The forgetful life
Living with lapses in memory
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President Coolidge was a silent type. When it was announced that he had died, New York writer Dorothy Parker quipped, “How can they tell?”
I feel that way about my memory. Because I have had a poor one all my life, the worsenings of age are hardly noticeable. Everyone, of course, claims to have a bad memory—which makes it hard for the genuine article like yours truly to sound more than a narcissistic whiner. My husband and personal cheerleader once pooh-poohed my claim like all the rest but learned the truth in short order: “You’re right, you have a really bad memory.”
The first embarrassing lapse was ninth grade in a current events game. A baseball question arose, and I picked it because I knew the answer. All eyes were on me, and there was expectant silence—like the silence in the schoolhouse when Tom Sawyer was put on the spot by superintendent Walters to name the first two apostles. Mother Albert Marie hit the bell before I could get the words out: Sandy Koufax.
The disappearance into thin air of a thought you had a second ago is a quiet terror to the new arrival in the club. As is not being able to return to a well-developed conversation thread after only the slightest digression. Nowadays if I get, say, three good essay ideas at a time, I hurriedly jot three key words on a napkin, bank receipt, or car manual, not trusting even the most vivid revelations to be ladylike and wait around.
The disappearance into thin air of a thought you had a second ago is a quiet terror to the new arrival in the club.
All life is affected. Because I don’t remember names—or at least fast enough—I have to settle for “Hi, how ya doin’?” You can only say, “Hi, how ya doin’?” so many times before even that falls away. There was a girl in our church who was born there, raised there, and grew to honorable womanhood there, with whom I never had a conversation. When the pulpit announced her marriage and departure to Connecticut, I came up to her and said, “Look, I realize I’ve been a cipher in your life” (she nodded in agreement) “but would it be OK if I stop and pray for you and your marriage?”
The miracle is that we remember things at all. How is it that by and large important dates and duties will erupt into consciousness ex nihilo and right on time? How does it happen? If you can answer that one, you can also tell us how it is that monarch butterflies with brains the size of a pinhead each September leave their homes in Canada and fly 2,000 miles to northern Mexico.
Sometimes the losing of things is necessary to the realizing of how miraculous life is under normal circumstances.
Take other losses. After my first husband died, I joined a softball team. I learned that the catching of a fly ball is not a unitary body function after all, but the quick (and, turns out, not quick enough at age 47) succession of separate bodily commands: from eye to brain, from brain to feet.
There’s a lot about memory in Scripture: When you get to the Promised Land, remember where you came from. Forget the past, except to learn from it. God Himself, who can do everything, can even choose to forget our confessed sins and cast them into the sea of forgetfulness. And this is so that you and I can walk into church on Sunday morning and see each brother and sister as a clean slate of endless possibilities, and not as that frozen-in-aspic so-and-so who said such-and-such to me 10 years ago at the church picnic.
Bible recall is the singular exception to my sorry memory. For the rest, the name of the game is compensation. We do the best with what we have; that’s all we can. And what we can’t do anymore is making us compassionate.
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