Amnesia is a desert of fine white sun-glaring sand to the horizon. Amnesia isn’t oblivion. Amnesia isn’t memory loss caused by brain injury or neurological deterioration, in which actual brain cells have died. Amnesia is almost-remembering. Amnesia is the torment of almost-remembering. Amnesia is the dream from which you have only just awakened, hovering out of reach below the surface of bright rippling water. Amnesia is the paralyzed limb into which one day, one hour, feeling may begin to flow.
Smother, by Joyce Carol Oates from her book Give Me Your Heart – Tales of Mystery and Suspense. An Otto Penzler Book, 2010.
The last of the influential surrogate fathers of my life is losing his memory. Recently he was moved from Austin, Texas to a special facility in South Bend, Indiana. My last conversation with Brother Edwin Reggio, CSC was on February 18. I asked him, “Are you going to miss Texas?” His answer was either sheer epistemological logic or a Chauncy Gardiner kind of thing, “To miss Texas I will have to first remember it.” His reply broke my heart and I have been thinking about memory since.
Today I had to lecture on photography a group of students from Burnaby South Secondary. For a week before I prepared my notes, chose 6x7 cm slides to project with my Linhof slide projector and I put together a simple Power Point presentation. I had one big problem.
People I thought I had only photographed a few years before had been photographed earlier. I looked at the pictures in my computer files (many without identifying names attached) and I drew blanks. I knew who they were and what they did. But what were their names?
For years I have suspected that memory and knowledge are like a long and narrow red carpet. The carpet unrolls forward as we live. Our memories, experiences and knowledge expand. At the same time at the beginning of the carpet, it rolls up.
I am not sure that this is an accurate representation. I have good memory for a large scope of incidents in my past, even some that many might consider arcane or insignificant. Yet I cannot remember the name of an author that came into my studio, not too long ago, whom I admired.
Finding out the names was important. I wanted to know the names of all the people whose pictures I would project in my Power Point. To help my memory I was going to write their names under their pictures.
I drew a blank with the author on the right (see above). Google saved me. I put into Google, author/illustrator, books with postcards, island, British Columbia.
Perhaps then the carpet I sin sections and part of it, even our recent past roll up into the delete section of our brain.
Ever since I can remember I have remembered small things and people I know are astounded. And yet memorizing poems in school was such an impossibility that I remember crying to my mother who would patiently sit down to help me remember the lines. I can still remember her saying, “7 times 6, 7 times 7, 7 times 8, 7 times9…” She would come back and say, “7 times 9, 9 times 7,” on and on those 9s and 7s in the times tables were my bête noire.
In Brother Edwin’s religion class he would often say, “Anybody who can memorize today’s epistle will get five extra points in tomorrow’s test. I was never able to get those extra points. I do not know the lyrics to any national anthems nor can I recite even short bursts of poetry.
I kept asking Brother Edwin, “Will you say ‘gosh’ for me?” His answer was the same twice, “You are going to have to wait a while.” The third time he said, “If you want I can say ‘gosh’ but it means nothing to me. I cannot compute.”
Perhaps Brother Edwin, will remember Texas and then miss it. I can only hope.