An Abundance of Memories

I’m bracing for another Atlantic winter storm as I write this. Generator is charged and hopefully will start with a push rather than a pull, if needed. Storms give us permission to crawl into a comfy chair with a cozy blanket and a book, while we let Mother Nature do what she must. I find myself thinking a lot about memory these stormy days, not necessarily the contents of them, though that is a regular pass-time for me, but rather the idea of memory itself and what it means to us as individuals. I have so many tiny details of memories in the shape of smell and touch and sound, as if those details in themselves are all I need to travel back to that specific space and time. It is as if I was the memory gatherer of what went on around me as a child, like harvesting from a garden, remembering the texture and taste of Annie’s green peas (the oldest known vegetable – just saying), the feeling and smell of the soil in my hands while we dug potatoes, the smell of a newborn calf and the glorious clean feeling of its hair coat against my face and its sweet brand-new voice. In these memories, I have no real clear image of myself.

The same can’t be said of memories I have as an adult. I am very much present when I recall the gentle back and forth movement in my rocking chair, my baby on my chest, her face against my collar bone, her head under my chin. I can see the half-light of night, the room illuminated by a unicorn nightlight, the absolute silence in the house other than the creak-creak-creak of the rocking chair. I never minded the middle of the night wakening. Despite the fatigue, it was but a blink in time, when I was the sole provider of comfort and sustenance, and I was irreplaceable.

I am reading Annie Dillard’s book, An American Childhood, a memoir written in 1987. The book is described by as being “about the coming-into-being of consciousness”. Dillard describes her work as the “capturing of what it means for a child to come of age”, specifically during the era of her childhood in Pittsburgh. She was born in 1945. As I began reading the book, I was at odds with her description of childhood and the sense of not yet having awakened to our “self”. I think children have a rich sense of what is real as they are not yet encumbered by trappings of life we hoist onto our shoulders as adults. Perhaps I am missing the point of Dillard’s memoir and that she is speaking of when she felt she qualified as a “legitimate” human being. In that era, children were definitely to be seen and not heard. No one asked us our opinions of the state of the world. I want my grandchildren to share their wisdom with me. I want to see the world through their eyes. Their childhood is vastly different from own, and yet …

I can still hear the sound of Marcy’s mother’s foot on the pedal of her green refrigerator, the pedal releasing the closure on the freezer, its distinctive click, and the exotic taste of the red “Freshie” she pulled from her fridge, so different from the Kool-Aid we had. I can hear the tinny piano from the Crozier Hall and Rita sitting on a stack of books so she could play Michael Row the Boat Ashore, onlookers tapping their feet on the hall’s wooden floor, keeping time with her fingers. I can smell the leather of Deb’s saddle that sat on a saddle tree in the tiny shed meant specifically for her horse belongings. 

We get to an age where we can’t trust our memory to inform us of what we are staring into the refrigerator for and the name of the film we watched the night before. When you’ve had a parent succumb to Alzheimer’s it is hard not to fear slipping down that same terrifying slope. 

And so, when I think of memory, I wonder what is the last we hold on to. Is it our sense of geography, where our roots are, where those tiny shoots of possibilities eased through the soil of our childhood?

At times, it feels like Covid has its strong arm pressing into my forehead, holding me mid-stride, preventing me from gathering new memories. Thankfully, I have an abundance of old ones.