This I Believe: I Believe in Memory
I believe in memory.
I teach memoir writing to the elderly. As my 70 and 80-year-old students use the rusted tool of memory to dig their stories out of the past, I am continually amazed by memory’s power to effect miracles – to reverse time, to heal ancient wounds, to bring the dead back to life.
Memory has the power to preserve what the historians and the museums do not – those precious, everyday details that might have been lost forever. 86-year-old June, raised in Pasadena, California in the 1920’s when the town consisted of only chicken farms, describes how pungent bales of hay served as makeshift steps to cross fences separating field from field. From Zan, a former World War II chaplain, we see the faces, damp from tears and perspiration, of young servicemen singing “Silent Night” one muggy Christmas eve aboard a Navy ship in Guam Harbor.
I have witnessed the power of memory to cure what was thought to be incurable. My students are from the generation who know little of analysts’ couches; so the process revisiting old wounds brings revelations. Describing for the first time her father’s coldness and impatience, 84-year-old Gaby finally comes to understand the loneliness that has haunted her entire life. Tears in our workshop are commonplace. Tears are a good sign, I tell them.
I believe in the awesome power of memory to actually turn back time. While our short-term memory may ravel with age, long-term memory – where the treasures lie – stays intact. The miracle of time travel occurs when images and events, long buried in some mysterious, archival section of the brain, become dislodged by the writing process. The details that return from decades ago can be breathtaking. The sunlight glinting off the family Oldsmobile one hot Saturday, as Helen’s husband drove off for a five-minute errand that would leave her a widow with five young children. How the sound of Adolph Hitler’s voice screaming over the radio in 1938 Stuttgart made the table beneath it vibrate as 8-year-old Ilse huddled with her parents on the sofa.
Perhaps memory’s greatest gift is to bring back the dead. Long-gone loved ones can magically reappear in the process of writing. It is the small things that bring them alive: The smell of dust and sweat on a stonecutter father’s shirt, embracing his daughter at the end of a workday. The veins in a mother’s wrist as she stirred dill into chicken soup for Shabbat dinner.
The memories are theirs, but the gifts are mine. Through their stories, I have received the painful, sweet awareness of how quickly a life can fly by. Knowing how dwindling is our time together, I cherish every story and every soul, in this brief time they remain.
But I am comforted, too. Because I believe in the power of memory to make us eternal. Memory allows us to do what is truly noble and timeless: to create art out of loss; to sculpt meaning from heartbreak. To give guidance and solace to those who come after us. To carve a permanent spot on this changing world that will soon enough be spinning without us.
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