What, really, do we mean by memory? Without it, it seems safe to say, we would hardly be human, inasmuch as we learn from the past, or we hope to, and without the recollection of past events, of people, or of our thoughts and feelings and reactions to all that has occurred in our lives, we would in essence be starting each day anew. It has been shown that animals also have memory, and they are more than capable of learning from past experience, just as we humans attempt to do.
Given all this, in one sense, it seems strange that we have what is called Memorial Day, a time specifically dedicated to remembering. It has its own provenance, of course, having been created soon after the Civil War by various individuals who mourned the passing of sons and brothers and spouses and friends, who died in the horror of that terrible, fratricidal conflagration.
When I was young, in fact, as often as not the day was referred to as Decoration Day, especially by people of the older generation, because we would go to the graves of those who had died, not just soldiers in various wars, but the graves of any and all loved ones, and leave tokens of remembrance, flags mostly, or flowers. In this sense, it is akin to the Mexican “Día de los Muertos,” the Day of the Dead, when families gather at graves to eat and drink, and generally to celebrate loved ones who have moved on to a different place.
Memory is like that. It brings to mind not just what has passed, but the emotion that surrounded, and still surrounds, those thoughts of the past. For surely we do not remember everything that has ever happened to us, all that we have said and done and thought. That would be too much for any individual to live with, especially as we grow older and we have done, and thought, and seen more and more of life. The very word “recollect,” in fact, comes from the Latin “recolligere,” meaning to gather together and to collect again, even to pick and choose, which is exactly what our memory does. Another related word in Latin is “lignum,” which means firewood. At first, that might seem like an odd connection. What has memory got to do with building a fire? But its original reference was to wood that had been collected together, chosen for that particular purpose.
And is that not what we do so often with our memory? Given various stimuli, different triggers, people, places, tastes, smells, words, songs or pieces of music, dates on the calendar, or wounds that seem only to half heal no matter how hard we try to cure or be rid of them, all these bring back a burning rush of feeling, of thought, or of sensation. We experience, or re-experience over and over again, love and loss, pain and happiness, desire and repulsion, grief and joy, the hoped for, as well as what we most feared. We have with us still the regrets we live with, the delight we experienced in life, people we loved and still love, those we may have fought with and those who brought us pain, and the people whom we, ourselves, have hurt, wittingly or unwittingly, our dreams, our hopes, our fears, our follies, the roads not taken and the longed-for wonder of where these roads might have led. No one escapes the power of memory, whether we acknowledge it or not, whether we talk about it, or keep it buried in the tomb of our unconscious, from whence it springs on its own like unruly and destructive weeds in an otherwise ordered and well tended garden.
In his autobiography, Mark Twain said, “I grow old and my memory is not as active as it used to be. When I was younger I could remember anything, whether it happened or not; but my faculties are decaying now, and soon it shall be such that I cannot remember any but the things that never happened.” These words, as ironic as they may at first seem, point up what a mishmash memory can be, how it gets intertwined with our wishes, our deepest desires and our wrenching fears. It sometimes seems to be indistinguishable from our imagination. Did I really do that to my friend and how did he feel, did she say that to me, did my father despise me as much as I remember, and did my mother mourn my leaving home at a young age to enter a monastery, as I recall her doing?
Some things, it would appear, are true, or at least factual, and I know they happened in exactly the way I see them in my mind, but others, more fuzzy, less precise especially as time goes by, begin to look more like barely distinguishable shapes or images in a thick fog. When I am afraid, I may recall events in a darker light, as if they were shadows or phantoms that haunt the mansions of the mind. When the sun of a brighter day shines and I am feeling strong and, dare I say, more fully adult, do I see the remembered past for what it was, for the real forms it took and the ways I dealt with whatever was troubling or confusing or, for good or for ill, mesmerizing?
All this to say that we must trust our memory as we would a dear friend who, we know, has his own odd tendency to exaggerate, or to embellish, or even to tell tall tales merely to entertain us.
My own memory of my parents is like this. They died so long ago now that they have begun to take on mythic proportions in the movie of my life. I cannot, for example, remember a single time when my father kissed me. But that was true of all fathers I knew in those years of the 1950’s, the fathers of my friends and classmates, as well as my own. And if he had, I – we, all of us – would not have known what to do in our embarrassment. I do, also though, remember the blows, the harsh words, the fear with which I approached him, and the tender mercies of my mother, protecting me from him. But were there other things that I do not remember? Who can say what he does not remember? And, if there are things that go unremembered, why is that so?
Memorial Day is designed to bring these things to the fore, lest we forget. We remember those who have died, first and especially in all the hellish or the just or simply the foolish and idiotic wars the country has fought. We recall the days in late May, when the sun was shinning and the grass grew new and green and seemingly ecstatic after a long winter covered with the snows of January and the slush of March or April. We see in our mind once again the picnics of days gone by, a snapshot of us all gathered at the lake or in a park or simply on the back porch. We taste again the food cooked by those who loved us, by those who looked after us, by aunts and uncles who were part of our lives, giving us unwitting lessons in how to live like adults in a world that seemed to us at times only to be overwhelming and more than we ever thought we could come to terms with.
And each new day we make yet other memories for the day after. That is the way we live, by acting in the present, by living the moment to the fullest, but by seeing it again and feeling it, experiencing it once more later, as we sit quietly, or lie awake in the long hours of a sleepless night. Familiar faces, long gone perhaps, but still present in the moment of memory, visit us again. We laugh or cry or rejoice, and feel the longing for what once was, and is still, but in a way different from what had been.
That’s Memorial Day. That’s the day of remembrance. That’s what it means to recall who we were, who we are, who we have become, and what it means to be fully, painfully, joyously, gloriously, and so yearningly, so vulnerably human.