Thursday, June 28, 2007

Memory and memories

When I was about twelve years old, I was given a detention by my music teacher because I had forgotten to take my descant recorder to school. She set me to write an essay called 'Memory' and I, being a smart alec kind of kid, wrote a sarcastic piece on how the memory fails. I started with what I called 'minor lapses' such as leaving home in one's pyjamas, putting the cat in the oven, or leaving the baby in the garden for three days and progressed to the sign of the ultimate collapse of order i.e. leaving one's recorder at home. I have always assumed that essays written in detention must be consigned to the bin unread because I didn't get into trouble for this bit of juvenile cheek. Now that I'm older and, hopefully, a little more sensible, I am beginning to see that memory plays a vital role in defining who and what we are.

The MM has gone to Greece with my brother for a few weeks; I drove him to the railway station this morning and on the 50 mile drive home I listened to a wonderful interview of Phyllis Diller on the radio, celebrating her 90th birthday. She sounded as sharp as ever, recounting anecdotes, telling some of her famous one-liners and also commenting intelligently on social issues that had affected her life. I wouldn't mind having her sense of recall when I get to 70 never mind 90 years old.

Listening to her ability to recall the past in such detail, I was inevitably drawn to compare her with my mother-in-law, Dorothy, who was 90 in November last year. Dorothy is physically fit but her short-term memory is poor and she gets very confused; family members take it in turn to visit her every day to remind her to shower, to take her pills and to prepare her meals. Sometimes she is fine and her old sense of humour shows but on other occasions she cannot remember what she did five minutes before. Last week, my husband took her out to lunch then left her a meal in the fridge, to be heated in the microwave the next day; walking home, he realised he had left something behind and went back to find his mother eating the meal intended for the following day. Not only had she forgotten that she had been out to lunch but the normal physical reminders (feeling full) weren't operating.

Until two years ago, mother-in-law was a very gifted and popular after-dinner speaker on the local circuit. Fortunately we have her notes and some tape recordings of her speaking of her experiences between 1946 and 1960 in what is now Zimbabwe. It is sad to think that little of this remains in her memory, although odd fragments come to the surface occasionally. She recently reminded everyone that she had once addressed a full audience at the Albert Hall; she described the occasion in great detail but, when asked what she had spoken about she couldn't remember at all.

On our recent visit to London, the MM and I went to see the Royal Air Force Museum. My late father-in-law was a bomber pilot during WW ll and my husband has been researching his experiences. There is a Wellington bomber in the museum and we took pictures and mementoes back for Dorothy, which seem to trigger memories from the war years. We have discussed the possibility of taking her to London to see the Wellington; I think the difficulties of getting her there, knowing that within hours she will have forgotten the whole experience, are not worth the effort; the MM wants to do it because it would mean such a lot to his mother even if for a brief time. Maybe he is right and only the present moment matters. Of course he will be laying down a memory for himself of the time he took his mum to see his dad's old plane.

Terry Wogan used to talk about ending his days in 'a home for the bewildered' and, as I get older and increasingly forgetful, I begin to appreciate the reference. Forgettting where I left my keys or why I am halfway up the stairs is a nuisance, but when I start to lose my precious memories of family and friends and ultimately of my very self, the world will be a very bewildering place. I'm hoping that I won't be around that long or, if I am, that my memory stays as sharp as Phyllis Diller's.

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