I’m fascinated by memory. Not so much as to what it is—something to do with reactivating connections between different parts of the brain that were active at some previous time in my life—as to how it works, especially as to why as I get older, I can remember scenes from my childhood more clearly than I can recall what I had for breakfast yesterday.
I know my memories are triggered by those sights, sounds, smells, and tastes through which I perceive the world. For example, last week we had an old fashioned “blizzard,” (as opposed to the rain/sleet/snow mess we usually get nowadays) and as I sat at my desk listening to wind roaring like the ocean, and looked out at the snow slanting through the fir trees behind our house and swirling in great clouds off my neighbor’s roof across the street, I was transported back to similar sounds and sights as I lay in my bed with the covers pulled up to my ears listening to George Hunter, “The Big Man from Freeport,” (“Well, good mornin’! This is an awful nice kind of a mornin’, ain’t it?”) give the no-school announcements on the radio. We had far fewer snow days back then because most kids lived within walking distance of school and what buses we did have never had to drive that far, so to have a snow day was a special occasion.
Not that I’d stay in bed any longer. A snow day just meant that much more time to play outside with my friends, building snow forts, having snowball fights, skating, and sledding. Last year’s Yarmouth Historical Calendar (that’s Yarmouth, Maine, for those of you reading this in other countries) has a picture taken in 1949 of what’s now called Marina Road, which shows the hill to the right where I remember sledding about that time. Today, trees dot that hill, making sledding impossible.
I have a vivid memory of walking home with some friends after sledding on that hill— the lights of town gilding the buildings in the late winter afternoon darkness—the vision of which somehow reminding me that last week, I read obituaries for two of my school classmates.
Of course, I don’t go running outside these days to play in the snow, but at some point during last week’s snowstorm, I did walk to the mailbox. What was unusual about that storm is that the temperature stayed around 20° instead of getting up into the 30°s as winter storms around here all seem to do in the 21st century, so that the crunch of snow and the cold wind that lifted the hood of my coat off my head and the tiny pellets of snow pricking my face reminded me of the chores I used to do , even on the worst of days: burning the trash in an oil drum behind our house, trying to strike a match with my numb fingers; and taking in the laundry from the clothesline with the clothes frozen solid on the line—trying to get those damned clothespins open and fold frozen pants into the clothes basket.
On my trip back from the mailbox I saw the crew that plows our drives and shovels our walkways arriving.
I seldom, if ever, see anyone plowing a driveway without thinking of my father shoveling our driveway—the slow, methodical way he would make squares in the snow with the edge of his coal shovel before digging in, as if he were cutting squares of cake. By the time I was old enough to help him, Dad had not only his own driveway to shovel, but also the wide walkway to the First Parish Church where, with three children to feed and clothe, he’d taken on a second job as sexton.
One Sunday after a snowstorm, he and I were shoveling out before the church service. I must have been about twelve and I’m sure I wasn’t happy about having to spend Sunday morning shoveling snow and then turning around and having to go to church. We reached the end of the walkway when we struck a ridge of ice under the snow, so that I hit my shovel and lost all the snow before I could lift it. In frustration, I drove the blade of the shovel again and again against the ice.
“Just drop your handle,” Dad said. In my memory, he’s still taller than I am, dressed in a topcoat and fedora.
I looked at him. “What?”
“Drop the handle of your shovel.”
“Look, just drop the handle!”
So, instead of lowering the handle to change the angle of the shovel’s blade the way he meant, I let go of the handle and watched it fall on the ground.
“You goddam fool,” my father said, in that cigarette-cured voice I can still hear thirty-seven years after his death.
I guess those who study memory and how it works don’t agree on this, but one article I read recently says that our brains don’t store memories, our brains are memories, are continually remaking themselves based on what we’ve experienced. And at the same time, the very act of remembering is also remaking our memories.
Take this last scene with my father, for example. A few years ago, when I was going to my first Adult Children of Alcoholics meetings and recalled that Sunday morning, I felt my father’s negativity and bitter sarcasm, re-experienced my shame for being “a goddamned fool,” shame that has been the driving force in my life. Dad was, I thought, probably hungover. Today, however, aware of his rootless, lonely childhood, and that we didn’t have enough money in those days for him to drink the way he did later in his life, feeling the love in the way he gripped my shoulder the day before he died and realizing I am now thirteen years older than he was that day, I see my father smiling as he looks at the snow shovel I’ve dropped on the church walk, hear “you goddamn fool,” as a term of endearment.
Is one of these memories more accurate than the other? Who knows? What interests me is what the way I’ve reinterpreted the story says about who I’ve become. Most of my memories lately tend toward the nostalgic, even idyllic. Especially toward those people, places, and things that have disappeared from my life. People like my parents and grandparents, places like sledding hills and clotheslines, things like snowstorms, even winters themselves, or at least the winters of my youth. They’re all gone and without memory to keep them part of me, I’d be a little less whole each year.
With these memories, however, which I continually rework, remake, augment, I feel myself becoming more whole as I age. I’m grateful and this gratitude colors, I’m sure, how I experience my past.
Best of all, I don’t have to go out into zero degree weather and bring in frozen laundry to do it.