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Autobiographical Memory and Identity Updating - page 10 / 19





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not to come out here. We weren’t going to stay that year, I can’t remember why– back and forth, but we didn’t sleep out here. So we said “Martha please don’t go out there.” She said “I’m going.  If I die out there I’ll die happy.” So the very first Saturday morning bright and early we had a phone call. So Martha had gone to bed back there in the tent by herself and when they came to get her up they got no response.  So they went in and she had died in there so we know she died happy by herself in the Ramsey tent [voice trail off and becomes weepy]. . . .

This is the youngest Ramsey, my great grandson, Jonathan Spence. So I think we’ll have a lot of children around here for a long time. . . . This is the great grandaguhters’s room, and the great grandma’s back here.  And this is the dining room of which I’m real proud. [Bradd:”How long has this table been here?] Since they built the tent. This is the kitchen I’m proud of.  You see I am accumulating everything but perishables to leave out here. It’s just like coming home. Every summer you know because all these nieces and nephews come with their children. And the ones that were young years ago, now they’re grandmamas. And we get to see each other’s family. So there will always be a base.  And I feel that as long as there’s any of my family living there will be Ramseys here. It will be in the family.  It will be, I know.

Again, her voice trails off as she chokes back tears.  I was struck by the obvious emotion behind her commentary. I remember wondering what was behind those tears. As it turned out, this was Mary Ramsey’s last summer spent on the Campground.  I suspect she had an intuition she was recording her farewell to Salem and to her family.  She had been complaining all week that she was not feeling well. The following summer she was too sick to stay on the campground, and several months later she died of some kind of unspecified cancer. In retrospect I suspect that her story about her husband’s sister Martha coming to die alone at Salem was triggered by her growing sense of her own impending death.  

Mary Ramsey’s commentary suggests a number of very interesting ways in which her six decades at Salem affected her sense of self in relation to her family.  

Her account shifts frequently between past and present tense.  Her references to the ancestral photos are framed in the present tense, as if she is introducing us to people who actually are still at the campground.  Her Salem memories, told in the past tense, alternate with present-tense descriptions of the rooms.  Moreover her sense of the past conflates specific past events that are described in the simple past tense, such as her sister-in-law Martha’s death, with a narrative of a kind of generalized “ritual past,” (“We would get up and mama would fry chicken and make sandwiches and fry chicken and stuff eggs and all, and we would leave in the Model-T to come to Salem”).  Even as she recounts her sister-in-law’s death in the past tense, she uses direct quotation rather than reported speech to replay the family’s conversation with Martha before she died.  The effect, like the presentation of the photos, is to resurrect past events as living in a kind of repeatable present.  In these rhetorical strategies of telling her story, Mary conveys a sense of (1) blurring of past and present events and (2) transforming specific past events into generalized, repeatable routines.

The same sense of shifting between particular events and general structures was evident in the way in which Mary described the rooms of the tent.  Rather than referring to the bedrooms as belonging to particular individuals, she says “This is the great

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