Tag: memory

What I Wasn’t Seeing 

My cousin Amy was driving, and my mom was riding shotgun.  Sitting in the backseat with my sister was something I probably hadn’t experienced in at least 40 years.  We didn’t fight.

We drove for about two hours, through small towns, on the backroads that Apple Maps likes so much.  We passed the picturesque and the honky-tonk, gorgeous views of Long Lake and an ice cream shack named Custard’s Last Stand.  I wondered if you could get a Little Big Cone, but we didn’t stop.

We had another reason for this expedition.

In 1955, my parents had honeymooned on Blue Mountain Lake.  They weren’t just tourists, though.   They stayed in the cottage next to the big house that my great grandparents owned on the lake.  My mom and her brother had spent every summer there when they were growing up.  Their parents would spend some of the time there, but mostly they stayed in the city.  It was grandparent time.  They canoed and swam, wandered the woods, played tennis, and breathed the Adirondack air.  

I’ve grown up hearing stories about Blue Mountain, always accompanied by a sigh from my mom.  The house burned down a year after my parents’ honeymoon, and my great grandparents never rebuilt.  They sold the land and never came back.

Now my mom is 92.  This year my nephew bought a house in another part of the Adirondacks.  We were able to lure my mom up from Maryland, even though it meant many hours in the car.  At first, she declined, saying she wasn’t mobile enough to do any hiking on the uneven terrain of the region.  We tempted her, though, with the promise of a screen porch, mountain views, and time with my nephew’s 18-month-old son, her first great grandchild. It worked.

We’d been there a few days when the prospect of a trek to Blue Mountain was broached.  At first I wasn’t sure, and neither was my mom.  The house was gone.  We didn’t really know what we’d be aiming to see, but my cousin persisted.  Her father (my mom’s brother) had visited some years before, stayed at a lodge on the lake, and proclaimed it a most satisfying trip.  My mom scoffed at the lodge idea, noting that in their day, that lodge didn’t even allow Jewish visitors.  We guessed that time had corrected that, but we certainly didn’t push an overnight visit.  Finally my mom relented.  

As we got closer to the town, I remained unsure about the visit.  It wasn’t much of a town (sorry, Blue Mountain Lake Chamber of Commerce), and there wasn’t a beautiful old house with that wraparound porch.  Or the dock or the grandfather clock.  We rolled through the main part of town and hung a right onto a small private road.  “Of course this road wasn’t here back then,” my mom said. 

I had hoped this road would bend around the western end of the lake and curve toward the northern shore, where the old house had been.  Unfortunately, the little road became significantly more private before that, and we decided it wasn’t worth it to trespass.   I was a bit disappointed, but Amy pulled over, and we all spilled out.  “Oh, this is where the big lake meets Eagle Lake,” my mom said, pointing to the smaller body of water to our left.  We used to carry our canoes over this part right here and canoe on Eagle Lake.”   Then, moving slowly behind her walker, she shifted her gaze to Blue Mountain Lake.  She pointed again.  “Ooh.  Those three little islands were right across from our house.  We used to swim out to them.”  Then she pointed further up that northern shore.  “And that part up there, sticking out, that’s Popple Point.  Michael used to swim up to that.  I think I did once, at least.  That was a pretty long swim.”  She paused and inhaled.  She closed her eyes.  “Mmm.  I love that smell.”

I began to see the fault in my doubts.  I had assumed that with nothing left of the house, there would be nothing for us to see.  I had imagined a let down.  What I didn’t realize was that my mom could see it all.  It didn’t matter that we didn’t reach the site of the old house.  There probably would have been some mansion in its place anyway, confounding the memories.  This was better, just the lake, the islands, the trees, the smell, and the images in her mind.  

As she looked out over the ruffled surface of the lake, Mom didn’t look sad at all.  She was seeing into her past…clearly.

Mom with her two kids at Blue Mountain Lake.

Inside My Head

Woke up in the middle of the night with a song in my head.  In my dream, the song had started playing, and I couldn’t think of the name of the performer.  Waking, I could still hum the tune (to myself – it was 3:00 a.m.), but I could not come up with the artist’s name.  I knew I should know it.  I’d seen him in concert, after all.  I lay on my back in the dark, replaying one line of the song over and over.  It was a jazz tune, so there were no words to help me. 

I knew the name of the song, so there was a clear solution to this problem.  I could have gotten out of bed, picked up my phone and looked it up.  Somehow this seemed like cheating, like using the dictionary for a crossword clue.  I needed to extract the name from somewhere inside my head.  I knew it was there.

I’m thinking now that there are reasons for this reaction.  There’s a part that is just resistance to the idea that senior moments are happening.  I have a friend, a fellow teacher, who always marvels that I can readily retrieve the name of a former student, even one from the 1980s.  I always have to qualify this ability.  I can do it in conversation, remembering a moment, or I can do it by looking at a class picture from ages ago, even my own elementary school days, but face-to-face encounters are different. These often leave me staring blankly at a face I should be able to name.  I know it’s anxiety that shuts down my retrieval system in those moments.  I’m not sure what blocked me last night.  I was not feeling anxious in the middle of the night.  The musician wasn’t staring expectantly at me, like a former student.

My memory preoccupation could stem from a recent return to Duolingoing.  I had a very long lapse.  In my rush to get back to my old level, I’ve had to deal with lots of temporarily lost words.  “Wait, what’s falda mean, again?”    Or “Shoot, I can’t remember how to say ‘too.’”  Just like with the musician mystery, I know that I hold a solution right in my hand.  Siri could bail me out in a second, but I can’t resort to that.

The other contributor to a memory fixation, no doubt, is the book I’ve been listening to this week.  What Happened to You? consists of conversations about trauma and healing between Oprah Winfrey and Bruce Perry, a brain scientist.  Perry has a gift for making the functions and systems of the human brain understandable.  Much of what he explains gives me hope, but there are also disturbing parts. For example, he spends a lot of time showing how the very earliest experiences of a human shape the way they view the world, the way they learn, and the way they interact with others.  Traumas, stresses, and deprivation all change the way brain connections form. They actually change the brain’s biological functioning. All this brain talk makes me wonder about the students I teach, and at the same time, makes me hyper-conscious of how my own brain was shaped and how it works right now.

So, it’s safe to say that though I may technically have been outside on my walk with Farley this morning, I was still very much inside my own head.  I had resisted looking up anything online as I ate breakfast.  I was determined to have this name from the past present itself on its own.   As we headed down our street, I noted the improvement in the temperature today, a welcome reprieve from the oppressive heat of the past few days. “We can take a longer walk today, Farley,” I muttered. “I might need it.”  He didn’t respond.  

I started whistling the tune, slightly frustrated that I couldn’t hit the right notes.  I whistled it over and over.  Again the wrong names started bubbling up.  “Sammy Hagar?!  Where did that come from?”  Discard.   I could picture him, sitting at the keyboard, shaggy white hair.  I remembered my friend Carlo in college, bragging that the guy had actually performed at his high school in Westport.  “Weird.  I wonder where Carlo is now.  He’d be surprised to know that I work in Westport. I should Google him.”   More names surface.   “Wally?  Wallace Stevens?  Nope, poet.  Wally Joyner? Nope, baseball player.”  Discard.  Then the wrong tune started playing in my head.  “Wait, no, that’s Weather Report. How did that happen?”  I had probably listened to that around the same time in my life.  I tried to return to the original song, but you know how that’s kind of hard when another tune has intruded.  “Heavy Weather” persisted, but so did I.  The correct tune finally returned.

Not long after that, we approached the fancy Senior Living Center on the right side of the road.  This grassy stretch of the constitutional is Farley’s favorite pit stop spot.  He paused. I waited. I stooped. I scooped. You get the idea. So, after Farley’s own brief senior moment, we resumed our walk. 

I started whistling again.  We had just reached the elementary school parking lot when suddenly it jiggled free. Bubbling up from brain stem depths, floating through limbic layers, and finally popping into the cortex.   It wasn’t a dramatic eureka moment, either.  After all that, it was just, “Oh, Brubek.  Dave Brubek. Cool.”  

I’m listening to him now.