Before my mother married my father, she worked as a model and journalist, and for a company that handled public relations. From the few photographs that exist of her post-Second World War London youth, it was a time filled with parties, frocks, handsome men and sunny days. Sometimes she’d come across one of these photographs while searching for something else, and after telling the story of so-and-so and what they got up to, she’d sigh and shrug, and say, “Well, I expect he’s dead by now.” The picture, and the memory, went back in the box, its characters consigned to her own history, where she seemed happy for them to remain.
If one of those characters had then turned up at her door, gray, fat, and trailing some lumpen wife, my mother would probably have slammed it shut in horror.
Until very recently I didn’t do Facebook. I’d felt uncomfortable about it, thinking alternately that my life was a) too uneventful to merit a regular status report, b) too complex to sum up in a few sentences or photographs, c) too short to spend wrestling with technology, and d) that Facebook reeked too rankly of Big Brotherness. Then, because I wanted to create an instant online presence for our new restaurant, there didn’t seem to be a choice. I tried at first to be anonymous, but Facebook won’t allow that. In order to create a business page, you have to create your own honest profile first. So I did.
I’m still reeling. I’m in the early stages, where names that seem vaguely familiar keep popping up on my screen, accompanied by photographs I rarely recognise. When I can’t resist that click, I’m confronted by time warp after time warp. High school friends I last saw as skinny teenagers on a yellow school bus, or even dancing in some suburban bar to Thin Lizzy’s The Boys are Back in Town, are now smiling out at me from another world. They’re larger, wrinkled, accompanied by an older man or woman, and often encircled by younger people who resemble the people I remember. It’s a strange sort of dream. Sometimes, amongst the shots of smiling, endlessly smiling snaps (doesn’t anyone ever just look calmly at the camera for Facebook?), I find a picture of me. Someone’s has posted their “memories”, and there I am, 15 or 16 years old, cutting a cake, or squinting into the sun. At least the captions say it’s me; I usually have no recollection of the moment, though of course I remember the people. My friends, my classmates. Some of the names and faces make me immediately happy, others less so.
Perhaps if I’d discovered Facebook gradually, earlier, it wouldn’t have the ability to fold time into such sharp-edged accordion pleats. Perhaps if I’d remained in the U.S., I would’ve seen people balding gradually, or I would’ve bumped into their growing children at regular intervals, or been to their bridal showers or divorce celebrations.
In The Sea, one of the Irish writer John Banville’s characters says, “The Past beats inside me like a second heart.” I don’t need to expect, like my mother, that anyone’s dead, but I think that I understand her contentedness at being able to put the past back in its box. My recent Facebook experience has been a memento mori. I’d like the past to remain inside me, and not to leap out reminding me so rudely that time simply flies.