Some people have relative pitch. I have relative memory. It is not photographic, with perfect recall of every detail, but it is extremely good at retaining and relating experience to time and place and memories to each other. I offer this blog as 'exhibit A".
I do retain a great many details, but this is an active, rather than passive skill. You can't play Mozart to me when I sleep to make me smarter. My brain is a great deal like my attic - full of life's unsorted accumulations to which I have random access. This means that I can find my way to the same, out-of-the-way place years after my first and only visit without the need for a map. It also means I hold memories from long ago that are as fresh in specific detail, and emotion, as they would be today.
My earliest memories are vignettes, snapshots in time for which there never was a photograph, and they happened in the Spring of my second year, around my second birthday. We lived in Danbury, Connecticut at the Wooster School until June of 1970 when we moved to Worcester, Massachusetts. My parents used to tell stories of my first words and my experience of becoming a big brother that May, but the memories I have from that time are not these second hand impressions.
I remember watching my father coach baseball, something he never did after we moved. I remember a little pond behind the house where we lived. And I remember my grandfather pushing me in a stroller on a hill lined with weeping willows. Years later, on a visit to Wooster when I was looking at boarding schools, I recognized the exact spot where this happened, right in front of the gymnasium.
I remember a trauma that happened when I was three. If you look at pictures of me at that age, I am missing my upper two front teeth and have a fat lower lip. I remember many, many details of how that came to be.
- I remember kneeling on a chair, holding on to the back and rocking back and forth while listing to a record of Winnie-the-Pooh.
- I remember falling forward and catching my lip between my teeth and the edge of another chair, leaving dents in the woodwork along with my teeth.
- I remember spitting blood from the ruin of my mouth into the bathtub, and arriving at the hospital.
- I remember being held by my father and crying, and a nurse I have never forgiven saying "Don't cry, you''ll wake the babies." My sense of outrage overwhelmed the pain as I thought; "But I am a baby!"
- I remember coming out of anesthesia and seeing my dentist in the operating room. I remember how the stitches felt on the inside of my lip where the scar remains today behind a hard lump in my more generous mouth with my perfect teeth.
I remember other old injuries of the spirit. I do not have the temperament to nurse old grievances, and have developed the skill of cooling down and owning up after an argument. I forgive others far easier, and more willingly, than I forgive myself. But this also means I carry the uncomfortable memory, and set it aside in a cluttered corner of my mind rather than taking it out and turning it over, and puzzling out its hold on me, and what it means going forward.
There is, for instance, the incident with the lilac flower.
I was four years old. My father taught at a transitional program for high school students and young adults who were not yet college bound. In 1972 they held an outdoor graduation ceremony at a site bounded by a hedge of purple lilacs. I remember that they played Cat Stevens "Peace Train". And I remember our arrival with my mother and little sister, and seeing my father already there greeting the graduates and their guests. He had a lilac blossom in the buttonhole of his blazer.
I was excited to see my father, and ran to jump into his arms. As I did so, I knocked the flower from his jacket, breaking the stem. I remember sharp words instead of welcome. I remember his reproach over the broken flower that would never fit back into the hole. I remember thinking; "But there are hundreds of other flowers, right there, that could be a replacement."
It was a small thing, soon forgotten. But not by me. For years afterward, when lilacs were in bloom, I picked bunches of them for my Dad to make up for disappointing him, to be sure of his love. I didn't tell him until much later my motivation. It didn't seem fair, really, as I alone retained memory of the incident. Nor do I associate lilacs with shame or emotional distance. I love their heady scent. But I only like the purple flowered varieties, which also grew outside our Worcester apartment and at Windrock where my grandparents lived. I'm traditional, that way.
When I snap at my children, when I reproach them for their carelessness, I go right back to that place. Such a little thing, like a pebble tossed into still water. This is a pattern I need to examine, to bring out of the shadows and into the light of day. I forgave my father long ago, but I have to forgive myself as well, to give new meaning to experience. This, too, is an active skill, and one I am trying to learn, to get my heart and my head together. To forgive and remember.