My memory has been giving me trouble lately. I’d tell you how long it’s been coming up short, but I can’t even remember that. I’m talking about memories of events from my teens, twenties, thirties–basically everything up til maybe five years ago. I try to remember the details of a trip, or an old friend, or a club I used to visit a lot, and come up empty. At other times, people ask me, “Hey, remember the time…” and it sounds like they’re talking about someone else’s life. This incomplete history is especially troubling for me professionally–what’s a writer supposed to do, after all, except stitch together the fabric of old ideas and new experiences to elicit reactions in readers? At this rate, I’ll have to invent EVERYTHING I write, and not just the material that doesn’t jibe with the wild generalizations I’m making.
The last five weeks of the year, of course, are when memories become the part and parcel of all our activities. Whether embracing or running from one’s past, one can’t escape from the fact: the holiday season runs on memories. I took the family to Detroit for Thanksgiving to spend it with my mom and brother’s family. Memories good and bad sprung up constantly, all set against a background of a city I don’t recognize anymore.
This year my mom finally finished putting together a photo album for me, of childhood pictures when I was cute as a puppy’s navel to my teenage years when…words fail me. Let’s just say I wasn’t cute anymore. She included all my class group pictures from ol’ Sacred Heart Grade School on Michigan Avenue, even one from first grade. At first I could name off just about every other babyface in the collection…
Art and Craig Champagne.
Then, an hour later, the names of the faces I’d missed started coming back to me…
And for the next four days, names would come back to me. During the day. Middle of the night. In the middle of a conversation. Every single name, it seemed, was somewhere to be found in my neurons….
Mary Ann Mosey.
I haven’t tested myself against the eighth grade master photo I have packed away someplace. For more than a couple reasons, I’m scared to. With a couple of exceptions, I haven’t seen any of these people since Nixon was president, I only went on to high school with one of the 60, and I can’t really say I was friends with more than a handful. (That’s not to deny the bond that kids have in a parish school through the years.) It staggers me that the names keep bubbling up from the amber, when the rest of my memory is so balky, stubborn and incomplete. What an odd mechanism in the grey matter. How the hell does it get me through the day?