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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A Woman’s Power

Movie lines sometimes contain more truth than a philosophy tome. Consider my favourite line from My Big Fat Greek Wedding. A mother is patiently explaining to her adult daughter that Dad is indeed the head of the family. However, she adds, “I am the neck.” I love that. I might add that women are also often the glue.

I learned this truth by unconsciously absorbing my paternal grandmother’s lessons. She was the eldest of three strong sisters, the second generation of Ukrainian immigrants escaping turn of the century pre-revolutionary violence. Her mother provided Ukrainian language lessons to other immigrant kids in Hamilton’s hardscrabble east end. One day, the skinny 15 year-old was bored and waiting for her Mom to finish when a shy pupil not much older than her approached. He whispered that she was the most beautiful girl he had ever seen, and that someday he would like to marry her. That was my grandfather. They were married for 63 years.

Her father was one of the first men hired at Hamilton, Ontario’s brand new Dominion Foundry and Steel (Dofasco). He arranged a job for his son-in-law where he worked for 42 years. Later, the Second World War saw North American women doing what many women and most men said could not be done; they fought the war on factory floors. My grandmother worked 8-hour shifts in heavy overalls and beneath a thick kerchief. She lifted, turned, and processed steel sheets. She was, in the vernacular of the day, Rosie the Riveter.

An old Dofasco newsletter shows her and other women smiling broadly and doing their bit with a patriotic passion and rugged determination to make a deeper point. There was celebration when the guns fell silent and the afternoon shift was let out early. Amid the cheers, all the women were given small paper packets containing a tiny bonus and a pink slip. She told me how that she would have liked to have kept working and, like many others, felt used and cheated.

Women Are Glue

(The three sisters and their parents, my grandmother is standing on right)

When her mother was failing, my grandmother made a promise. She would keep the family together and carry on the tradition of the large gatherings like those at the old Port Dover farm. The basement of her modest Burlington home was refashioned into a party room. Every big occasion, and certainly every Christmas, the room sang with my large and loud extended Ukrainian family. My grandmother met everyone at the door with a smile, kiss, and hug. She was a big woman and when you got hugged, you stayed hugged.

Long tables sagged under more food than even our army of a family could consume and then everything was packed away for my cousin’s band and the dancing. The adults got to drink a little too much and the kids got to stay up past bedtime as the old stories and jokes were told through Export A smoke, smiles, and laughter.

The last time I saw her was in a hospital bed. As I was saying goodbye she put her hands on my cheeks and squeezed them together and pulled me close as if I was a six-year-old again. Perhaps, in her eyes, I was. She said, “I hope you know how much I love you.” I said, “I do. And I hope you know how much I love you.” They were our last words.

She told the doctor that she wanted to go home and he said only when she could walk the hallway and was completely off morphine. He didn’t know her very well. She did both the next day. She arrived home and within 45 minutes she was gone. This last act said everything you need to know about her strength.

That Christmas, there was no party. Everyone was too sad. She wasn’t there to push us through our grief. There was never another party. First the extended family and then some even closer drifted further. The glue was gone.

No family is perfect. Scratch the surface of any family and amongst the litter of love and happy days glowing like Facebook postings, you’ll find scars and unhealed wounds. Despite this fact, family, no matter how defined, constructed, or shifting, is sanctuary. Family is what reminds us of who we are when we sink too low or fly too high. Family is what affords us the courage to carry on when we’d rather quit and the reason and confidence to venture forth in the first place.

Every family has one person that acts as glue and holds it all together when so much seems determined to tear it asunder. Because most men, like me, are dullards about such things and too often too self-absorbed, the job usually falls to women. They are the miraculous caregivers who become the bond between people and generations. They love without judgement. Their lives and the values that guide them become their silent advice. They kiss your cheek or kick your ass or just sit and listen, and then listen some more.

They are the women who only those with enough love can see for who they truly are. Bless these women. They, like my grandmother, are the angels among us now and forever.

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