Author’s program note. I was ruminating about my next article this morning when it happened. I was thinking of doing a piece on the bookstores we all grew up with… inviting places you could go to get out of the storm, and sit and read for a bit, even if you had no money that day to purchase. That was my intention but things got away from me, as they often do these days… and I was remembering. No, not merely remembering… but being there… on Clark Street, Chicago, where special stores for second-hand books catered to the bibliophiles of the Windy City… folks who discovered these stores like an archeologist the layers of ancient Troy or Babylon, eureka!
But then, fleet-footed memory ran fast ahead… and it was not just the place I was recalling but why I was there and who I was with. Then, there she was. It was my mother; I was 13 or 14 or so and she was young and beautiful. She was telling me, and I did not just remember the words; I heard them, just as she said them…
… an admonition she had told me every time we visited such a place of leather bound and folio’ed addiction that I could have as many books as I could carry, but not one more. I would nod sagely, signifying agreement… then run rampant through the shelves, brainstorming strategies to break the treaty and emerge into the late afternoon light with more than I had agreed to. Sometimes, if a title moved her, she’d even concur… while making it clear this was no precedent.
And then there were tears in my eyes… and I missed her and that smile which was as vibrant this early morning as it was those long years ago… Songstress Vera Lynn knew this feeling and made it the signature of an entire generation, the World War II generation. The minute “I’ll be seeing you” (music by Sammy Fain, lyrics by Irving Kahal) was released (1938), it was clear this was not just or even mostly a song about the people you would indeed see again… but, as war engulfed Europe, far more poignantly about the people, literally here today, gone tomorrow — that you would only see again in your mind’s eye… with fond recollections, love, tears, all ingredients of memory which works its potent alchemy so sharply in “all the old familiar places.”
Thus, go now to any search engine to find this well-loved number; there are many fine renditions, but Vera Lynn’s is my own constant selection.
Around the corner, memory awaits…
I often think that remembrance is unrelenting, unremitting, unfair. It means us to remember and ensures, through pangs that can grip you with unbearable force and urgency, that you will remember… whether you like it or not. And most of us don’t like it… at least the fact that memory has the unrivalled power to stop us from what we are doing and demand instant obeisance. And this can happen anywhere, at any time.
Old familiar places of course make us aware of the sovereign powers of memory… old familiar objects do, too; photographs, prized possessions, and especially clothes which retain scents. Oh, yes, scents. A whiff of Chanel no. 5 makes me reel, pulled from whatever I am doing… to right where memory wants me to be. This was my mother’s scent, and I see myself buying some for her at Mr. Mackey’s general store one Christmas when I was a boy. I had no idea the sustaining power of that fragrance or that gift…
Scents you once detested, memory changes to gifts of great value. A friend told me not so long ago that she hated the pipe smoke her husband insisted in generating, to the gags and disgust of his wife and others. Those “others” may have felt relief when his passing removed the menace; she did not. She searched their well-appointed home, his drawers, his closet sniffing the air until she sniffed just what she wanted and was looking for: the pipe scent, pungent, masculine, unmistakable that signified in her grieving mind… him. She told me, too, hesitant at first, that she had found some of his special mixture tobacco, smoked it herself (to near nausea) until the bedroom resembled the back room of a political convention… then lay down… closed her eyes…. and remembered. It was the night she felt nearest to him. Before she said another word, I embraced her… before she said so much, so intimate. That was for her alone.
Even rulers of great lands…
No one, however powerful and well placed, is immune from the powers of memory and its connivances. It means to have you… and it will. As Queen Victoria, ruler of half the planet, learned and relearned every day of her long life. She was just 42 years old when her obsessively beloved consort Prince Albert succumbed; he was just 42, too. Her world dissolved… and she spent a lifetime and the patience of a great nation, doing whatever it took to assuage the memories and escape the madness of her ancestors.
His pajamas, his soap, even his toothpaste (with new paste applied daily) were all summoned to assist in the process of at once keeping the memories from overpowering while simultaneously holding them close. Queens are not alone in discovering that this formula is hard, perhaps impossible, to render just so… just so you can continue.
And these memories become most potent at Christmas… for this holiday of the greatest joy becomes a minefield of the greatest pain… not something you look forward to, but something you dread and fear…
This is wrong.
What you should fear and dread is not the unrelenting grip of your memories, their proven power to discommode you, their potency and unbridled force… for these are the good things, the necessary things you should move heaven and earth to protect, conserve, and maintain. Instead, fear and dread the steady diminution of these memories, time that brings not precise, enhanced remembrance but oblivion, well-minded people telling you over and over again (out of kindness, mind, however misdirected) to get “closure” on the matter and so diminish what you should be greatly striving to keep intact, close and forever.
“This too shall pass”, the Bible says. But beware of what you wish for, for you may get it. And is oblivion and eternal loss truly what you aim for? Thus hold every memory close and give way when memory seizes you… for what you have is precious and irreplaceable.
Thus approach this holiday season with a fresh new attitude and embrace the memories, every one of them no matter how painful. Remember, you are the curator of your memories… the person responsible for tending them, ensuring their vibrancy… charged with their complete and total extent. This is one of the duties of every adult; in fact, the proper realization of what memory is and its intrinsic significance in our lives is one of the proofs that you have lived, have loved, that you are an adult, with an adult’s insight.
None of this is easy, obvious or the work of an instant, not least because as you mature and grow sensitive to their interpretation and significance your understanding shifts, improves, ripens. And you see why sustaining these memories, in their total completeness is so very important.
Now let’s listen again, with a different ear, to Vera Lynn’s song and, for the first time understand that it is not Vera Lynn singing to us, bringing the balm of peace, serenity and comfort. It is immemorial memory itself… resonating through your life through the ages.
“I’ll be seeing you In all the old familiar places…
I’ll find you in the morning sun And when the night is new. I’ll be looking at the moon But I’ll be seeing you.”
This article is dedicated to my colleague Lance Sumner, in friendship, and in recognition of his good heart, vigilant keeper of profound memories.
By Dr. Jeffrey Lant
About the Author
Now with near seven decades of a successful writing career, Dr. Lant is, he likes to say, in the prime of his prime. Thus does the “scribbling” life he commenced at age 5 continue. Sixty books. Thousands of articles. Untold radio and television programs; worldwide recognition and enthusiasm, all of which culminated in the publication of his autobiography, “A Connoisseur’s Journey, being the artful memoirs of a man of wit, discernment, pluck and joy”. It was a book that screamed “classic!”, and he has delighted in the several awards that followed.
To get your copy go to www.writerssecrets.com. You will also want to join his writing course and learn from this master communicator just how you can improve everything you ever write. Go to: https://writerssecret.samcart.com/products/writers-secrets-package
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