When only memories remain

Russell
Russell Wangersky
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I’m not at the age yet where the obituaries have become a regular diminishing ledger for friends, acquaintances and former schoolmates.

But I am at the age where the occasional person I know winks out, and at the age where many people I know are seeing their parents age and die; the age where I see how that immediate reminder of mortality is aging the children, too.

I regularly see in the news that people I’ve interviewed have died, and often their ages are close enough to my own that I wonder how it was that, when I interviewed them long ago, they seemed so very much older than I was.

And always, I wonder: where does it go? What they knew, what they experienced, the colour and shape and flavour of their memories. Not to stray too much into metaphysics here, but accept for a moment the notion that energy is never created nor destroyed, and then apply that thought to the notion of experience.

We’re awash in it. People have always been awash in experience every bit as colourful as the stuff we know ourselves. You might be fooled by historical film or photos into thinking that our ancestors lived in some sort of sepia world, but they didn’t. They had as much to experience as we do, and in some ways, maybe more.

Maybe they lived a more tactile, hands-on life with less in the way of keyboards and offices and more in the way of rain or snow or baking heat. Yet even as we ham-handedly stumble into a year “remembering” the First World War, we have to realize, have to know, that we can remember none of it.

Both my parents have died, years ago now, and it still strikes me as criminally wasteful that the things they lived and experienced might be completely, irretrievably gone.

My father loved to go fishing, and to bring fish home; some he would fillet, and others, my mother would reduce to palatability through the medium of fish chowder. (Which could, in fact, contain almost anything. Dip your spoon into the milky abyss, and hope for the best. I once found an eye.)

He came back once with a burlap bag and, inside, four large American eels. He asked my mother if she wanted to find a way to clean them. Even as she cut the bag open and dumped the four-foot-long slimy critters into the kitchen sink, he somehow failed to tell her that they were still alive.

“Eels,” he would say later, “are surprisingly hard to kill.”

Neither I nor my two brothers were old enough to actually remember the slippery event, but it was momentous and consisted of two completely different versions, depending on which of my parents you were talking to — it also, in its own way, defined both of them to a tee, everything from my dad’s occasional professorial absentmindedness to my mother’s determination to wring the value out of every scrap of everything, no matter how unlikely.

My brothers and I probably all remember hearing the story and each of us experienced it differently.

The end of the story? It took a while, but the eels lost after a spectacular foot-chase, Mom cooked, and Dad never brought eels home again. But that’s the bare bones, at least for the two people who experienced it directly.

I know to them it was a completely different story — one that you only got a hint about because of the way that, when it was told by both of them (back and forth) their eyes would lock in that solid, no-one-else-in-the-room stare you expect from young lovers.

Perhaps that look between them is now completely lost — or perhaps it will be, when I’m not around to remember it. I hope, myself, that it is as inextinguishable as energy, that it lives on out there, that it’s some kind of building-block in the archive of the human experience or at least humanity.

On the other hand — and on a sadder note — it may have vanished faster than an embarrassing photo posted on Facebook.

Here’s a random thought: wouldn’t it be a shame if the tweet you dash off in the grocery store line about the price of limes could have a longer life than the things you love?

That it could remain out there in the i-sphere while that near-explosion in your chest, that tumbling fall you know as love, goes unrecorded in any meaningful way?

There will come a time when you realize that you’re the sole custodian of a memory, or even a whole block of memories.

It will not make you feel safe.

Russell Wangersky is news editor of the St. John’s Telegram. He can be reached by email at rwanger@thetelegram.com.

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