Tuesday, September 15, 2009

A Russian aide-memoire

Have you ever had the crazy feeling that you’ve remembered something that you haven’t thought of since… well, since the very day you first experienced it? Not the run of the mill stuff, the university paths you traversed, the check-out desk at your town library, the way you walked to your primary school every day, and not the color of your first boyfriend’s head of hair. Not what you wore on your wedding day, or your cubicle at your programming job. Certainly not the off-ramp at Roosevelt Road. No, none of those things.

No, I mean remembering something that happened years and years and years ago, that has truly not crossed your mind since. Something that you’ve only remembered now, just this very day, this exact moment, in fact, because you were reading something entirely unusual for you -- perhaps Chekov’s short stories in a small bound volume -- or Isaac Babel’s description of studying at home with his grandmother in Odessa -- and you let your eyes wander away from your book for a moment, as you remember your own grandmother and her house, and the dark wood furniture in her living room, the cart with her African violets standing at the dining room window, the claret-colored and scratchy bouclé brocade of the single settee with its heavy silken twisted fringe, and the patterned carpet on the stairs that went up.

And upstairs, the room where you’d had to nap in the afternoon as a really young child, with books ranged everywhere, on every surface and every shelf. The patterned wallpaper, its endless repetitious dots soothing you, and the slanting few rays of sunshine sneaking between window sill and the roof of the next house over. A calm somnolence overtaking you after you’d read in quick succession several issues of Fate magazine, with its séances and banshees and visitors from the dark beyond. The sheer curtains hanging dead still in the heat of the late summer afternoon.

It’s a strange and wrenching feeling. Deep inside, you remember, and you feel. Your gut twists. My God! That couch! I remember it! My grandfather, sitting downstairs in his chair, wearing his glasses after cataract surgery, like black binoculars over his eyes, and all so he could watch Laurence Welk on Saturday evenings at six. “Is that a colored gal singing?,” as Aretha, or Dionne Warwick, or someone belted something out on TV. “Yes, Grandpa, it is,“ I answered, already knowing enough to be embarrassed at age 10. Clearly, the glasses weren’t a complete success.

Yet, how weirdly unsettling. You haven’t thought about this since the very day it happened, maybe 41 years ago or so. What the hell?

It’s reading that does it. You get started on one track, reading the stories of this brilliant and eccentric Russian Jew, Isaac Babel, whose life was brutally cut short in 1940, his work only translated quite recently. It’s as if a lovely window has briefly opened into the past, and you’re transported through it, remembering your own history, nothing like that of people in Odessa, but unique and odd and beautiful to you all the same.

And then, that sudden self-awareness: is it possible that I’m remembering this, for the first time, 41 years after it happened? Where’s that memory been all these years? And is it possible, is it really possible, that I’ve been alive and doing things every single damn day since? Forty-one years of doing stuff, every day and every minute, since this moment I’m remembering for the very first time right now?

What is the stuff of life? What are we? Where have the years gone?

And how in the hell can time just go and go and go? My life is just careening past me.



mo.stoneskin said...

Chekov always irritated me a bit, so I guess if I read him again I might remember that irritation...but more seriously the weird memories I get are often inspired by dreams. It is very odd, but recently I will have a dream, and in the dream I remember a dream I had years and years ago, which itself was relevant to my life at that point, so I remember emotions and circumstances that I had forgotten. Leaves me feeling extremely odd, quite vulnerable even.

Mr London Street said...

This may well be my favourite post by you to date. Quite lovely. But is it comforting or frightening that those memories can come unbidden to the surface?

Iota said...

I think having children often prompts a memory to resurface in that way, but yes, sometimes a book can do it too.

Life does hurtle past, doesn't it?

mysterg said...

As someone with an awful long-term memory before the age of 16ish I find when this happens it is wonderful and scary all wrapped up in one...it's like 'who was that person?'

Madame DeFarge said...

I sometimes wonder who lived my early life, as it certainly doesn't seem to be me. I feel a disassociation from my early memories which `I find rather sad.

stainless1138 said...

Yes, we prooved this "life is careening past" fact one day last summer didn't we...? (Oh well, at least I have not gone for dirt nap yet!!!)

@eloh said...

A couple times, and I'll think...how could I not have had this pass through my conscience mind in 30 or 50 years...quick tell someone ...cause you ain't gonna be around next time if it takes another 50 years.

Then I worry about what else I'm not remembering!

Christine said...

Dang...you can write! Have you ever thought of maybe writing a novel?

This made me remember my granddad. I can still see his big eyes peeking out of his thick eye glasses, a result of cataract surgery. Now days, they surgically implant the lens, so no more big magnified eyes. As a child I was always held spellbound by his eyes. I haven't thought about that for years and years.

Mr London Street said...

Check my blog out. You've won something.

Judearoo said...

Yup, and its the unexpectedness of a sudden memory return that really catches you... Makes you loney for the person you once were, eh?

Lovely post.

Hunter said...

Very nice post.

And, yes, I'm here by way of MLS.

Roberta Fleck said...

I can't *believe* you're 51!


Lovely post, ExP


Anonymous said...

Love this post Ellie. I agree with everyone who tells you to write more.
Novels? The story of your life...
Jen (Grant)

English Rider said...

Great post. Memories are our foundation.

Laura R. said...

Wouldn't it be brilliantly ironic if this comment unexpectedly reminded you of a post you wrote about two years ago?
I couldn't resist commenting. I've been going through Mr London Street's archives, as he's one of the best bloggers I've ever known, and found this post by way of his "That Was The Week That Blogged" mention. You're the second person I've read who's ever been able to make second-person "work", the first being Mr London Street, and that is so very impressive to me that you were able to make me relate even though I'm only 16 and therefore do not have 41-year-old memories like you speak of. Bravo.
A quick peak at your archives tells me you've probably stopped blogging a while ago, but allow me still to follow you so that I will get round to going through your old posts once I'm done with MLS's and my exams. :)