One July 1 when I was a kid and happily enjoying the pools, Mississippi River sandbars, bikes, Hide-and-Go-Seek games, and picnics of an Iowa summer, I consciously pressed an indelible mental thumbprint into memory: I am eight years old, I love the sun and the water, my family is great, and best of all, there are still two months left of summer vacation. Virtually every July 1 since then, I pause to reflect on that 50+-year memory and honestly just relish the joy it evokes for me.
My family and good friends often tease me about my memory, which despite popular belief, is really not photographic. However, I’ve long been fascinated by the notion of how I can hold a crystalline first memory of sitting in my high chair munching a chicken leg, protected by my plastic Three Little Pigs bib — and yet forget that a mere 15 minutes earlier, Rich told me that we need avocados when I am out produce shopping at Jewel. Some of the most random clutter has long been stored in my grey matter — from a memory of mistakenly ordering corned beef hash (that I thought was a fudge brownie) in a cafeteria line with my Aunt Sallie at age 5, to the emerald-green color and smell of the Fuller’s Earth cleaning compound that my dad used to sweep our basement floor, and my Scottie dog patent leather purse that I proudly carted around while wearing my new Easter outfit. I remember crying at the sight of Hayley Mills in a wheelchair after she hurt herself falling off the tree limb in “Pollyanna” and that I first learned what a hickey was when my big sister Mimi and her friends took me to see “The Interns” in 1962. I can rattle off the year that “California Girls” was popular (1965) or immediately dig up a clear image of the elevator operator and her metal accordion door at Roshek’s Department Store.
My collective memories, this little movie of my life, are just as essential to me as the double helixes that make up all my DNA. Fifteen years ago when I lost both my parents just four months apart, I consoled myself with the knowledge that they would live on forever in my vivid and loving memories. Indeed they do. A whiff of Old Spice After Shave immediately reminds me of Grandpa Art, and this spring when I hunted around town for some fresh-picked watercress, I delighted in the warm memory of just how Mombo used to prepare the ‘cress that we picked in the cold April stream by my Uncle Bud’s house.
Memories are my shorthand for communicating values, what’s important to me. I remember exactly when and where Rich introduced me to the Phil Ochs song “When I’m Gone” (the lyrics of which are now partially memorialized on our living room wall). I remember my first trip to Paris and how I wanted to bottle the Musée Rodin and bring the whole deal back home to Chicago with me. I remember when my friend Donna and I reminisced on my front porch one long-ago June twilight about our shared Iowa childhoods and summer fireflies, and then she went home to magically find one in her kitchen. I remember my New Year’s Eve Party conversation with Betty about how wonderful it would be to form a film society that would meet on a regular basis. I may not remember avocados, but I do remember watercress, The Thinker, and Annie Hall.
At this stage of my life, I am deeply blessed to engage with several elderly relatives for whom memories can be a struggle, at least the short-term ones. My marvelous mother-in-law may forget and anxiously ask me if today is Wednesday when I’ve just said it is Monday, but can remember the exact page number in her 3rd grade hymnal for a particular hymn from 90 years ago. She remembers in humorous detail that Rich “made” her a red felt “dress” when he was just 4 years old and she needed something new to wear to a wedding. Across the span of a lifetime, she hasn’t forgotten much; in fact, she laughs when I remind her that she has forgotten less than many people will ever remember. Last week when my great-nephew Quinn flew a kite for the first time on an Outer Banks beach, I wondered: Someday when he is 30 or 90, will he remember this beach and this inaugural experience, with his daddy handing him the controls to the brightly-colored fish kite? In another 50 years, will my 5-year old grandson Soren remember that today on our walk home from Taylor Park, he and I hunted the terrain for acorns and 4-leaf clovers? In the final analysis, does it really matter? It happened, and we were there to witness it.
And yet I remain enamored by the very idea of memory. This past winter, our Wednesday Evening Film Society viewed the gentle 1999 Japanese film “After Life,” about which the late film critic Roger Ebert wrote:
“The people materialize from out of clear white light, as a bell tolls. Where are they? An ordinary building is surrounded by greenery and an indistinct space. They are greeted by staff members who explain, courteously, that they have died, and are now at a way-station before the next stage of their experience. They will be here a week. Their assignment is to choose one memory, one only, from their lifetimes: One memory they want to save for eternity. Then a film will be made to reenact that memory, and they will move along, taking only that memory with them, forgetting everything else. They will spend eternity within their happiest memory. That is the premise of Hirokazu Kore-eda’s “After Life,” a film that reaches out gently to the audience and challenges us: What is the single moment in our own lives we treasure the most?”
My challenge to the Film Society that January evening was a request that each person come prepared to share what one memory that he or she wishes to take with them into eternity. Their responses moved me enormously — from a childhood cross-country road trip to floating on a raft in a lake in the July sun to watching a spectacular Southwestern sunset with a remembered loved one. Not that I had any doubt of this before, but that evening our collective remembrances confirmed for me that the very best memories are not about successfully navigating bureaucracies, making a sale, a stellar performance review from your otherwise crazy boss, or scoring 50-yard line tickets to the Super Bowl. They are instead about those colorful yet sturdy fibers of everyday remembrances that once woven together, make up that rich and precious tapestry we call life.