On Memory From Memory
By Joan Heartwell
My friend Ollie was the only child of elderly parents who loved her so much they followed her to Fort Lauderdale when she moved there from Rhode Island after college in the mid 70s. But while they adored her, they came to despise each other, and before the decade ended, they divorced. Ollie’s mom moved to one side of town and settled into a condo with a woman Ollie’s friends were told to refer to as “the aunt.” Her father moved to the other side of town, into a small cottage, alone.
Being a dutiful daughter, Ollie tried to split her time between them, but it was not easy because she had to work her visits around court time; Ollie lived to play tennis. All day every day, she either played or gave lessons or watched other people play at events or on TV. But as her parents and the aunt got older, they required more than just her company. Her mom and the aunt needed her to drive them to doctors’ appointments, help with groceries, and maintain the house. Her father, who became increasingly cranky with the years, couldn’t seem to enjoy a pot of coffee without someone to argue with while he drank it.
By the time her mom started showing signs of dementia and her father became diagnosed with an array of physical afflictions, caretaking had become an almost full-time job for Ollie. She was still playing tennis, of course, but she was squeezing her games in between hasty caretaking trips back and forth across a city that was even then notorious for its traffic.
When the aunt became senile as well, Ollie, always a creative thinker, came up with a fabulous (albeit outrageous) idea: her mother and the aunt were no longer lucid; her father was lucid but desperately lonely. Why not put them all into the same house and get all the caretaking done at the same time?
And that is exactly what she did. Ollie moved her father into the condo with her mother and the aunt, and until all three died (within just a few years of one another), she took the best possible care of each of them, all together. And they loved it. Since her mother and the aunt were uncomprehending, they had no idea that they were living with the much-hated father, and since the father was perfectly comprehending, he had enough sense to keep his mouth shut and count himself lucky to have their company. Ollie says that every now and then the aunt would stand up and point an arthritic finger at her father and shout, “That man!” But then the moment would pass and she would slowly sit down again, having forgotten what it was she had been about to say. Her mother would only giggle. She rather liked the cantankerous geezer who had come to live with them. And so, it turned out to be a grand slam for everyone.
Whenever I am with a group of people and the subject turns to memory, I always tell Ollie’s story. It usually gets a few laughs, but it can also be the gateway to a more serious discussion about what it means to remember…and what it means to forget. Imagine forgetting that you hate someone you once loved, and having the chance to encounter them again as if for the very first time.
Once, when I was a young woman, I complained to my best friend Denise that as a kid my father never spent any quality time with me. Denise was aghast. My father had swung me in circles in the driveway, she insisted; he’d taken me sleigh riding, to the pony rides, the bow and arrow range… On and on she went, describing all sorts of activities we’d engaged in. And as she enumerated them, some of the memories came back to me, and I concluded that my father had not been so bad after all. Denise’s father had had a heart attack and died when we were little kids. Certainly that’s why she remembered my early relationship with my father so well. But why hadn’t I remembered it?
On the other hand, she still doesn’t believe me when I tell her that she was party to a terrible thing that we did when we were ten or eleven. We stuffed my father’s old clothes with pillows and other assorted materials and made a life-sized doll and threw it down onto the highway from the overpass above. It was the night before Halloween, “Goosey Night” we called it in my neighborhood, and lots of kids did things they wouldn’t have thought to do any other night of the year. They filled paper bags with dog feces and ignited them on neighbors’ stoops; they put gum on doorbells for trick-or-treaters to find the next night; they decorated whole blocks with toilet paper; and they hid behind shrubs to throw eggs at passersby.
In this Goosey Night context, making a man-sized dummy and throwing it down on the highway seemed appropriate to me, right up until we did it. What were we thinking? Thank goodness back in those days there was not the kind of traffic in my home town that there is now. But what traffic there was screeched to a halt, with at least one car fishtailing slightly, and we saw immediately that what we had done was very wrong, that we had created potential for real life-threatening danger. What a horrible realization it was for me. And I have never forgotten it. But Denise insists it was someone else I had been with that night, not her.
Perhaps the memory (or the guilt) was worse for her than for me, and she blocked it out entirely. Or perhaps she’s right and it was another friend!
In a more recent instance of memory dysfunction, a high school friend found me on the Internet and we began emailing. When summer came, she invited me out to her house on the coast of Maine for a weekend. I went, and it was pleasant to see her again. But we could not make our school-day memories fit. It was as if we had come together with puzzle pieces from two different boxes and were trying to make one image from them. I remembered trips to her parents’ beach house, boys and cigarettes, a ferry boat ride, her eating a raw clam right from the shore. “I do this all the time,” I remember her saying when I expressed shock. She remembered almost none of that. She remembered an intimacy I don’t recall ever having with her. I was her best friend for a time, she insisted. She’d told me all about the problems her parents were having, that her father was abusive, that he hit her mother, that he yelled at her relentlessly. “Don’t you remember?” she kept asking me during that visit. And I felt so guilty for not remembering that finally I said I did, I did remember just a little.
Once, when I was in my twenties, a friend and I were sailing a very small sailboat on a windy day on a small lake. The boat was made of Styrofoam, very light, and sure enough a gust of wind knocked it over and threw us into the water. It was startling to go over so quickly, to not have seen it coming. When we had untangled ourselves from the lines and righted the little boat, I happened to notice an elderly woman standing on the shore watching the whole ordeal. “Now that you’ll remember!” she called out. Her declaration was almost as startling as the boat going over.
What makes us remember one thing over another? How could Denise forget our terrible game and yet remember my father twirling me in the driveway? My father was a big strong man. Why can’t I remember what it felt like to have him hoist me up into the air? How I would appreciate that memory now.
I had a boyfriend in the eight grade by the name of Thomas Waterson. His house had a finished basement and his mom allowed him to have parties every few weeks. I was painfully shy back then, and I did not converse with grownups under any circumstances. When Thomas’ mother opened the door to usher me in, I mumbled monosyllabic answers to her questions (How was I? How was the walk over? How was I liking school? Did I want a glass of water?) while looking at my feet, and the first opportunity I got, I turned and bolted down the basement stairs.
After Thomas and I broke up, I began “going steady” with his best friend, Eric. Once when Eric and I were walking home after school he said to me, quite matter-of-factly, “Mrs. Waterson says you have no personality, but I like you anyway.”
Oh the pain! Oh the agony! I knew even then that it was an unfair thing to say, that of course I had a personality hiding beneath my shy outer shell. Nevertheless, all through my teens I heard those words blasting in my head. They would explode anew whenever someone commented on my shyness, for of course I would be wondering if they too might make the same assumption. Poor Mrs. W. I’m sure she would be flabbergasted if she learned what an influence she’d had on my early life, that, in fact, I think about her now and then even to this day. (I picture her as June Cleaver, standing at the sink in a cotton shirtwaist covered with a ruffled apron, her disparate observations about her son’s friends less a show of hostility than a half-hearted attempt to offset boredom with stream of meaningless prattle.)
Wouldn’t it be lovely to be able to choose the moments to remember ten or twenty-five or fifty years into the future? A kiss, an embrace, words of love? Wouldn’t it be wonderful in the midst of some precious event to hear an old woman calling from the shore, “Now that you’ll remember,” and then remembering it just so, maybe just because she said it?
In his memoir Speak Memory, Vladimir Nabokov professed to be able to remember some things in such great detail that he could say of particularly happy memories, “That robust reality makes a ghost of the present.” It’s lovely to remember the good memories so keenly, but what about the hurtful ones, the ones with the power to ruin our lives? If they were to make a “ghost of the present,” who would want to go on living? Interestingly, Nabokov also notes that he had caused some of his best memories to fade or become distorted by applying them to people and situations in his memoirs and novels.
I find this to be true in my own writing, both in fiction that relies on truth and in memoir, or writing from memory based more or less directly on the truth. After I have written something that began as truth—thought about it, changed it, polished it, deleted parts, put it back together, and polished it again—I find that I have weathered it down. Like a piece of sea glass, the painful memories lose their sharp edges and become benign; the good ones acquire a frosty patina that renders them more interesting—some become almost jewel-like—than before, but less vivid. And so it is. Writing offers at least the possibility of a grand slam, allowing truth, fiction, imagination and even fancy to reside in a space neutralized by their collective presence.
Thank you so much for this wonderful blog post Joan! My readers will be enthralled at all the wonderful information that you provided for them.