Tuesday, March 07, 2006

What We Remember

The other day, the boys and I were looking through photo albums.

In one picture, Johnny, 5, grimaces at a black fuzzy caterpilar crawling up his arm. His cousin Rosie, also 5, holds her hand over her mouth and laughs. A sea of tall, green grass surrounds them. She's wearing a green striped shirt and Johnny's wearing a fleece sweatshirt with shamrocks on it. We were at my aunt and uncle Tom and Denise's farm. The little cousins--R.J., Aggie, Richie, Johnny, Rosie and J.J.--and I had walked out into the field and as soon as we stood still, caterpillars appeared on every blade of grass.

The kids had their hearts set on reaching some destination. I can't remember what it was. Neither can I recall what the kids named the caterpillars before they wriggled out of tiny hands to the ground, where the tall grass that revealed them now hid them from view.

Memory is a funny thing. I took seven pictures out in that field, hoping to document a perfect moment. Something to tell the young cousins about when they were big. And yet I only remember what the pictures tell me. No wait...Here's something.

The kids were scared of the field. As city slickers, they didn't know what kind of wild animals roamed Kansas farms. I told them our dog, Ben, would protect us.

"And God," Rosie said. "God will protect us, too."

Then the kids weren't afraid and we pushed onward toward our goal, whatever it was.

The cliche is true that you feel closer to God on the open land. Who else did we have to thank for the sunny day and cool breeze? Who else would we call on if a tornado set its sights on our short-legged and clumsy band of travelers? People call Kansans Bible beaters. Is it any wonder?

I remember thinking those things, which is probably why I can't remember all those caterpillar names.

My brother Luke joined us in the field, and when we got to wherever we were headed, we turned around. My uncle Tom had cooked us hot dogs and hamburgers. We ate and went on a ride around the farm, passing ponds and fields of wild flowers. The kids rode in the back of the pickup truck with Luke. Another picture shows Johnny and Rosie leaning on the side of the truck bed, watching what lay in front of us, pensive smiles on their faces.

Our dog Ben ran behind us, doing what nature intended. If he were a human, the words to "Thank God I'm a Country Boy," would have been running through his mind.

So I gotcha, farm memory, before you got away from me. I've got your picture and your story and another trip to the farm would bring the smells and feelings and tastes back, too.

But how many other perfect days like that have been lost to other memories? Memories you no longer need. Old phone numbers. Where your dad kept his tool box if you ever had to fetch something out of it for him. Tricks for remembering how to spell words you've long since mastered. "I'll be your friend to the end." Embarrassing memories. "What was I thinking?" memories. "If I only knew then what I know now" memories. Annoying memories. Scenes from bad movies, after which you not only wanted your money back, but your time back, too. Lyrics of grating songs. The pie crusts you forgot to buy at the store this week.

Maybe those memories are worth something, too. They call to mind helping your dad or listening to your teacher, Ms. Burns, who taught you how to trick your brain into remembering things.

How many stories that we thought were lost are simply tucked away beneath another memory, like Rosie's thoughts about God at the farm? They wait for that sing songy phrase to cajole them out of their hiding place.

When Johnny was two years old and Richie was a newborn, Justin and I took them to visit Justin's friends Darren and Nikki. They were staying on an island that had no electricity or tap water. Justin and Darren took Johnny out on a boat in shallow water and pushed him around. Then they walked him out into the water and lifted him over the waves. He was cracking up. In the evening, Johnny spent two hours burying the same toy boat in the white sand. At night, we sat by a campfire.

"I wish he was old enough to remember this," Justin said.

There has to be another way of remembering things besides being able to tell the story because how could you forget something like that? It was the perfect day for a two year old. I tell Johnny about it now. Maybe he'll hear about it so many times that he'll think he remembers. If not, he'll at least remember in his heart what a perfect day feels like.

Looking deeper into the photo albums, I see Richie at two years old. I can't remember what he was like. He didn't have the terrible twos. He was a little angel at that age, actually. Maybe that's why I can't remember the things he did. Teachers say they never forget the trouble-makers, so it's a compliment if they don't know you from Adam. But now I keep a list of the funny things Richie says. I don't want to lose another year of his life.

My friend Brian, who married my cousin's cousin Katie and is a writer, (his mom Mary is also a writer--her column, Musing with Mary appears in newspapers in Iowa,) said that if he doesn't write about something, it is lost.

"I think that's why I'm a writer," he said, "because I can't remember anything."

That must be a quality writers share because I can't remember anything either. Even before I could write, I would stare at photos in albums and pretend to tell someone the stories. I would tell them over and over again. It was the only way I could remember.

My brothers, on the other hand, can pull stories out of a hat. You can mention a kid's name from grade school and they've got a funny story about him. And a sad story. And one that's a mixture of both.

But the thing about writing something down is you can usually remember it by heart afterwards. I gave a toast at my brother Josh and his wife Sarah's rehearsal dinner. That day, I wrote the story and read it over a couple times.

At the dinner, I rose from my seat, shaking in my boots at having to speak in front of people. I pulled the folded paper out of my purse and approached the microphone. When I unfolded the paper, it was a receipt from Enterprise rental car. The same thing happened to Justin's brother Jonny at our wedding. He reached in his pocket for the prayer he was going to read and got a handful of dollar bills instead. So his prayer was "In God we trust." No, not really.

Writing things down commands them to memory, so I remembered the toast. But you can't write everything down. I wish, for instance, I could describe Richie's voice at three. Or how he grasps for the words that match what he's trying to say.

I was drinking a rootbeer on a hike and Richie asked, "Can I have a bite? Can I...I want to eat it. Can I have that? Taste it. Can I have a taste?" At last, he rested on the right word and tasted the earthy sweetness of rootbeer.

Maybe he'll remember that hike whenever he drinks rootbeer. He'll remember swinging on a grapevine loop like it was a trapeze and sitting in a hollow log like it was a canoe. Or maybe not.

Perhaps we're only meant to remember certain things. If all memories were precious, then none would be.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Beautiful - a tear jerker! Memories do that to me. Thanks you! Mom

6:38 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I am so glad we live in a time when we can tape kids voices..that is a cherished memory that is hard to hold on to. Like Joe calling Sally Aldrich - Tally -I'm torry Tally! I wish I had written more down.

7:01 AM  

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