We were talking about the rise of antisemitism and my Dutch friend expressed how different it was living in the States. Back home in Holland, she said, there were actual locations that were involved in the holocaust and deportation of Jews.These were permanent markers, that growing up, were real sites you passed on the way home, to school, en route to the grocery every day: the ghosts of your grandparents you had never known, hovering and whispering to you. Even if buildings had crumbled to bits of rock, memories were still burned in your mind of terrible events and relatives you wished you had known.
I thought about this and how a place can encase a memory, a part of you or your family, or even your nation’s life. In a way, it’s like theory versus practice. An idea of something, whether fully imagined, described, clothed in words can be very very powerful, but the actual place or happening that has all ready taken on a visual sense- charged sensibility casts incredible powerful images. Not to mention, an old photograph will heighten a living presence now destroyed in time.
Besides the trauma of an event, the mundane of a novel extends that same opposition of an idea versus a fact and that is a strong reason why people rebel against a novel being transformed into a movie, for a reader’s creation of characters or events in their own heads might not correspond to the writer’s, playwright’s or filmmaker’s. How many times have we uttered that we did not picture so- so in that way? And once that die is cast, we always think of Harry Potter in the face of Daniel Radcliffe, or now Jo as Saoirse Ronan in Little Women. And interestingly, even as the character morphs or grows up, he or she is frozen with the attributes imparted for the performance. Contrarily, a film might be pierced by a silent scream, louder and more piercing than any human voice.
Yet I read in Bill Bryson’s The Body,
“Memory storage is idiosyncratic and strangely disjointed. The mind breaks each memory into its components- names, faces, locations, contexts, how a thing feels to the touch, even whether it is living or dead- and sends the parts to different places, then calls them back and reassembles them when the whole is needed again.A single fleeting thought or recollection can fire up a million or more neutrons scattered across the brain.Moreover, these fragments of memory move around over time, migrating from one part of the cortex to another, for reasons entire unknown. It’s no wonder we get details muddled…The upshot is that memory is not a fixed and permanent record…”
And if this is so, how do we trust our memories to accurately convey to us a sense of where we have been, how we have lived and loved? And understandably when a lawyer cross examines a witness, disrupting a tale and they falter, can they be trusted? I remember some David Mamet plays, particularly Oleana, where a character was thought to have lied or misconstrued evidence. And I recall being outraged by the portrayal.
And yet, we can remember what appears to be our own personal histories. Interestingly, as I used to tell my audiences, it is the days of greatest intensity of our joys and sorrows, for example celebrations and death, that have dug a hole into our brains, preserved( perhaps not completely correctly)those significant memories for all time. Yet Bryson provides examples from 9-11 wherein people interviewed immediately after the horrific attack, and years later, told and believed in differing accounts of where they were at the time and who was with them, adamant they were telling truths. So it seems we are on shifting grounds of sand, with perhaps only certain constants reinforcing a “ bigger” picture of our prior lives.
When I was young, going downtown meant Eatons and Simpsons, the two big competing stores in Toronto. Eatons College, my mother, had told me, was the classier of two, showcasing finer goods and where she herself had purchased a solid wood bedroom set: one, by the way, still fashionable and saleable some 70 years later. Eatons College Street also boasted a theatre on its seventh floor.Lady Eaton had retained the noted French architect Jacques Carlu to design an Art moderne store that included a theatre and lounges at its uppermost floor.
And yes,my mother’s trendy oak bedroom set that she often boasted about was fashioned in an Art Nouveau style. It was here my Auntie Mame- Marion took me, no doubt in my earliest grades, to see my first children’s theatre of Alice in Wonderland. For some reason, the Queen of Hearts captured my attention. Maybe she was fierce and scary to my child’s sensibilities or maybe I was awed by her scarlet gown.Today the top floor remains above Winners, courts and food stalls, retaining the name Carlu, and is a place for elegant parties. A few years back, I attended a supper there with my husband and experienced one of those backward déjà vues, uncomfortable in terms of the place I once knew, remaining, but reassembled to suggest the old structure of space but irrevocably changed- as will happen after 50 or so years.
Still for me, I will always reach back to envisage myself as the small girl, the excited ingenue about to embark on a special adventure with my flamboyant aunt who felt she was ameliorating my life with an arts education. And so she was, a strange lumpy fairy bestowing her gifts in various ways to her nieces and nephews, I like to think.
We tend to cling to those moments located and remembered in specific spots or arenas. My son’s eyes become dreamy as he reminisces about Joe Carter’s home run and for sure, he recasts it in the breathless hot stadium where Carter won the home series in 1993 game 6. I’ll bet he even recaptures the feelings and excitement that bounced him out and up from his seat. The feeling is so powerful, even relived.
As we age, we attempt to reach back to the moments that made us who we once were, before sagging, the ravages of time worked its way into our bodies and brains. It’s these stories that comfort and propel us on to an uncertain future as we chortle to admit that we seem to sound more like our parents, who passed this way before us, assembling memories of the past that may or may not make sense of the present. It’s a fascinating journey, each life, so unique and yet so similar. We put our beliefs into the places we need to, to bolster ourselves.