I stand in front of my students searching for a word. Their names escape me. I know they are there, somewhere, but for a moment they are on hiatus, gone on a brief vacation without letting me know when they’d be back. I move on, convinced that obsessing will not help me. And then, there they are again, wanting to come back inside where it is warm and safe and familiar. Today’s lecture, ironically, is on memory.
Several years ago we gathered for a family reunion. On Thursday morning my father offered, as he always did, to make banana pancakes. It never seemed to matter much that no one liked banana pancakes. Dad just liked to make them.
At cleanup, my 6’5” baby brother came up to me. “Take a look at this,” he said, holding the bag of pancake mix in his hands. In faded black ink, on the back of the package were the words “Best if used by June 2004”. As it was nearly a year and a half beyond that date, it caused a bit of a reaction from those of us who still maintained the ability to read labels.
“Don’t mind that,” said my other brother, “It’s just best by that time, it’s still good.”
My brother-in-law would disagree. He lives by the two day rule. After two days, it’s no longer edible. To Uncle Phil, a retired New York City fireman with a booming voice and and eyes that twinkle, there is no such thing as leftovers. After the meal is over, it’s all “gahbage”.
My mother forgets things. Silly things, like where the vegetable peeler is or where she left her reading glasses. Important things, like where she is and what she is doing there. Sometimes it is funny. “Did you know your Nana used to be a writer?” she asked my 11-year-old son who was on the school newspaper at the time.
“Yes Nana,” he said patiently, with the ears of someone hearing it for the first time. Remarkably, not only had she already told him this three times in the past 30 minutes, but the wording was verbatim.
“How does she do that?” I wondered to myself.
“Why does Nana tell me the same things over and over?” he asked, innocently.
“It comes from years of repeating herself,” I tell him. “You won’t believe how many times she had to tell me more than once to clean my room.”
Memory is a tricky thing. As a child I’d slide up next to her on the green leather couch in the living room and marvel at her ability to do the New York Times crossword puzzle “in ink,” as she liked to boast. I say marvel because I am lucky if I can fill in one or two answers. On Sundays she would sit after church, pen in hand, and slowly, methodically, fill in every one of those small squares, one by one.
At dinner we would play a game we came to call “It’s Your Nickel”. As children we were fortunate to travel all over Europe. “It’s Your Nickel” was an opportunity to remember what we had seen. “Who knows the river that runs through Rome?” she would ask. A nickel would go to whoever could shout out “Tiber” first.
I was never very good at this game. My brothers were better. They racked up more nickels than I. My mother, however, knew them all. She had researched, planned and guided every one of those trips. She knew every museum, restaurant, ruin, and street corner we had seen. She could even remember what we had to eat in each restaurant and what the specialty of the house was, even if we didn’t order it.
Her mother lived to be 95. In her final years, she was a shell of her former self, her memory having left her many years before. Mom would go to visit her and Grandma did not know who she was. It was a painful ending to a life of a woman who lived for her children.
Grandpa died in 1995. He and Grandma had lived in separate rooms in the same hospital for several years. After the funeral, my uncle and I went to tell her that he was gone. It was a moment that I will not forget. She did not recognize us. We spoke to her for a long time and she thanked us profusely for coming.
“It was so nice of you to come and see me,” she said without an ounce of recognition in her face. “Do you have family here you are visiting?”
Yes Mama,” my uncle replied. “We are here to see you.”
We held her hands, both he and I, and looked into her eyes. “Mama, Papa died on Friday. He is in heaven now,” my uncle whispered. Her eyes filled with tears.
“He was a wonderful man,” she recalled with a longing that was palpable. For a brief moment, she was back.
Last night, as we sat down to dinner, I asked my oldest, “Do you have any homework this evening?”
He rolled his eyes and shook his head in disbelief. “Mom, you’ve already asked me that, twice.”
And he’s probably right, old what’s his name. There are days when I feel like that expired bag of pancake mix.
I just hope my brother was right.