Recently, one afternoon in the car with Grace, a song came on the radio and I heard her wistful voice from the backseat, “The first time I heard this song was with Audrey on the way to the Solstice.”
I nodded. As it often does, my mind hopscotched to another place, thinking about how often a song has triggered a memory for me too. And also of one of the topics I mull the most often: the confounding nature of memory, and the peculiar way that most of our lives blur into a colorful slurry of recollection while certain moments stand out, brilliant, crystalline. And of the ways that these moments are very rarely those we think they’ll be. They are often the smallest moments, insubstantial as we live them. Very rarely I can recall being aware, even in an experience, that I will always remember it; there’s a shimmer in the air and a corresponding tingling like every cell of my body was especially porous. In those moments I always think of Wordsworth: “In this moment there is life and food for future years.” But far, far more often, I am amazed by the memories that endure, bright and complete, and, equally, by those that do not.
I am fascinated by what we remember, and why.
I’m sure there is some message in the moments that remain after our memories of the rest of our life sifts through our fingers. I just haven’t discerned it yet. They still seem random to me, shifting around like shards in a kaleidoscope, different ones rising to the surface, bidden by any number of small triggers (a song, a smell, a person, or something less identifiable). I keep thinking of the night sky, and how you squint to see stars, and by drawing lines between them you discern constellations. I’m sure that could be done with my memories, but I don’t yet know what shapes they form.
All I have as of now is these bright pebbles of memory, shined to brilliance by being turned over and over in my mind like a stone in my hand.
Like sitting in my college roommate’s parents’ car outside the grocery store in Nantucket, waiting for another one of our friends, the sun hot outside, singing along to Edwin McCain singing I’ll Be.
Like the sensation of goosebumps running up and down my arms and then the wild, unbidden, uncontrollable tears as I walked down the aisle at the end of my grandmother’s funeral, my cousin, who held her ashes, walking right in front of me.
Like the bewilderment I felt as I spoke to Hadley on the phone on my way home from Trader Joe’s, a 10 day old Grace in the backseat, as I answered the simple question of “what did you get?” with a long pause as I struggled to remember. And then, “Wine. And almonds.”
Like the ache I felt as I sat at preschool in Paris and watched my mother’s back disappear through the schoolyard’s large green gate. As the moments ticked by I held her image in my head, imagining her walking down the street, back to our apartment.
Like the certainty that descended on me as I stood on the steps of Blair Arch, the most famous and dramatic architectural feature on a campus full of them. It was a hot, sunny Labor Day, 1991, and I said firmly to my father, “Dad? I want to go to school here.”
Like the sound of hundreds of school girls singing “Tomorrow Shall Be My Dancing Day,” leaning out of classroom doors into the great hall fronted by an enormous organ, the air full of celebration and holiness, of youth and energy of a tangible sense of Christmas that I have neither forgotten nor matched.
Like the smell of candles and centuries in the crypt of the Assissi Cathedral as I battled sudden and unexpected emotion. My sister, standing next to me, caught my eye and in a single look made clear she understood that I was feeling something big and inchoate and that she was right there.
And now, I know Grace is beginning to string memories like pearls on the string of her life. Like hearing a song on the radio while driving to the very last Solstice Ball.
I’d love to hear your thoughts on what you remember, and any understanding you have as to why.