The Insistence of Memory

The existence of forgetting has never been proved: We only know that some things don’t come to mind when we want them. – Frederich Nietzsche

I took Jon and Ella to go visit my grandfather yesterday. We’ve become semi-regular visitors to his bedside, making sure that we take advantage of the time we have to speak to him and let him know we love him. Pop interacts with us as best he can, but mostly he sleeps. The kids will usually end up playing on the floor in another room, zooming toys on top of my grandmother’s coffee table, losing themselves in their imaginations or in MawMaw’s stash of cookies. I usually find my way to the stool by Pop’s bed and wonder what it is I’m supposed to say.

So it was that MawMaw and I began talking about Pop’s father and how, before he passed away, he became an ornery old coot with a fading memory bolstered by his stubborn will.

“Oh, he could be awful,” she said. “He’d tell you that he had lived longer than you, so he knew good and well what was going on, and nobody was gonna tell him any different. Only you knew that he didn’t know what he was talking about.”

She mentioned Pop’s brother, who’s having some trouble remembering things lately. “His memory is starting to go like Papa Brooks’.”

Then she looked at Pop. “At least he still has his mind. And he’s obedient, which makes things easier.”

This isn't from my grandmother's house, but you get the idea...

It’s funny, but we end up talking about memory more and more when I go over there. Whether she brings up her own memories of things, or I bring up mine, the universal conversation piece seems to be what we carry with us from our past. Even Pop, when he’s having a good moment, likes to remember – everything from the trailer “up home” to the gardens he used to plant, and (unfortunately) embarrassing stories from my childhood. Memory surrounds you when you visit with them. Literally.

I mean, if you were to go and visit their home, you’d see nothing one might call “the latest” in anything. The refrigerator is at least 10 years old, the furniture probably twice that, and the walls are filled with photos or knick-knacks of another era, one in which their life together was robust and full of joy and adventure. Now, they have only what hangs on the walls to keep them connected to that time, and they are fiercely loyal to those mementos. Looking around the house, you can see that at some point in their life together they decided to not waste wall space on anything that wasn’t a bridge to the past.

The house itself is now an inhabited memory.

I had this truth reinforced for me when one of the students in my youth group visited and saw an especially heinous family photo from 1986, I believe. It’s a photo we’ve all asked MawMaw to take down, or at the very least burn, and one which she steadfastly refuses to touch. For her, it’s a cherished part of our family’s past, and she wants it front and center, I think, so we can each share our personal memory of that moment and thereby expand the collective memory for her. The picture itself is worthless, but for what it elicits from her children and grandchildren whenever we visit, you couldn’t give it a high-enough valuation.

And it becomes infectious, this remembering. Yesterday, long after our visit had concluded, I found myself thinking about their garden, how it had shrank from a massive, multi-site monstrosity capable of feeding the 101st Airborne into a simple half-acre plot that still manages to produce more vegetables than the local Kroger.

I was thinking about this because MawMaw sent me home with a sackful of her tomatoes, which – if you know me – is like sending Rosie O’Donnell home with a 12-pack of Slim Fast: it’s a nice gesture, but everyone knows it’s ultimately a waste.  But last night, while cooking dinner, I found myself staring at those tomatoes and thinking about how we used to shell butterbeans on MawMaw and Pop’s carport, the concrete cool and relaxing under your bare feet. We’d shell bushels of butterbeans – speckled-heart, brown, you name it – and we’d sit there as a family, laughing at one another or shaking our heads in silence over the latest news of sickness among our community. And we’d switch from butterbeans to green beans to field peas, or if it was season, we’d shuck and silk corn. I can still smell the sweetness of a fresh ear of corn as you pull back the shucks to reveal the Satanic silk underneath. MawMaw or someone else would tell us how corn silk was used to make doll hair way back when, and we’d roll our eyes as if this were the lamest thing we’d ever heard, but secretly we’d wonder what it was like to have a homemade doll.

Not that boys wanted homemade dolls, mind you. We were just curious.

So many memories came flooding back to me yesterday after our visit that I got distracted and reached into the oven to pull out a skillet of green beans and forgot to use an oven mitt.

Fortunately, I neither dropped the skillet nor held on to it too long. But my hand did get red, and I bit my lip to keep from cussing. I immediately ran cold water over my hand and had Rachel get me a cold ice pack. And that’s when the next round of memories hit me: I began thinking of my cousin and her being chosen as a “fire-talker”.

I still don’t understand what “fire-talking” is, mainly because I’ve never had it done to me personally. But in the little community where MawMaw and Pop lived, there were, I think, two people – a man and a woman – who had the ability to come around and talk the fire out of a bad burn. These people would literally come to your house, take your burned hand or arm or leg in their hands, put their mouth next to the burned area and begin speaking. What they would say, I don’t know; why it had to be whispered, I really don’t know; but it was as close to the supernatural as we ever came as kids.

I still remember how Kristi was chosen to be the next generation fire-talker. See, the tradition held that the male fire-talker had to choose a younger female to whom he could pass his gift, and Kristi was selected. I was so jealous; I don’t know if I’ve ever copped to this or not, but I so badly wanted to be a fire-talker. I wanted to know what it would be like to have some sort of juju power coursing through my veins. In my mind I had made this gift out to be like a superpower, and I was totally into superpowers. So when my cousin was tabbed, I got jealous.

But all of that’s beside the point; the point is, memory is on my mind constantly, and when I burned my hand, I longed for the days of my childhood, when the fire-talker was just across the road, and could be at your house within minutes of you being burned to help take the pain away. I immediately went to another place and time, one replete with smells and sights and sounds, an entire other universe that exists within my own mind through the power of memory.

And whenever I visit Pop, whether it’s the reality of his condition or the walls full of reminders, I’m floored again and again by the insistence of memory on the part of my grandmother; not just that we shouldn’t forget, but dang it, as long as she has wall space and a hammer, we will NOT forget. Ever.

Which brings me back to what MawMaw said about my Papa Brooks and my grandfather’s brother, how their memory started going long before their physical health did. As sad as it is to see my grandfather imprisoned by his own body, it’s nowhere near as sad as it would be if he were trapped in his own mind. I would rather have him physically challenged, but mentally present and able to recall the past than have him be the opposite.

So many thoughts, so many memories – some I’ve not been able to recall in years – are keeping me company during this time in our family’s history. One day, those memories will be all I have.

But they will be enough, because they will be full. The little home on Lenora Church Road makes certain of that.

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