly short of breath for a few seconds. It was Mom. But it wasn’t exactly Mom; it was more like Mom inside my sister, looking out. (My husband saw neither my dad in the altered photo of me nor my mother in the photo of my sister.)

There’s a phenomenon called “temporal vertigo” where humans’ conception of themselves, or conception of their selves, supposedly comprises all versions of themselves at once. It’s what makes us look in the mirror and see something we think of as our “true self,” not aged, changed, damaged. It must be a psychological reaction to impermanence, a defense against decay, loss, death. Against all evidence, we insist on the notion of a persistent self because what, otherwise, would be the point of continuing?

In July, I start thinking about my mother’s death, which was 4 years ago July 31. I think about my mother’s death at other times of course, all year long, but it starts popping in my head more as the weather gets hot, and I’m sure it’s some sort of self-perpetuating thing — the more I think of it as a thing the more it is a thing — but it doesn’t help to know that because it’s going to happen anyway and I don’t have any control over it and I’m not sure I would want to stop it even if I did.

When I was a kid, my mother used to say that my grandmother’s (her mother-in-law’s) increased sadness or irritability or erratic behavior around Christmastime was because the death of Grandma’s daughter, her firstborn who died at 29, occurred in December, and even years and decades later her grief spiked annually. My recollection is that Mom was somewhat sympathetic but also impatient. She did not approve of “wallowing in it” — not just grief, but any kind of sadness or distress, emotional pain over something that you couldn’t change. And if you could change it, then stop whimpering and do it.

So I can’t help but wonder how Mom would feel about my July sadness, how a photograph of something completely unrelated, or a string of words in a book, can touch a memory like a bruise or an exposed nerve and make me cry, or worse, flip the switch in my brain that starts an inexorable ride from a sweet happy memory to memories of those last horrific days of her illness. What’s strange, and hard to articulate, is that those days are only horrific in retrospect, with some amount of intellectual distance. At the time, they were stressful and sad and I wondered every moment whether or not I had it in me, but I didn’t see a desperately ill old woman decaying before my eyes, I just saw my mother. I was just there with my mom.

I know how she’d react if she were to read this. I can hear that quick sharp exhalation and see her lips purse. What I wouldn’t give for my mother to be impatient with me right now.