I remember the precise shape and color of a mushroom growing on the trunk of a red oak on Ackley Drive in Parma Heights, Ohio, in 1963, but I can’t remember the face of Karen Pirko, literally the girl next door and the first on whom I had a crush. I haven’t seen her since 1964 when she and her family moved to Illinois. Why is memory so frustratingly capricious? The precious evaporates while the trivial persists.
Of late, I’ve experimented with the manufacture of pleasant memories. We will move to Seattle in less than a month, after living almost four years in Houston. Calculated in another way, my youngest son has lived 80 percent of his life in a place I detest, though some memories of Texas I wish to preserve – streets canopied by live oaks, snails nestled on the fronds of sago palms, iridescent green lizards on windows and walls, and an excellent blues radio show hosted by a native of Pakistan. I’m consciously trying to fix these memories like insects in amber.
At the conclusion of The Use of Poetry and the Use of Criticism (1933), T.S. Eliot asks questions about memory similar to mine. I’ve often wondered if the images from the past he cites are his own, someone else’s or purely imaginary. Eliot’s poems and prose, without being banally autobiographical, are far more personal than readers have suspected. Here’s Eliot:
“Why, for all of us, out of all that we have heard, seen, felt, in a lifetime, do certain images recur, charged with emotion, rather than others? The song of one bird, the leap of one fish, at a particular place and time, the scent of one flower, an old woman on a German mountain path, six ruffians seen through an open window playing cards at night at a small French railway junction where there was a water-mill: such memories may have symbolic value, but of what we cannot tell, for they come to represent the depths of feeling into which we cannot peer. We might just as well ask why, when we try to recall visually some period in the past, we find in our memory just the few meagre arbitrarily chosen set of snapshots that we do find there, the faded poor souvenirs of passionate moments.”
He’s on to something with “the depths of feeling into which we cannot peer.” Memory is so elusively complex it defies understanding, and to a significant degree we are our memories. Who presumes to understand himself?