“Memory …is the diary that we all carry about with us.” — Oscar Wilde
Today is the last day of the first month of the year. I’ve been spending a lot of time looking back at last year and looking ahead to the new year. That journey has taken detours to the past and ventured into dreams of the future. It’s no surprise this month is named for the Roman God, Janus. As I recently noted in my essay, Legacy of a Life:
“In ancient Roman religion and myth, Janus is the god of beginnings and transitions, and thereby of gates, doors, doorways, passages and endings. He is usually depicted as having two faces, since he looks to the future and to the past. It is conventionally thought that the month of January is named for Janus.” (Source: Wikipedia)
The fall and winter holidays, followed by my birthday in January, trigger a cycle of memories, mark a milestone, and prompt me to muse about the meaning of life.
As I’ve grown older, I’ve become more of an historian. I must admit — I am now that person I thought I would never be — the one who talks about the glory days, as I reminisce about childhood, adolescence, and young adulthood in my hometown of Racine, Wisconsin and my move to my current home of Madison. Social media has nurtured and enriched that endeavor as I’ve become a member of hometown history groups, posting comments, photos and memoirs about growing up, the people I’ve known, the experiences we’ve shared, and the places we’ve been. Remembering the past, I sometimes sand off the rough edges of memories to make them softer, or for those that are painful that I’m not ready to let go, I sharpen them.
Memoir-writing and journaling have been a gift. They’ve helped me to remember how I became the person I am today, the path I took to get here, and to signal a direction I might take in the future. I’ve also enjoyed my role as an oral historian, conducting interviews with people in my LGBTQ community and family of origin. As my parents age and their generation prepares to depart, I find myself asking more questions about their lives and the ancestors who preceded them. It’s important for me to learn from the past, embrace my heritage, while breaking cycles and legacies of pain and suffering that have haunted us as a family.
Memories are evoked by different stimuli. Sensory perceptions spark synapse, making connections in our brains to feelings and recollections that reside dormant in the cells of our bodies. As I write, I’m baking “Hello Dolly Bars,” a chocolate chip, coconut, and walnut dessert bar on a bed of graham cracker crumbs that my mother made every Christmas holiday. I’m transported back to her kitchen and I’m with her from another time. We are each capable of time travel and astral projection.
I want to take a moment to express my gratitude. I consider my memories and loved ones my most prized possessions, yet I’m also aware that I truly don’t own them; they are mine to cherish and relish as long as I’m able, and as long as they live in this world, my heart, or memory.
To lose one’s memory, one’s connection to their past, or recognition of their loved ones, must be one of life’s greatest tragedies. I fear it for myself. I have friends whose parents and grandparents have suffered from Alzheimer’s, memory loss, and dementia. I imagine one of life’s most painful and long good-byes is to witness someone’s life being erased in stages and degrees and to let go of them slowly, and grieve their loss in years, not days or months.
“Sooner or later we all discover that the important moments in life are not the advertised ones, not the birthdays, the graduations, the weddings, not the great goals achieved. The real milestones are less prepossessing. They come to the door of memory unannounced, stray dogs that amble in, sniff around a bit and simply never leave. Our lives are measured by these.” ― Susan B. Anthony
A couple of weeks ago I had a milestone birthday. I decided to let it pass with as little fanfare and attention as possible within my control. It’s not that I have a problem with my age or aging; it has more to do with ambivalence about receiving the extra attention. Others perceive me to be an extrovert, and in some instances, I do enjoy an audience and/or recognition, yet at heart I’m shy. At work, I strategically shared my desire to not have attention drawn to me by telling the one person I knew would carry the message to everyone. Sometimes a workplace gossiper can act as an unofficial public relations agent.
I made my birthday private on Facebook so others would not receive a notice, yet friends and family who know me didn’t require a reminder and messaged me, posting wishes for a wonderful day. I did celebrate with my friend Leanne. For the past five years we’ve shared a joint birthday dinner during Madison’s Winter Restaurant Week.
Of course I talked with my parents. My father sang Happy Birthday over the phone as he has every year since I moved away from his home. I always feel close to my mother on my birthday. It is a day that I feel intimately connected to her. My folks always remark how old they’re getting too, since I’m their first born. It’s a ritual; we have the same conversation every year and I still enjoy it as if I was hearing it for the first time.
Two of my best friends made sure I’d have my favorite cake for my birthday, carrot cake, from my new favorite bakery, Batch Bakehouse, complete with Happy Birthday sung to me, candles to be blown out, and a photo captured to mark the milestone.
There are many milestones in life, births, graduations, weddings, divorces, retirements, and the passing of loved ones. Sometimes though, as Susan B. Anthony so eloquently notes, the important moments of life are often unexpected, uninvited, or unearned, yet sometimes life-changing.
So as I look back today and take stock of my life, and look ahead to what’s next, or what’s left to do, I muse about mortality and what kind of legacy I might leave, wondering how will I be remembered, what imprint will I have left on this earth and on the hearts of those I’ve loved? What memories will others have of me?
These seem like big questions for the last day of January, the first month of the year. Each day is a gift, each moment an opportunity for a memory to be made. I’m grateful I have today and I have my memories.
The following poem was written for and dedicated to my friend Leanne whose mother lost her memory to Alzheimer’s.
What It Must Be Like
Disembodied fragments of orphaned memories,
dreams abandoned by daylight’s arrival,
weave a matrix of this and that, of here and there,
a mish mash of fleeting thoughts,
part and parcel of the missing whole,
lapsed recall creating separation
from who and what, where and why,
a great divide grows between now and when,
from intent to action, confusion becoming norm.
The mind misfires, fragile connections break,
the face contorts, brow furrows,
eyes stare through others, like x-ray vision
as if searching inside another for a misplaced answer
or a moment stolen, hidden, pleading for its return.
The person and place divorced, becoming no relation
to the past or what’s next, questions are asked
why are you here and who are you?
Answers given seem to match different questions.
Is the newspaper in the refrigerator?
Why are the missing keys in my hand?
Is the obvious a puzzling riddle,
the nonsensical crystal clear?
Fragments of the fragile mind spit and sputter
and wonder, why you are so kind to me for a stranger?
I don’t know these people here.
Do you know where I live,
and how to get there?