When I picked up the Reader’s Digest collections of stories, this is the one I really wanted to read, but I had to start with a crap one called “An Offer you can’t refuse”.
In the year 1964, a set of twin is born in the peaceful house of a country doctor and his young lovely wife. The delivery doctor recognised that the girl has Down Syndrome, and suggests that the child is given to a home as they have short lives and can suffer from heart defects.
The father, having lost a sister to heart issues, decides to give away the daughter and to tell his wife that she died at birth. It’s a crap move but his intentions were good – to protect the family from the grief of early death and from psychological scarring further down the road. He gave the girl to Nurse Caroline and that’s when the story actually starts – a secret.
The secret had worked its way through their marriage, an insidious vine, twisting; she drank too much, and then she began having affairs, that sleazy realtor at the beach, and then the others; he’s tried not to notice, to forgive her, for he knew that in some real sense the fault was his. Photo after photo, as if he could stop time or make an image powerful enough to obscure the moment when he had turned and handed his daughter to Caroline Gill.
Instead of taking the girl to the institution, Caroline raises the girl as her own in a different city. She tries to take her to school when she’s old enough but it’s a different era and people with Down’s were called “retarded” and pushed into “special” schools where she could get the attention she needed.
The book talks about Caroline’s love for the child, her constant letters to the father and her new found love with a truck driver who helped her in the first night and then managed to find her in her new life.
The Doctor continues with his life with his perfect wife, perfect house and perfect son, but under the surface, something’s rotten. The wife no longer cares for him, mourns her still-birth daughter to the anger of her husband.
“Why can’t you let it go?”
Norah buys the doctor a camera which has written on it “The Memory Keeper” – this is where the title of the book comes. As time goes, Paul and Phoebe grow older and apart from each other, Norah starts cheating on the doctor and the doctor finds solace in taking pictures – even one of his wife laughing in the arms of another.
Caroline and the Doctor meet after he’d had an argument with his son and he wished to see how his daughter had turned out. The feelings come out to the surface and Caroline admits to something the Doctor already knew – she was in love with him and there was no future for them. He sends her money and she saves it up for Phoebe.
“You missed a lot of heartache, sure. But David, you missed a lot of joy.”
As life goes on, Paul finds a girlfriend and Phoebe goes to a new community where she can live independently called “Upside Down” and she falls in love with a boy called Robert. The sad moments keep on rolling when Phoebe is told she can’t marry Robert, she can’t have babies with him and she can’t have her own house.
It’s a story about loneliness, about hope, about life-shattering secrets. The attitude that David and the birth doctor had about Down Syndrome may seem outrageous to us know, but there was a time not that long ago, when these ideas were widely held.
Things have changed for the better over the past decades but it’s an ongoing process. The reason attitudes have improved is because parents of children with Down’s refused (like Caroline) to accept normal limitations for their children. Changes do not happen easily or without personal costs for those who struggle to make their children visible.
All in all, it was a sappy story, characters uni-dimensional and the “happy-end” more like an inevitable destination. Norah was depicted as a wanton mother, more interested in alcohol and men and her self-improvement than the life at home. After the deed is done, David the doctor is characterised by his wife as a terrible man with insufficient redeeming qualities and wonders why she married him (like she was just a puppet and had no say in the courtship and marriage!) And I have no idea how David pulled off the fake death. He had a burial plot and all but the casket was empty? Was there a doll in it?
So many times, the plot seemed to be building up to a climax which inevitably fell flat – son Paul’s drugged-out ransacking of his father’s workroom, for example, could’ve led to his discovering the file on his sister, but instead was resolved with no revelations, just a lame father-son chat and an admonition to clean up the mess – what was the point? As for David and his photography, the title “Memory Keeper” would’ve been more poignant if, say, David had kept his photography a private thing, albums filled with desperately orchestrated scenes of ‘happy’ family moments that never were; instead, the author chose another Steele-worthy plot of turning him into a detached, semi-pro photo artist with some high-concept obsession with linking anatomy with nature scenes. Whatever.