Remembering Memory

Last fall, after recalling some obscure lyric, I said to my friend Chris, “I’ll miss my memory when it’s gone.” Chris is a witty guy. He said, “No you won’t.” Sadly, he was right. This week has led to my considering memory over and over again and it’s left me humbled.

My little band was performing its once a month gig at the local pub, the Canoe and Paddle. As I began to count in a song I realized that I didn’t have a clue as to its first line. I have cheat sheets for some songs but not for this one and, suddenly, Billy Joel’s Still Rock n Roll to Me was gone.

I began playing the thumping guitar part, moved a bit and smiled as if my playing it so long was just part of the show, and then, in a flash, the first line appeared as if in skywriting. If I can get the first line then everything else – the lyrics, chords, guitar parts, arrangement – all click into place. And it happened. But how did it happen? And what happens, I thought, when one day it fails to happen?

It occurred again with a speech I delivered this week about my new book. Like always, I never want to bore an audience with reading so I had no notes. I was fighting a cold and was feeling awful. During the introduction I shivered with sudden chills and then felt drips of sweat. As I stood, I felt dizzy and had to concentrate on smiling and not falling. No part of me was thinking of what to say as I placed a hand firmly on the table that, thank goodness, was close by. Then, from out of nowhere, came the stories, jokes, names, dates, and everything I needed for the 30-minute talk. Where is this nowhere? Again, what happens the first time that it fails to produce?

Remembering Memory

(Photo: http://www.psychologytoday.com)

Like every week, I enjoyed time with my one-year-old granddaughter. She is a beautiful marvel, but what else would you expect me to say? Her walking and talking is akin to a hopelessly charming drunken sailor. Her smiles, peak-a-boo and ball-rolling games, and warm cuddles send my heart soaring. But while crunching my knees on the hardwood and melting with her giggles I considered how much of all this she’ll remember – nothing.

My great grandparents’ Port Dover farm had a bench that encircled a big tree. The corn stalks across the road were as tall as mountains and the chickens in the dark, old barn were scarier than the wicked witch’s flying monkeys. And then there was the big kitchen, and my great grandfather’s stubble, and the big red swing. The farm was sold when I was six but the shards of memories remain. But for things that happened when I was one – nothing. I know things that happened before I can recall them affected and helped shape me as things are now shaping my granddaughter but my actual memories are, and with her will be, an empty well.

Like every week, I also spent time with my father, seventy-nine-years older than my granddaughter. We discussed the impending doctor’s appointment and what might have to happen. Then it did. He has all the coping mechanisms in place with a day timer always in his pocket, a wall calendar, and numbers written by the phone. The scaffolding is there with people cleaning the house and shovelling the snow. But this was one more blow, a devastating blow. Taking cabs from now on is not the end of the world but it is certainly another step in a journey that is proceeding far too quickly. He’s always been a good man and still is. But one important person in my life is growing toward her memory while another is growing out of his.

Scientists define memory as electrical brain impulses that encode, file, and retrieve information. Poets write and sing of misty places beyond the bounds of time and where people and places and smells and smiles are clearest when our minds are calmest. Who is right rests upon who we are, the machines or the ghosts within them. The scientists and poets are both right and both wrong.

This week I was forced to consider how much of what I love is dependent upon memory. I was forced to consider how much of who I love is dependent upon memory. I will never forget this week, but then again.

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