In her latest post, Ronni Bennett at Time Goes By cites the latest studies showing that the brain doesn’t necessarily deteriorate as we grow older. Over the last decade, there’s been increasing evidence that it’s not so much that we remember less; it’s that we remember differently. While short-term memory declines with old age, long-term memory seems to be enhanced. Older people generally are given to remembering; they use the past in the present, in their day-to-day living of it. If they’re artists, they use it in their creative endeavors.
It seems to me that another reason the past is so important at this age is that we’re closer to the end. There is less future to contemplate, and a lot more past. We may not be into summing up our lives just yet, but we tend to see them whole in a way that we didn’t when we were younger. A writer, at least this writer, may see her characters in the same way – with a beginning, middle, and end. Whole. Even if the story, novel or poem doesn’t actually describe the whole.
I think of the past as a wonderful treasure trove. As I dig, more keeps being unearthed. Like the rocks in New England that seem to re-emerge each year even though I thought we’d dug them all last spring. There’s always more to be discovered. That doesn’t have to mean the details of my living – the kind of icing on my fourth birthday cake, the name of my first bicycle, my grandmother’s hairstyle…. It can mean the surprise of an imagined character, place or action. I don’t know quite how I understand that that’s how it would have been: it simply makes sense when I write it. Somehow, I know, and I know because of what I remember without knowing exactly what that is.
Watching my mother die with Alzheimer’s, I learned a lot about memory. Most of all, I learned that it’s not just memories that we lose when we lose memory, it’s the framework and context for everything we are and do, for the meaning of our lives.
Here’s a draft excerpt from Digging to Russia, a book I’m slowly, slowly writing. It’s easier to share it here, then write what I’m trying to say for this post in “post language.”
It’s not exactly true that what we are is what we remember, is it? Our memories aren’t stacked inside of us like dominoes. You remove some and they all go tumbling. Or like a jigsaw puzzle – lose enough pieces and the picture no longer makes much sense. Our memories aren’t us, there’s something else there holding us together, and yet my past leads into my present. My present is rooted in my past, and starts crumbling when the past does.
One day I asked my mother if she’d like us to go through the story of her life together. I saw her hesitate. On the one hand, she enjoyed hearing things about herself that she’d forgotten; they verified her existence. On the other, she didn’t want anyone to know how little she remembered, to see the holes in the cloth of her life, to discover that she was so scantily dressed it was embarrassing.
Worst of all, even though we put the pieces together they’d be lost to her again by the time we finished, or sooner. She’d be stripped down all over again.
We sat in her room at the Home – a bevy of mothers, fathers and grandmothers, brothers and sisters, her husband, her children staring down at us from the photos on the wall. “I don’t want those there,” she told me yesterday. “Take them away.” They’d been on her bedroom wall for twenty years, maybe more, but now she wanted them gone. They taunted her. She didn’t know who those people were; she wasn’t even sure she wanted to know anymore.
I made sure her back was to them.
We would start as near the beginning as we could – a good place to start since that’s where she’d mostly been left. On another wall, hanging in view of both of us, was her baptismal certificate or, in ornate German letters, Tauf Schein. A fair-skinned Jesus wreathed in vines stood on a stone pedestal and reached out with welcoming arms.
“Alicea Albertine Wacker, tochter von Jacob Wacker and seiner Ehefrau Katherine geb. Borger ist am 14 November 1917 in der Evang. Luth. Friedenkirche in namen des Dreieinigen Gottes getauft worden.” In the name of the Three-in-One-God. Born again.
“Do you remember your baptism? You were three years old. I wonder why they waited so long.”
Grandma had lost two children by then. Two still births, and granddad another by his first wife. Maybe they were waiting to make sure this one would live. There was a dove on the certificate, but the first of the Three-in-one-God is missing. Where’s God the Father?
“I don’t remember.”
“That’s not surprising. You were very young.”
I tried to remember it for her. Granddad, costumed for the occasion in his Sunday suit, grave, distracted, worrying about a disappointing beet harvest. Grandma, dressed in her only best dress, a busy flower print, earnest, yearning for God. Thin-as-a-rail-Herr Rolf Steinhauer and plump, red-cheeked Herr Albert Rothe, both there to witness, Herr Rothe holding Alicea in his arms. Beside him, his beaming frau. Pastor Amen, looking a little silly, his side-whiskers twitching when he talks, sprinkling water on Alicea, making her giggle because the water is dribbling down her forehead to her nose. It tickles. Above her the Holy Spirit is flying around in the eves while Jesus watches tenderly from a stained glass window.
“Do you remember the church?”
“Yes. Mom, Pop, and…
“Your brother, Clarence.”
“He was a good brother.”
“Did you sing in church?”
“Oh, yes. We sang.” She sang in a small wavering voice:
“So nimm denn meine Hände und führe mich bis an mein selig Ende und ewiglich.
Ich mag allein nicht gehen, nicht einen Schritt: wo du wirst gehn und stehen, da nimm mich mit.”
I imagined her, tiny, blue-eyed, with her kid’s thin, high-pitched voice, stuffed into a congregation of gutteral harmonies, caught in a press of big coats damp from the snow. There are no pictures of God the Father but she always thought of Him when she smelled dank wool.
“Did you always believe in God?” That wasn’t a fair question, was it? Would she recall if she hadn’t? Mightn’t a God denial be one of the first things in her memory bank to go?
“Everybody in the family believed in God, didn’t they?”
“Of course. Why wouldn’t they?”
“What about Uncle Heine?”
She looks worried. “I’m not sure. We’ll have to ask him,” she replied. “Heine’s crazy,” she added in a hushed tone so no one would hear.
“Did you ever try to dig a hole to China?”
“That would be a dumb thing to do,” she said.
“To Russia, then?”
“Even dumber,” she laughed. She stopped abruptly and frowned. “Let’s get on with it,” she said, irritated that the story of her life was so slow to unfold.
“Didn’t you do anything dumb when you were a kid?” I persisted.
She smiled the little girl smile that’s persuaded the staff at the Home that she’s sweet. “I got lost,” she said. “I was trying to shake salt on a wild turkey’s tail.”
“Now that,” I grinned, “is a dumb thing to do. Why did you do it?”
“To tame him. Uncle Heine told me that if I salted its tail, the turkey would be my friend. So I took mom’s salt shaker and a long blue ribbon to leash him and went looking.”
I’m glad that the hole to Russia was mine alone. That she has her own ambition to remember, to tame a funny looking bird as big as herself, to make a friend of it, to loop a blue ribbon around its odd neck and bring it home, to sit on the steps with it and share secrets. “Was Grandma mad that you took her salt shaker?”
“No. Mom thought it was funny. Pop was mad because I got way the other side of the wheat field.”
I wondered, was he angry with Heine for telling her the turkey story? He was a grim man, Granddad Jake, during my mother’s growing up. When he came in to eat, everyone kept quiet because that’s what you did when a German farmer came in from the fields. He didn’t talk to his family. She’s told me many times that she was afraid of him. Not to get Freudian about it – that’s passé and I haven’t done it for years – but did Granddad’s grimness set up all the men that followed him in my mother’s life? Including my father?
“They were very proud of you, you know. Both Grandma and Granddad.”
She lit up for a moment. Poor pale wisp of a woman, bent and beaten. Lights up and got that sweet look again. “I know,” she said.
Well, I thought, we might as well remember the most traumatic event of her life next. Chronologically, it made sense, and it was something that stayed with her in some form. For weeks she had talked about it. Is the memory, what she had of it, still there?
“They must have been so upset when you got shot.”
“Yes. I got shot you know. I’ve been shot.”
I nodded. “Tell me about it.”
“They took me to Denver in the train,” she said proudly. “All the way to Denver.”
“Did it hurt?” I asked.
“I remember Heine holding me on the train.”
When she did her genealogy, she collected the newspaper item about it; I’ve looked at it with her. “Killed While Playing With Shotgun.” It was a cool, sweet-smelling evening and Grandma and Granddad were away for a few hours, maybe at church worshipping the God who lets terrible things happen. The children were outside on the front lawn. Cousins George and Tillie, ages five and six, were making my high chair-bound four-year-old mother laugh. Her little brother, Gearhardt, was crooning to himself in a playpen on the porch. Twelve-year-old Clarence was sitting on the steps whittling. Uncle Heine sat in the living room vamping up his shot-gun. He was going hunting the next day. He set the rifle down when Clarence called to him, “Hey, Uncle Heine. Can I come with you tomorrow?”
“Of course, Clare,” Heine said, leaning out the screen door. He walked out onto the porch, sat down next to Clarence and put an arm around his shoulders. “Can you get away from the beets long enough? Will Brother Jake let you?”
“I think so, Uncle. I’m pretty sure he will.”
Neither of them noticed when George went into the house. Neither of them heard him dragging the gun across the floor to the screen door. They didn’t hear anything until the gun went off and Alicea wailed with pain. And young Gearhardt, well there was nothing much left of him but frothing bits of baby bone and blood.
It’s the essence of tragic accident to be an event that didn’t have to happen, that no one could have foreseen or they wouldn’t have done the small, apparently inconsequential thing that caused it. It’s one of those events that, afterwards, no one wants to think about ever again – but of course they have to. One of those things that God lets happen, God knows why. Did Grandma scream at Heine when she saw what was left of her boy? How could something like that happen and no one be to blame? If anyone was, it had to be Uncle Heine.
Poor Heine, some people seem doomed to be responsible for the misfortunes of others. Some drunk drivers kill; most don’t. Some smokers grind out the last bit of fire in a cigarette on a park trail and all they’re guilty of is littering; others do the same and they’ve started major conflagrations. They’ve burned down whole forests.
“Did Grandma or granddad blame Uncle Heine when you got shot?”
“Heine’s crazy, you know.” She frowned, trying to think about him but there was nothing else there. At least right then.
Odd about memory. She remembered that ninety-years-ago-train, that hulking, rocking, whistling night train and the adults hovering over her, terrified they would lose her too, passionately wishing her long life, loving her more than they knew how to say. She didn’t remember being shot. She didn’t remember that much more recently, a few decades ago, a doctor discovered shotgun pellets in her back that might explain her oscoleocis. The pellets have lasted years longer than the memory. She doesn’t remember her bit-by-bit curving spine, even though it’s always been there. Just the train that showed her how much her parents loved her. And Heine.
She used to wait in the evenings at New Dawning Home for Heine to come get her and take her home. Her life was an excursion; she’d overstayed and it wasn’t fun anymore. Night after night, he failed to come. But because she forgot he hadn’t almost as soon as he didn’t, she didn’t grow impatient or despairing. She just waited the next night, with the same eagerness as the night before.
“I’m tired of this,” she muttered.
“Yes, I can see you’re tired. I’m going to let you rest now.” At this rate, even the few memories she has left – small, warm, bejeweled with feeling – won’t be shared before they disappear forever. I kissed her forehead, a dry neutral sort of place that required nothing of me but a slight stoop and a slighter pucker. I never learned to hug my mother and still can’t, even now. I walked out of the room. I never walk out without seeing something in the way she watches me go, or maybe it’s a gesture without any of the usual defining characteristics of gesture, that says “Don’t go. Not yet. You’re the only person here who knows who I am.” But do I know? And whether I do or not, I want out. I don’t want to be here, doing claustrophobia in the emptying rooms of her mind.
What I want is for there to be a library somewhere – not a place that holds the usual sorts of books made of paper, glue, and leather-but an ethereal library where memories are kept until someone needs to check them out. It affirms the significance of our lives; what we remember isn’t just flotsam that dissipates when we’re gone; it’s all there still, wherever “there” is, stored, kept safe.
My mother will be able to check out memories and find herself again in them. Why not? If she doesn’t get there, if death or some other incapacitating condition prevents it, then I – looking through the stacks in Biography, (Dewey Decimal System 920-928 but organized alphabetically) – will check out her life and make what use of it I can. Biographers elaborate on what little they can discover, and so will I. And if memory is mostly imagination anyway, there’s no reason why I shouldn’t thumb through what I can find of her reminiscences and add a few riffs of my own.