Thursday, May 22, 2014

Memory, Its Changing Role, at A Certain Age

Lately, I've been fascinated by a changing awareness of memory and how it's working at this stage of my life. To be precise about "this stage," I've just turned 61. My mother died shortly before my 60th birthday (my dad 13 years earlier), my father-in-law just after; my mother-in-law, at 86, is still with us, but increasing cognitive impairment means that for our family, that generation's memory-holding responsibility has been passed along to mine. And something about having rapidly growing grandchildren makes that responsibility feel quite sharp.

Besides a sense that I should be passing along family stories to my grandchildren, I have also been moved, sometimes quite powerfully, to retrieve my own, for myself. I suspect that even had I no grandchildren, there is something about my personality and my particular age right now, and onward, that wants to structure a life story. And the continuing ripples (after-shocks, rather, some of the time) of last year's losses taunt me with the recognition that some memories, some knowledges, have disappeared forever, and I was too busy or too complacent to have grabbed them while I could.

Of course, that's just the way it is. Being attentive to the project of remembering is obviously secondary to the project of, well, simply living. But I've been struck by the sharpness of certain memories, the way I could, if I chose to, go right back to a moment and describe a particular cup that we used to have in the kitchen cupboards of our house on 7th Avenue. There was originally, I vaguely recall, a set of them, and saucers too, I believe. They were made of an odd material, a result of that mid-century obsession with the possibilities of science to make our lives better. Supposedly unbreakable, and yet they disappeared, one by one, and I don't remember them following us to the house on Queens. . . . Something like Melmac, although the pale-blue Melmac pieces we did have had a slightly shiny surface. The dark-red cup I remember had a matte surface which showed the slight, dense. mottling of its rather heavy material. You might think of clay, but that would take you closer to china than this cup ever went. A stolid shape, comfortable, utilitarian yet homey, the handle well placed and of a pleasing size and shape -- to a five or six-year-old's  hand, at least. . . My fingers think they can remember the texture of the cup, my wrist feels its weight.

But a granddaughter doesn't need to know this.* Nor does anyone, really, and yet I go back and back to that cup, to the precision of the memory's sensory register and to a wealth of emotional knowledge that hovers alongside it.

The photo I'm posting here obviously has no relation to a 1950s cup. But it captures a moment that has been similarly insistent in reminding me of itself. Do you have those as well? A certain slant and intensity of sunlight at the end of the day suddenly transports you to a faraway street where the shadows played against the light in just the same way. Where was that? you try to remember . . . and it haunts, trying to track down, in your brain's scrambled archives, where that might have been. Paris, I remember, after first rejecting Barcelona -- there's something else at the edge of the memory that says Paris (might be smell, might be temperature, might be the feeling of a meal that's still lingering -- who knows how the internal computer's software works).


And then there's a flash of a visual image, a broad expanse of a brick building across the street. Yes, that's right, it's across the street, and we're walking a route back to the hotel that's slightly different from our usual route. I can feel, in the memory, that we're walking slightly downhill. And the building's decorative details are sublimely highlighted in the late-afternoon sun. I know, at the moment, that I want to be able to recall this later, so I take a few photos, including one which names the building. Sadly, this name doesn't encourage Dr. Google to tell me easily where the building is (the building seems to have changed roles over the years), and I'll have to see if I've made any notes -- or, probably more effective an approach, ask our friend Jennifer, former hotelier and possessor of formidable knowledge about her adopted city. . . .

Interestingly, I hadn't remembered that I had taken photos of the building. I simply held an image of a rather stolid beauty glorified by the setting sun, a physical sensation of walking slightly downhill with some breadth between me and the building and a certain emotional tenor of well-being in my husband's company. A slight edge of melancholy I'm not probing too much for now. Only after being tickled several times over a week or two did I realize that I might have a more solid record of the memory in my digital photo file. And that, of course, makes me wonder how I've interfered with the process of remembering, focusing overly on the visual, pushing away those other sensory and emotional traces that might have been able to coalesce had the picture not taken precedence.

So I circle 'round this notion of memory. I began this post thinking I'd try a quick foray of a topic I keep being drawn to, suspicious, though, that "quick" might be impossible. The tension between what I want to write and what writing that demands is creating some walls I need to punch through at the blogging keyboard. Hence, perhaps, the too-frequent garden and outfit posts. And the hope that you won't mind the occasional thinking out loud. I pose more questions, I realize, than I answer. But perhaps the pondering will spark a little conversation about memory at a certain age. Anything in my witterings here that you can relate to? I'm keen to read your comments.

*"Oh Elva, they don't want to remember that" OR "why would they care about that?" my father-in-law used to say to my mother-in-law. But how could he know? Why should he have been the arbiter of memory? I hope someday to write a bit about this process of selection and combination, a fundamental process in story-telling, and especially in the translation of memory into history, especially of family history and individual (auto)biography.


23 comments:

  1. For the past few months I have been thinking about my earliest memory - a tiny sliver of time washed with colour. I asked my mother how old I would have been and, although she cannot remember the moment, from the description I gave her she tells me I would have been less than 3 years old.
    I am sitting on the kitchen counter, in my flannel pajamas, watching my father cut oranges for breakfast. It's just the two of us. My younger sister stumbles in, eyes filled with sleep; blue, blue eyes and tangled white-blond hair. My father and I laugh at her sleepiness and she joins in, unaware of just why. Orange and blue and white-blond and laughter.
    What it all means, if anything, I have no idea. Why this particular moment in time out of all the others? And yet, over the years, this moment has returned over and over again. Colour and laughter. Family. I'm beginning to cease trying to find any depth to the memory and just take it for what it is, a gift from the muddle of memories in my brain.
    Veering to the question of memory-keeping - I am also aware of wanting to capture my parents' stories before it's too late. They don't speak often of the past, but once in awhile, snippets come up in conversation. Somehow, in some way, I want to record them for the future.
    An interesting conversation - I'll be back to see what others may have to say.

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    1. What a luminous memory, and how wonderful that you've been aware of it while your mother's here to help you sort out the timing.
      I do wonder if no matter how many of our parents' stories we capture, it's their absence that reveals what we didn't know we wanted to know -- if that makes any sense. But the more you collect before they're gone, the more chance you'll at least feel you listened to what was important.
      Part of our work, though, I suspect, is also just learning to accept the lost memories as a part of life's mystery. . . .that's tough stuff. . . but we gain a kind of toughness, perhaps, in our increasing ability to survey the years in either direction . . . .

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  2. It's interesting you post about this, because I've been struck lately about what memories really have stuck with me, very vividly and specifically, and which are now hazy. And like yours, those vivid ones are so often tied up with sensation.

    My family were not big "historians" or tellers of the family story. I wish I knew more, and had some context for some of the pictures and documents of family history, stored away in boxes and then passed to me after my father's death. We have no one to pass along the history to; Sam is a man of the moment, and there will be no grandchildren. Still, I'd like to know, just for myself. I think we get to a point where we long to situate ourselves in a broader place in the world.

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    1. I think you raise an important question -- that of our role as memory-keepers beyond our family. If we will not have children or grandchildren, we will still have stories of value to our communities. How to share those? Why? Does it matter if we do or don't? And, increasingly, what about the material records in this age of digitization? There are artifacts that hold stories which the collective ignores or loses at some peril, I think. . .

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  3. We are of an age, together. As my mother's memories fade I am more and more aware of the things I wish I'd asked - even though I am blessed with a mother who shared freely. (and sometimes more than I wanted or needed). My sister and I disagree, often, about bits and pieces of our shared history. We are only 11 months apart, and it's really a tangle of hers and mine. Having adopted children has made me understand the importance of writing things down - things that I was told in phone calls - seemingly inconsequential at the time - things that might have a big meaning at some time to my son or daughter.
    My father's family kept meticulous oral and, later, written records - very clannish, the Scots. Of course it's all dry and full of dates, and I long for real stories of real people - want to flesh out the great-grandfather lost at sea, or the grandmother for whom I'm named, dead before my birth - 'you look so much like her'.
    I really do think it's a time of life - we're at a point of understanding how little time, really, there is left (an understanding that wasn't anywhere near the surface when I was 50) and a need to pass knowledge along before it leaks away.
    I will be interested to see what others think about this.

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    1. Oh, again, such an interesting perspective. Room for posts and posts and posts -- or wonderful conversations on my deck with a glass or three of wine (won't you come up to visit this summer?).
      That tension between the oral and the written records is something that I see in my family, particularly on my mother's side with its Metis heritage something that was "disappeared" for a few generations, only recently re-claimed by a number of my cousins. . . .
      And what you say about this particular decade really resonates with me -- I didn't feel this anywhere nearly as sharply at 50, not even in my mid to late 50s. Something about the number 60, something about losing my parents, or even, perhaps, some kind of biochemical, neurological triggers. . . . fascinating stuff, to me at least

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  4. I felt much the same way about family stories. When I was in Shetland, I heard so many stories that I really want to visit again with my daughter so that she feels connected to our roots. My mother feels duty-bound to share stories with the younger grandchildren and they really don't care. I notice that Mum is getting her time frames muddled now. About the building, you had me wondering too because I passed it regularly when I was going to classes. Look at Google Maps. I think that it is at 16 rue Claude Bernard.

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    1. I'm very envious of your trip to Shetland, kicking myself that I haven't got back to Yorkshire for far too long (I've allowed myself to be too completely seduced by Paris/France). . . .
      I think you're right, and it reaffirms for me that this was a completely different way of getting back to the hotel than we've ever taken before (and we've stayed there 7 or 8 times through the years!). . . .

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  5. Lovely post. I come from a long line of storytellers. It's something my mum and I share and which we inherited from her mother and grandmother. (is it the Irish thing?) However, I seem to be the only one of my sisters who is interested in this. I've kept a journal for years..and it's filled with family stories.
    When I was teaching creative writing to high school students, I used to use a journal starter I learned from Natalie Goldberg's book Writing Down the Bones...I'd just write "I remember" on the board and let the kids follow it wherever it would take them. Then we'd share. And what wonderful things we learned about each other ...and the kids learned about themselves!

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    1. Such a simple writing trigger, but so effective! I'm sure those must have been rich experiences for your students -- and memorable in themselves!
      Curious to know if you're finding any changes to the quality or content of your memories as you move through this "certain age." (I'm actually moving out of that coy territory myself, getting pretty damn close to being an actual Senior! ;-)

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    2. I don't think the quality or content of my memories has changed over the years. Certainly over the years as new moments are lived some "memorable moments" have replaced others as "most embarrassing" or most cherished" or whatever. But I have always been maybe a bit too immersed in the past...living too much "in my head" as my mum used to say. Nowadays when we speak on the phone I remind Mum about a certain funny moment, or a story she told me when I was a kid...and she loves this. Because she has forgotten that story, or hasn't thought about it in years. I'm her memory bank, now, I guess!

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  6. Apt entry. It is definitely an age-related shift, probably because we are now taking our place on the family podium as the older generation. My mother is nearly 86 and her health is fading so she will soon and I know there are stories I have never heard - but which she no longer has the answers to. Unlike me, she didn't ask or her parents didn't tell. What regiment was my grandfather in during WW1? No idea. Where did my grandparents meet? Ditto. But my memories are coming towards me in a tidal surge, the usual ephemera of the daily and incidental (why would I still remember sitting on the floor playing with my toy washing machine in 1962?) and the perplexing (where, oh where, was that beautiful timbered cottage we visited for lunch in 1966? Somewhere in Sussex, about an hour's drive from home? I'd love to find it again...) which strike me at odd hours. Watching my mother in law begin to lose her thread makes me even more anxious that things need to be pinned down and passed on. It's a later life phenomenon. And I'm happy to embrace it.

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    1. Yes, you've got it here Annie -- exactly the same odd mix of "the usual ephemera . . . .and the perplexing." There's something, too, about watching our elders lose aspects of their memory function that perhaps heightens the intensity of our own, as you say. I'm not sure if I'm so much happy to embrace that or simply feeling engulfed and fascinated by it. At least I know I have company! ;-)

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  7. It's also useful to consult the National Archives of your country for such facts as, say, the regimental details mentioned above. Sometimes there might be other connections with the government e g shipping, census, land, bankruptcy records and so forth - these can be rich sources of unexpected information about your family.

    Government records are a very useful adjunct to family stories and memories if you are interested in writing or recording your family history for posterity.

    Sue

    (Guess who worked in the Australian National Archives.)

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    1. Thanks for this, Sue. One of my sisters has been tracking down the family history on my paternal side; two cousins are doing the archival stuff on the maternal. It seems to be addictive, from what I've seen. I imagine you must have been continually disappearing down interesting rabbit holes at work . . .

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  8. My relationship with memory right now is wholly focused on my mother's loss of hers, and not knowing whether it will happen to me. I noticed every day what I remember or not - but it's all short-term. Maybe I'm being short-sighted:).

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    1. I felt/feel the same way with my mom, the gap between us seeming alarmingly small sometimes. . .

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  9. Very potent blog for me. I am just a year younger, so approaching sixty, and lost my mother six months ago as you know. It was a standing joke in our family that my mother remembered nothing - childhood illnesses, family holidays, names of friends and acquaintances. She loved change and looking forward and lived very powerfully in the moment. Now she has gone and her memories with her. My father by contrast has an almost photographic memory, fitting as he was a photographer. Before the Motor Neurone Disease claimed him he wrote frantically and we have reams of his memories of himself as a child and a young man. Sadly he had to stop before he got as far as marriage and family raising. My memories, as others have said, are fascinatingly fragmented. I have vivid memories of walking home from school with my brother in winter, wrapped up in scratchy wool and a gaberdine coat with a hem turned up so many times it banged against my knees. And I have whole swathes of misty, empty time. Now I am conscious that what I do with my grandchildren is building memories. So many of my most vivid memories involve time with my grandparents. It is a stage of life thing. Certainly it was no part of my life when I was fifty.

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    1. I'm sorry that you've had so much loss to deal with in a short time. your mother, quite suddenly, your father a more protracted and incremental loss. So much of our self is tied up in our memory, isn't it? And that period of being between our parents and our grandchildren ramps our memory functions up so intensely -- exactly that kind of vivid, sensory memory you describe so well, weight and texture and the sense of movement. And against that the awareness of large, forgotten, stretches. Like you, this feels specific to my 60s, or at least there's a new and particular quality to it that is distinct from what came before.

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  10. What a fascinating discussion! All those different forms of memories. There are the very personal memories of childhood which I am lucky to be able to share with my sister. They may lie at the bottom of some of my moods or emotions, but I do not feel the need to pass them on to my son. He (hopefully) will have his own.
    Then there are the family stories, most of them tragic. My paternal grandfather’s two elder brothers being killed right at the beginning of WWI within one month. Or my mother’s brother drowned at the age of two. She never met him, as this happened before her birth – in fact she was, in a way, the “replacement” for the dead child. But the tragedy did cast a shadow over her childhood, and some of it was passed on to us, if only the nervous feeling we get when we see little children playing close to the water. In this case, telling the story openly helped to understand the undercurrent of anxiety that ran in my mother’s family.
    Having an adopted child often makes me think about what constitutes our “roots”. In the end, I think my son will have to determine what constitutes his past, just like every one of us. History, individual as well as collective history, is continually constructed and revised and reconstructed. The stories we hear and tell are just stepping stones on a path that does not have one final destination.

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    1. I'm so glad to have siblings to share memories with as well, although with mine all younger than me, they sometimes let me down ;-)
      I think it's Marianne Hirsch who speaks of post-memory, that generational memory such as your mother absorbed, a tragedy that gets passed along even though never experienced directly -- she's speaking of the children of Holocaust survivors, but the phenomenon signifies more widely, I think. Kate Atkinson's Behind the Scenes at the Museum has such a tragedy, hidden in the shadows, at its mysterious root. . .
      Interesting to hear both you and Pondside relate this topic to your adopted children. Fascinating the way history/ies is/are built. . .

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  11. I noticed that my mother was more forthcoming with certain stories (formerly censored) when she got to advanced old age. Her memory was intact and everyone in a given story was gone. The less-outrageous tales had already been told and retold; sometimes a punch line will enter my head, out of the blue.

    But I'm sad to realize most of those lines will end with me; even if I repeated the stories to my children (and possibly grandchildren) you really had to be there when my parents, both terrific storytellers, regaled us with them.

    Lovely post and comments, thank you.

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    1. I wonder if my mother might have become more forthcoming. Sadly, the veil of cognitive impairment was quickly falling before she was even in her 80s.
      It's true, though, that so much of the best family stories depended on the context of their telling -- so we let some go and reshape others and add in new with each generation. . . . I'm betting you are a terrific storyteller yourself and your possible grandchildren will be happily regaled. . .

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I'd love to hear your response to my post. Agree, disagree, even go off on a tangent, I love to know you're out there, readers. Let's chat, shall we? I apologize, though, for the temporary necessity of the Word Verification -- spam comments have been tiresomely numerous lately, and I'm hoping to break that pattern.

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