Saturday, September 7, 2013

The Power of Memory

“Nothing is ever really lost to us as long as we remember it.”
L.M. Montgomery, The Story Girl


                Autumn is nearly upon us. It has always been my favorite season, and as a teacher I mark time by my Septembers. For the past two years, one of my back-to -school bulletin boards has been an introduction to my life, so that my students can get a glimpse of who I am, and the things that have brought me here. The caption is THIS IS MY STORY…SO FAR.WHAT’S YOURS? A second caption reads, LET GOD BE THE AUTHOR OF YOUR STORY. This is meaningful for me, because as I look back, as the time rushes on more quickly each year, I see very clearly that He has been writing my story all along. That’s why memory is so powerful, I think. God has put into us the ability, not to merely recall, but to somehow be there. To be transported back to a moment and feel what we felt then, hear the sounds, the voices. The older I get, the more it seems to happen…and the more I remember.

                I am there in that kitchen in an Indiana farmhouse. It is a freezing winter night and my parents are getting ready to go to church because Mom has an extra practice with the children’s choir she leads. It is a few days before Christmas .My grandparents are with us for the holidays. Pappy is trying to tell an off-color joke, and Nonny is attempting to stop him. This proves futile-despite her interruptions,he makes it to the punch line.”He says you’re gonna die!”  I have not been listening to the joke and I am only five, but I laugh because my mother and siblings are laughing. Dad is, too, but he’s doing that thing where he shakes his head slowly from side to side, eyes closed, trying desperately to pretend he is displeased while in reality he is two seconds from laughing, too. My mother has given it up completely and is nearly in hysterics. Nonny is scandalized. “Oh, LAMAR!”  The talk then evolves into how many days it is until Christmas and who is getting the hat and scarf set with the Westville High School logo and how much that costs. (“It’s ONLY five bucks.”)  Mom and Dad head out into the snow and I watch my grandma mixing up the cookie dough and I snitch some when I think she isn’t looking, but she sees and rewards me with a big spoonful. I can taste its buttery sweetness. I am there.

                I am six.We are visiting friends in New Jersey. They have a big Great Dane named Athena, whom I adore. I am curled up against her on the rug in front of a roaring fire, and I slide off into sleep as the murmur of familiar voices drifts over me. The next day, the adults are off somewhere and I am watching the housekeeper as she washes dishes. I offer to help dry, like I do at home now that I am six. “No, baby,” she says. “I do the work I gets paid to do.”  Then she asks me a question. “Do you like black people?”  This is not a question I really understand, although it would most definitely have been a legitimate one to ask a little Southern-born white girl in 1972. But I have been taught to love everybody and skin color has never really been discussed as far as I can recall. I consider the question. To be honest, there are no black people in the Midwestern town where I live. This housekeeper is the first  African-American I have actually had the opportunity to know, and I do like her very much. So I answer the only way I can. “Yes, ma’am. I like all people.”  This must be an acceptable answer, for she grins broadly and gives me a peppermint.

                I am eight now. I am in Mrs.Cooper’s third-grade classroom in Texas…or maybe it’s Mrs.Edkins’s  fourth-grade classroom,at Spanish Fort School and I am nine…those memories tend to merge for me, those two supremely magical teachers, one black, one white, both with a passion for teaching and for literature.  It is their voices I hear when I read the “Little House” books, unless I am hearing the voice of my mother. It is a splendid harmony. My head is down on my desk. It is just after lunch and I have eaten my tuna sandwich and my Oreos and the clock is ticking slowly. I am imagining myself as Laura, running with my dog Jack across the prairie. At home I put on a long dress and pretend to be Laura. My dog Misty makes a satisfactory Jack. And then it is Halloween, and I am in my Laura costume.My sister has braided my hair and dotted my face with mascara freckles. I stand in line with Heidi and Holly and Matt and the other neighborhood kids to get served some “Witches’ Brew” punch from a cauldron. Our neighbor does this every year. Another neighbor, who is also our bus driver, gives out homemade cookies.We never get our candy X-rayed at the police station. We know everybody.

                Back to age seven and the chicken pox.Itching like crazy, I have been instructed not to scratch.It is miserable. Even the inside of my mouth itches. I am wearing one of my dad’s soft old T-shirts. I get out of bed and roll around on the carpet to try to relieve the itching. I am in the big bed in Mom and Dad’s room because I am sick. “Jeff’s Collie” is on. Mom brings me a tuna sandwich and chocolate chip cookies and again says I must not scratch. I’m not scratching, I’m rolling. She gives me the Mom Look and I stop. I nibble my sandwich and taste the mayonnaise. I look out the window at the bare branches of the February trees against the sky and for once wish to be at school. Dad comes home with a fairy tale book, grape popsicles, and a three-color pen. I love these three-color pens that he brings us from his office. I draw cartoon dogs and stick people. The next day he brings me markers in five different colors. They are the permanent kind because the washable kind has not yet been invented. They smell strong, like they might be combustible. They also bleed through the thin typing paper. I don’t care. I draw and draw.

                First grade classroom. Listening lesson from a recorded monotone voice. “Pick up your blue crayon. Circle the picture that goes with the sentence. ‘It is time for lunch’.”  Bored, I circle the picture of the clock with my fat blue crayon. I look at the clock. I am suddenly out in the snow fort in the backyard, and this time I am exploring Alaska with Misty, now turned into a faithful sled dog .The cold stings and bites and my mittens are icy. That stupid stocking cap is getting in my way, but I know I will strike gold soon. And then I am floating on the waters of the Gulf of Mexico and I am eleven and the sky is vast above me.  I find shells along the shore, some intact, some broken. I keep them all. I watch the sandpipers as they run along the beach leaving tiny tracks in their wake. I eat a tuna sandwich that has grit in it. The sun is hot. I am in a cafĂ© in New Orleans and we are having a powdered sugar fight that began by accident, and my mom is pretending to be angry at my dad because she now has sugar all over her black pants. 

                Under a tree with a book, I am so absorbed that I don’t even notice the banana popsicle melting in my hand. It is a summer day and the mosquitoes are buzzing and occasionally a dragonfly flits by. Misty is lying beside me, panting, little drops falling from her tongue. But I am Bilbo Baggins and I am headed for the Lonely Mountain, where Smaug lies in wait. Mom calls me for supper and I go and eat hamburger-pizza popover, my favorite, but I feel as though I have just awakened from a dream.  Now my brother is telling one of his dumb jokes and we are at a campsite somewhere in Georgia, eating Dinty Moore Beef Stew cooked over a Coleman stove. My brother has taken the Old Maid card from my deck and he won’t tell where he hid it, so I color with my new crayons that Mom got me just for the trip. The coloring book is the Munsters and I am coloring Herman green. Then I play with my Colorforms-Miss Cookie’s Moon Kitchen-and then we are in the car again, on our way to the family reunion and Uncle Julian’s boiled peanuts. Before I know it, it is Christmastime and we are at the tree farm with seven different opinions about which tree to get. At home Dad wrestles it into the stand and we decorate it and it is sparkling and beautiful. And then I am sixteen and I am at my friend’s house, spinning out record after record on the turntable, Pink Floyd and Styx and Pat Benatar, and the music of my world fills every corner of the room.Then I am here again, back in this house, the voices of my husband and children rising and falling on this Saturday morning. I sip my cup of green tea. I am infused with the power of memory, touched by it, blessed by it.

                Memory is not just vague pictures in my mind. Perhaps it is the writer’s gift, but for me memory is a state of being. And so nothing is ever really lost to me-not places or people or pets. I can go back and be there, watching my granddaddy jump around and sing “Dance With Me,Henry” while my Southern Baptist grandma pretends to be horrified. I can see the gray farmhouse and hear the soft lowing of the cows in the pasture at twilight,and watch the sun sink slowly and magnificently. I can sit there on the corral fence and lovingly stroke the nose and mane of my sorrel pony, and I can breathe in that horsey smell that is like no other smell in the world, and when I watch my daughter with her sorrel colt I can smile because I am there, in all the places I love with all the people and animals I have ever loved. It’s all here, a million little points of brilliant light.

                                                It is the power of memory.

“And the moral of the story is that you don’t remember what happened. What you remember becomes what happened.”
John Green