Ear­li­er this week, Leah Kamin­sky con­sid­ered the role and of ghosts in con­tem­po­rary lit­er­a­ture—includ­ing her own nov­el, The Wait­ing Room. Leah is guest blog­ging for the Jew­ish Book Coun­cil all week as part of the Vis­it­ing Scribe series here on The ProsenPeo­ple.

I am a col­lec­tor, a lover of junk shops, where I can spend hours sift­ing through old pho­tographs and tchotchkes. Our house looks like the movie set for The Addams Fam­i­ly.

My moth­er came to Aus­tralia as a refugee after World War II, with one small suit­case in her hand. Her only trea­sure, a tiny mar­c­a­site but­ter­fly brooch she had been giv­en after lib­er­a­tion from Bergen-Belsen, when she worked as the sec­re­tary of the Jew­ish Police in the Hohne DP camp. After she died, I wore the brooch all the time. Some­how, trans­fer­ring her mem­o­ry by embed­ding it into this piece of jew­el­ry helped in some small way to make up for the deep loss I felt.

And then one day, our house was bur­gled. Along with the lap­tops and gad­getry stolen, my mother’s brooch dis­ap­peared. I was bereft, griev­ing as though she had died a sec­ond time. 

Lacrimae rerum, Vir­gil wrote in his epic poem Aeneid. There are tears in things.” Inan­i­mate objects hold a pow­er to move us; we invest them with such deep emo­tion that they become sym­bol­ic and tan­gi­ble memen­tos of what we have lost. Their very phys­i­cal­i­ty seems to bring the dead pal­pa­bly clos­er to us through mem­o­ry, tat­tooed onto teacups, onto paint­ings and toys.

A baby innate­ly wants her moth­er, or pri­ma­ry care­giv­er, to be close by at all times — but place a ted­dy bear in the crib and the infant will quick­ly learn to cling to the soft toy for com­fort, a sub­sti­tute for the mother’s warmth. This tran­si­tion object becomes a pro­jec­tion of the mother’s attrib­ut­es, per­haps the pri­mal need for com­fort redi­rect­ed onto the toy. These kind of objects con­tin­ue to play an impor­tant role for us through­out our lives. We imbue them with mem­o­ry and meaning.

My ted­dy-bear, Tichy, was able to do head­stands as well as the splits. And of course, he could talk, although it was always in the faintest of whis­pers only I could hear. Bun, my daughter’s rab­bit, has his bot­tom rubbed smooth, a fur­less ring worn around his tail. His face is squashed to one side, his long ears shriv­eled, black eyes filled with years of love. He has been her com­pan­ion since she was born, run­ning laps around her cot, then falling out of the side of her bed, get­ting lost on esca­la­tors at the air­port, sky­div­ing out open bed­room win­dows, dunked in swim­ming pools and pegged by his ears to the wash­ing line to dry. Those same ears lis­tened to my daugh­ter sing her­self to sleep at night, wake in the morn­ing laugh­ing, shift­ing from one lan­guage to anoth­er as we migrat­ed across the globe. She suf­fused him with a huge per­son­al­i­ty for a tiny stuffed toy. They have stuck togeth­er through sum­mer camps, hid­den at the bot­tom of her bag so her bunk­mates wouldn’t know. Bun lay there in the dark, silent­ly guard­ing her child­hood from drift­ing away. Back home, sit­ting on her bed, propped up against a pil­low, he watched her grow from baby into child, from girl into woman. Qui­et­ly wait­ing for her to leave him behind, old ragged Bun lets her go now, know­ing she will return even though she doesn’t need him any­more. Some­times, when she’s out, I tip­toe into her room and hold Bun close to my heart, breath­ing in his fad­ed smell as I greed­i­ly try to hoard the past. 

Love lies hid­den in the mem­o­ry of objects that peo­ple we have loved once held dear, or which have tak­en on a spe­cial sig­nif­i­cance since their death. Maybe this is why I can’t let go of the spec­ta­cles my father wore when he used to read me bed­time sto­ries, or my mother’s old flour sifter with which she pre­pared her deli­cious apri­cot cakes. 

For­get­ting, or let­ting go of the pres­ence of the dead can some­times be more painful than hold­ing on to their mem­o­ry through trans­fer­ence onto an object. I remem­ber phone num­bers of the dead,” says my 94-year-old painter friend, Yosl Bergn­er. He can’t cross his friends out in his lit­tle black phone book. It’s as if they have died twice if I do; only the sec­ond time, I’ve killed them by eras­ing their memory.” 

My nov­el The Wait­ing Room is crowd­ed with objects: uncap­tioned pho­tographs, old shoes, a glass eye­wash cup, let­ters in Yid­dish hid­den away and dis­cov­ered in an old tin. Like me, its pro­tag­o­nist, Dina, hoards her dead par­ents’ inde­ci­pher­able relics, hop­ing that one day they will reveal the sto­ries she nev­er want­ed to lis­ten to as a young girl. As Ray Bradbury’s grand­fa­ther once told him, Every­one must leave some­thing behind when he dies… Some­thing your hand touched some waysoy­our­soul­has some­where to go… a lega­cy is etched into the minds of oth­ers and the sto­ries they share about you.” In this way, the dead can still be felt amongst the living.

Leah Kamin­sky is a physi­cian and author, whose books include We’re All Going to Die, Writer MD, and Crack­ing the Code. She is the poet­ry edi­tor for the Med­ical Jour­nal of Australia.

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