Thursday, April 21, 2011

The up side of aging memory

Elizabeth Zelvin

No, I’m not talking about how much easier it gets, the more we age, to forget whodunit when we put the book aside, so that we experience the joy of a fresh solution every time we reread a mystery—although it happens. I’m not even talking about how, no matter how many songs extol the passionate melancholy of “I will always love you,” when we Google him thirty years later and find he’s married and living in New Zealand, it doesn’t hurt any more—though that too is true.

Like most people, I have some early memories that have never left my mind, lodged there by some kind of mental superglue. Are they random or emotionally selective? Are they true memories, or do I just remember that I once remembered them, as I remember telling these stories over and over in the course of my life? I don’t know. But on some level, I have never forgotten them. I can call up the image of scribbling in crayon on the margin of another little girl’s Bugs Bunny coloring book; of my first grade teacher breaking it to me that I didn’t know everything; of my seventh grade classmates applauding when I returned to class after winning a big spelling bee—and not applauding when I lost the next round. I even remember the word I misspelled that time, back in 1955.

Do the math, and you’ll know I’m no spring chicken. The older I get, the more I experience the truth of certain platitudes. The parent’s warning: “Wait till you have children!” Yes, whatever one’s transgressions as a child, the tables get turned when the next generation comes along. The French saying, Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose. “The more things change, the more they stay the same.” Look at politics—any level, any time—for examples of that one. Another French one: Si la jeunesse savait, si la vieillesse pouvait. “If youth only knew, if the old only could,” an irony I find playing out in life in all sorts of situations.

But something new and marvelous has been happening to me lately: I’ve been retrieving fifty-year-old memories that were lost until some incident or object, a Proustian madeleine, triggered the recollection. I couldn’t find on Google (on the first page of Google, anyhow) how old Proust was when the dipping of a cookie in linden tea unleashed a flood of memories, seven volumes’worth, in fact. The trigger in this case was smell, although I read a passage about how simple words spoken on film or video in a forgotten childhood language triggered vivid memories of the writer’s (a blogger’s, not Proust’s) grandparents. The phenomenon is called involuntary memory.

My memories have been unlocked not by anything as precise as a scent or a word, but floated up into consciousness in the course of relevant encounters. With half a dozen friends from junior high, I heard one of our number read a passage about his father at a bookstore signing. This group has talked about our friend’s father many times since we all rediscovered each other fifty years later: he was our favorite teacher, and we adored him. On this occasion, the son happened to read a line about how after having a heart attack, his dad went right back to “all his former habits.” And all of a sudden, there was my madeleine: a vivid memory of Mr. C.’s breath. “Your dad smoked,” I said, “right? Did he also use very strong cough drops?” “He did. After he died,” the son said, “we joked about Vick’s going out of business.”

If you’re of a certain age, you may remember actress/singer Elly Stone, who popularized in English the works of francophone/Flemish chansonnier Jacques Brel. I ran into Elly, now over eighty, sat across from her at dinner, actually, at a party given by mutual friends. It wasn’t till late in the evening that I realized she must be that Elly. “Jacques Brel, right?” She confirmed it. As it happens, although I knew of her association with the Brel songs, I had never paid much attention to them. After spending two years in the Peace Corps in francophone West Africa, I had been crazy about Jacques Brel himself and listened to his songs (and sang some of them) in the original French. But I remembered Elly Stone all right, and this memory, too, came out of fifty-year storage for the occasion. “I see you on the stage at Carnegie Hall,” I said. “You were wearing a bright green strapless evening gown.” “Oh, yes,” she said. “It was a Givenchy, and it was absolutely the wrong thing to wear to a hootenanny, but I didn’t care. I loved that dress.”

When did this Carnegie Hall hootenanny take place? Wikipedia tells me it might have been 1958 or 1959. Elly told me which of these two years she wore the green dress—but I can’t remember.


Paul said...

Nice post.

Elizabeth Zelvin said...

Thanks, Paul. I can't stop the aging process, so I might as well explore the silver lining. :)

Sheila Connolly said...

I remember being able to spell "llama" at the beginning of first grade, which rather annoyed my teacher. I wasn't supposed to be able to read yet, but I got bored with the slowpokes in the class, and when I got bored, I made trouble. (Should I mention that my first grade class was held in a Quaker stable?)

Don't you feel that there's an almost physical process to retrieving those buried memories? You have to stop yourself and focus: "I know it was raining, and I was wearing my good shoes..." and then all the rest of it emerges and coalesces. Nice to know those memories are all still there somewhere.

Kate Gallison said...

I've been getting pleasant little flashes for the past few years, triggered by nothing I can think of: the snake dance in downtown Crystal Lake the first year we lived there, dusk on a fall day,faint smell of burning leaves, everyone holding hands, cheering, winding through the streets, occasioned by the high school football team winning the first game of the year--the smell of Hill's General Store in St. Stephen, N.B. (my great-uncles' store), and the first gift of summer from my great-uncle, a licorice Ganong's lollipop. It's all there in exquisite detail. This morning I forgot to eat breakfast.

Sandra Parshall said...

Memory is an endlessly fascinating subject. I devoured Daniel L. Schector's Searching for Memory when I was writing The Heat of the Moon. (The working title of that book was Memory, because memories drive the story.) More is being learned every day. The most fascinating thing to me is that every person remembers an event differently, so there may be no objective truth about what happened. And eyewitness accounts of crimes are notoriously unreliable.

Some memories really do vanish if they don't have time to become encoded in the brain (that's why we usually can't recall the moments before an accident that knocked us unconscious) or if they're never retrieved. The best way to keep your memories alive is to sort through them regularly.

Elizabeth Zelvin said...

Kate's description sounds like exactly the kind of thing I was talking about.

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