I Remember It Well

telephoneMy parents told me stories about their families when I was growing up. Stories about them when they were growing up, and stories about their own parents and extended family.

I wish I’d listened better, remembered more. I wish I could ask if I’ve remembered correctly and to fill in the details. How ironic that just as I wanted to know more about who they were before I’d ever met them, they were both gone.

My mother was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease ten years ago. Seven years ago my father died. For the next eighteen months, as my mother and I struggled to construct an entirely new relationship based on her awareness of her illness, her widowhood, and my new position as her durable power of attorney, I also tried to help her resurrect her life’s memories. My mother now lives with a brain so fractured she cannot remember anything that happened even one minute before. My opportunity to question her about her childhood is long past.

Most of us know ourselves through our direct memories of the events that impressed us as we grew up, as well as through the stories other people tell about us. As my adult children age and my grandchildren grow up, the old family stories only I know are going to be lost. In fact, the incidents my parents told me so long ago are glimpses into lives so distant, their lifestyle is recognized as archaic and quaint. My grandkids, for instance, can’t imagine a time when everyone didn’t carry a cell phone. I’m not even certain when my parents’ parents would have gotten the first phones in their homes, but it’s a safe bet my parents would have ecstatically celebrated those old phones getting installed into their childhood homes when they were very young. I can only guess about the telephones, however, because neither of them ever told me about a time when their families might not have had a home telephone.

I remember from personal experience the telephones that were installed in our home in Trenton, New Jersey in 1954 because no one else was fortunate enough to have six phones with their own phone numbers. We were a very unique family.

My dad was a physician, starting his first private practice in part of our two-story Dutch Colonial house, converted to waiting, x-ray, and examining rooms, and his office. We needed two phones because one had to be dedicated to his medical practice, but the technology for putting more than one phone line on one device didn’t yet exist. In our kitchen, the two phones sat side by side, one for our family, the other for my dad’s practice so patients could reach him in an emergency any time of day or night, 365 days a year. Also for non-emergencies, but that’s another story. The double telephone system was also installed in my parents’ upstairs bedroom and of course in the medical office.

I am the only person left who remembers the wonderful day those phones were installed. My brother was too young to know how extraordinary our situation was, my sister wasn’t yet born. With my father now gone and my mother’s disease having long savaged her memory, only I recall the splendor of those two machines. None of the other kids at school had two telephones in their homes, plugged in side by side, with two different phone numbers, and in fact, we had six! I memorized the two phone numbers, one for our family, the other for dad’s medical office, which I was never supposed to use unless no other adult was near enough to answer. I can no longer remember the numbers but they were something like: MA (for Maple) 2-5873. Some folks still had party lines they shared with neighbors, where they could rudely listen to someone else’s phone conversation and save a few bucks for the risk of no privacy.

The few times I answered my dad’s office line, I used the professional voice and demeanor I’d practiced for just such an occasion, “Hello, this is Dr. Bonin’s office, can I help you?” I learned to write messages from people in distress, to get their names spelled correctly, to copy down their phone numbers, and to promise I’d have my dad call as soon as he came home. Big stuff for a six-year-old. Strut worthy. I saved lives. OK, maybe not, but I saved messages from patients.

Many families today don’t even have a land line. Instead, every member of the family has a cell phone with more technological intelligence than the space ship Explorer 1, launched on January 31, 1958 from Cape Canaveral. In the mid 1970s, the early days of mobile phones, owners looked exclusive walking around holding devices about the size of a quart milk box, chatting important information about plane flights and dry cleaning. Then phones became as small as a credit card, easily concealed and imparting status to folks picking up dry cleaning. Today they’re larger again but no thicker than a knife blade, and loaded with enough technology to sustain a computer, music, shopping lists, games, GPS,  movies, TV, personal calendars, Internet access, reading apps, a camera, and a – wait for it – cell phone. Sixty years after the installation of the six amazing, modern phones in our home, and today most people no longer need anything so clumsy and old fashioned. Archaic and quaint in less than a hundred years. Of course, no one talks on their phones anymore – they text. Too often while driving and ignoring present company.

As for me – I’m no longer the high tech envy of the kids at my school. I have an old fashioned flip phone, bought only because all pay phones were removed. It’ll be in my memoir someday.



Phone image courtesy Clip Art


Is there value in maintaining a list of memorable memories?

While out taking a drive and sipping coffee this weekend my thoughts drifted to a writing-related topic I pursue now and again:  Should I maintain a list of memorable-memories of my life?

Just to be clear, I’m not speaking about self-debate whether to begin writing a memoir.  I’m simply speaking of a list of one-sentence bullet points that describe a particular memory, maybe grouped or tagged in some fashion.

As I rounded a soft-bend in the road past a golf course and two horse paddocks, I realized just how amazing the human brain really is when you compare it to modern internet-based search engines.  The lookups are fast, accurate, and extremely detailed, but any form of verbal or written output is painfully slow in comparison.

To me, the value in maintaining a list of memorable-memories is simply to generate content for writing exercises.  Each one of us has hundreds of stories worth telling from the thousands of memories we hold inside.  These memories shape who we are, who we were, and who we’re going to be.

I’m interested to know your thoughts on the topic.  Have you tried this approach?  Has it worked?  Have you stuck with it, or has it fallen by the wayside?

Why I don’t like to write about where I live: a study in contradictions

I can’t remember exactly who told me that the heath in Thomas Hardy’s Return of the Native was a character. I wish I could remember, because I’d like to thank that person. Landscape as character has stuck with me since I first read that novel in tenth grade. And since then, I’ve gone looking for other such landacters or charscapes, if you will, in everything I read.

My memory of Egdon Heath, as it was named in Return of the Native, is as a wild, wind-swept, rain-pelted, snow-encrusted, greedy place—a hungry thing that shrunk and grew with the seasons, and against which the tragedies of the human characters played out. It’s been quite a while since I read Return of the Native, and so my memory of its characters is a bit cloudy. Yet, when I think of that novel—and the heath in particular—I am hit with strong images, with a sense of things, rather than specific, or even accurate, plot points. For example, as I was thinking about this post, I was sure that Eustacia, one of the main human characters, had died as a result of exposure on the heath. After flipping through my book, I realized that my memory had misled me (spoiler alert): she had, in fact, thrown herself into a nearby river and drowned. My point is that what I recall of the heath has more to do with its personality traits—bleak, vindictive, unrelenting—rather than actual plot points.  My memory of Egdon Heath is fuzzy around the edges, and not quite specific.

When I think about landscape in my own writing, I notice that the landscape that I currently exist in is not the one I want to write about. I have many theories for this, and they contradict: there’s a war between clarity and obscurity. Maybe I feel like I’m too close to the current landscape to see it clearly; a true assessment of its characteristics wouldn’t be possible. It’s like the inability to point out a new lover’s flaws—you are too close and too in love to see them. Or maybe I see my current landscape as mundane, old hat, boring snoring. I’m living in it and with it, and what is there to say? It’s bland and lacks character because I see it every day.  Or maybe I just want some distance so I can love the old landscape again, so I can give it its rightful (or at least fairer) characteristics.

I think avoiding the current landscape for the past ones has something to do with the way that I remember Egdon Heath. Living in/with a landscape is perhaps too precise, too fact-driven. Reflecting on a past landscape is more imagistic, sensory, feelings-based. As with any memory of things past, I revise, reshape. Sometimes I remember things worse than they were, or better. The terrible relationship becomes a funny story, where my own ridiculous decisions are played up as comedy, as opposed to focusing on the 12,000 times I sat in my room and cried.

I like remembering the small, seaside town of Aberystwyth, Wales where I lived for a year, as a windy, damp, moody place, with tiny streets, quintessentially British architecture, and idyllic countryside dotted with old churches and graveyards. I don’t like remembering the specificity of the damp (my clothes dotted with mold, the stubbornness of my coal fireplace to light), or the remoteness of the town that frequently drove me to boredom. Or rather, it’s not that I don’t want to remember those things, but that I didn’t want to write about them when I was in it. I wanted to wait, until I could see all of it a bit more hazily, until I could give it some context and gain some perspective (or maybe at least until I could reach in my closet for a dress that wasn’t mold-wracked). But perspective in this case, for me, meaning less clarity. Or does it? What kind of perspective does distance and time give to something? If I return to Egdon Heath and the way I remembered it, I could say, on one hand, that I have a terrible memory and that I’m just wrong about the heath; on the other hand, I could say, my impression of the heath is true, my hazy memory of it is what matters.

And as far as Aberystwyth goes, now, I can use the town in my writing based on my broad strokes of memory—I can create mood and temperament more dramatically, perhaps, because of the distance from the actual place. I can create Aberystwyth, the character, with its seaside arcade, its ruined castle, its university, and Constitution Hill, that looked out over Cardigan Bay. I can make it moody and dreary, with unwelcoming bus drivers who resent my inability to speak Welsh. Or I can make it cheerful, with the sun shining, the seaside promenade bustling with walkers, the wind mild, and the waves rolling peacefully inward. I can create these two, seemingly contradictory characters, because really, Aberystwyth was both, and I can see that better or worse, now.