We experienced an almost monsoon like storm in London a few days ago, the noise of the deluge was extreme and kept me awake; I was worrying about the gutters? Talking to a friend about the storm, he shared a childhood memory. He would sit for hours, wrapped in a duvet, his forehead pressed against the cool glass of his bedroom window and listen to the patter of the rain, watching the drops splash and race on the window pane. He found it comforting. It was a memory he hadn’t thought about for years but it was as vivid in his mind as if it were yesterday.
It made me remember a visit to the botanical gardens in Singapore, and it really was the monsoon season. As the rain came on Ian and I made a dash for shelter under a Bilbao tree. To no avail, we were soaked to the skin in seconds, and in the end (mad dogs and English men), as the rain was warm and the thunder and lightning were awesome, we continued to walk around the garden, bedraggled, our feet squelching at every step. This was in the 1990’s but I still remember the smell of the Indian Balsam, which in an instant took me back to my childhood in Yorkshire. I closed my eyes and I was running along the bank of the river Ure with my sisters, I can still feel the warmth of the sun and hear the bees; from Singapore to Yorkshire in a millisecond.
It is always surprising what triggers memory. I smell fresh coffee and unbidden comes the remembrance of walking hand in hand with my mother in Bank Street, Carlisle where the warm aroma of freshly ground coffee beans was always wafting from the old style grocers and provisions.
We were in Birmingham last week and were delighted to meet Karen an American colleague who we hadn’t seen for twenty seven years. Then, we had been at the Harry Ransom Humanities Research Centre in Austin Texas for five months. ‘It was the best of times and the worst of times’ to quote Charles Dickens. During that time both my young niece and my mother died. But when Ian and I reminisced with Karen it wasn’t the pain of loss I remembered but the banana muffins, the fajitas, the hospitality, the 90% humidity, the Alamo, the yard sales and the life size pterodactyl on the roof of the car. Ian was on one side and me on the other our arms through the window each holding a wing tip so that it wouldn’t fall off as Karen drove slowly home.
Memories are like time travel one moment we are in the present, pursuing the everyday, then instantly we are transported into the past. It’s what we remember that is very telling, things that at the time lack any real significance. Why do we remember some thing’s and not others? Two people can share the same event but can remember it in a totally different way or not at all.
Clearly there are two levels of memory, the foundation stones of our lives: births, marriages, schools, family, friends, names, places, rites of passage which do not need a trigger but can be extracted from our memory at will and there are the forgotten memories that can blossom like a desert flower when the rain comes. The latest research seems to think we should be gathering these intangible memories and keeping them for future generations.
Recently the Library of Congress has acquired the entire archive of Twitter, whilst I’m assuming that some of the Twitter messages maybe diamonds of the first water, and worth preserving for posterity, I hazard a guess that the vast majority of this inane and ephemeral outpouring wouldn’t be missed if it was buried in the New Mexico Landfill along with the ET video games.
In this day and age society seems obsessed with gathering images, selfies, photobombs, cats being cute and the rest, which are seen fleetingly and then are overwhelmed by newer images. Clearly we want to preserve memories. Looking through some old family photographs recently (on paper not digital) I became aware that some of the younger members of my family would not recognize the faces of the dear friends and family members nor know their story, character or culture so recently I’ve been taking every opportunity to ask my older siblings about half remembered stories and reminiscences. Who knew my Grandfather Wise played his squeeze box to entertain his comrades on Flanders Field; my sister has a newspaper cutting, how my brother transformed his turbulent relationship with his head mistress by reciting Tennyson’s ‘Charge of the Light Brigade’, that my infant middle sister Christine hid Hepsiba the duck in the sideboard when the stables where (accidentally) set on fire by the Italian prisoners of war? I’m capturing these remembrances and writing them down so that these two dimensional images may take on a rounder more colourful dimension.
Memory is an intangible thing in itself, it clearly makes up one part of the workings of our brain, and as we age there often is a reversal in what we can extract at will long ago detail takes on a new dominance we remember the words of a song we sang 25 years ago but we can’t remember where we put our keys ten minutes ago, or the name of a colleague we met last week though it sits tantalisingly on the tip of our tongue.
As my older family members and friends pass away I regret that I didn’t take the time to get to know them better. They lived through history, the Iron curtain, Bikini Atoll, the first Assent of Everest, discovery of DNA, the Moon Landing, Sergeant Pepper, the Cultural Revolution, Nelson Mandela, not just pages of dry text, but vibrant, scary, often funny, always emotional connections to the past. My father wept at Churchill’s funeral.
My eldest sister, there is fifteen years between us, is not blessed with good health, but in my mind I see her as alert and active as when we were children, being the eldest, I was the youngest, she was a bit bossy. When I call her on the phone her present frailty is evident but once we are past her latest medical prognosis and I recall my mother’s scones or the smell of my father’s St Bruno (pipe tobacco) the comical, surprising and sometimes tragic events of my parent’s lives, cheek by jowl with national and international events, and their effect on my sibling and ultimately my childhood leap to life in her recollections. She forgets her loneliness and her present condition and once again she skips and romps down memory lane and I leave her laughing and we have never been closer.