Monday, May 18, 2009

Repeat after me.

My grandmothers, Rosa Sanders Thomas (left) and Gladys Hartz Moore (right).

Long time. No hear. Sorry about that. 

When last we spoke, I was tamping down various fears in order to go visit my mother in New York. Suffice it to say that once again the trip was well worth any pre-travel jitters. It was full and rich and meaningful on just about every level. 

I found my mother well, but contending with some degree of memory loss, which became in a way the centerpiece of my visit and of my thought-process even now long after the bags have been unpacked. I won't go into the details of why or how, but I will say this. Having a mind bent toward the metaphorical, I even see memory loss as a sort of metaphor, but also as a tool of nature to force human beings into a pattern of behavior that might serve our survival, or at least, the quality of our lives. 

The metaphor is that memory loss is a sort of editing tool that forces our minds in older age to focus on the things that matter. (The name of that woman you just met at the newsstand five minutes ago but have already forgotten? Probably doesn't matter. It's taking up disk space. Let it go.) 

The survival tool is this. I noticed with both my grandmothers (one who probably suffered from Alzheimers and the other who was mentally clear into her 100's) a tendency to repeat themselves. But what they repeated weren't grocery lists, phone numbers, or plans for the day. What they repeated were stories. Family myths. Personal tales of passage and growth. In the case of my forgetful grandmother, these stories were burnished and shaped by the passage of time and the loss of memories less important. In the case of my mentally acute grandmother, the stories, I realized later, were pertinent to my own growth. She knew exactly what she was saying, and she was going to say it as many times as possible before it was too late. In both cases, the stories in question were repeated to me over and over and over again. I always listened, aware in some way that they might serve me later, aware too that my grandmothers were telling me who I was and where I came from. 

At times it was boring. I sometimes wanted to say, "I know, I know. You told me this already." But I tried not to. I hope I didn't. Because what I realize now, is that my own mind needed that repetition to make the gist of the stories stick. Here I am, decades after their deaths, and I can't repeat the details of what I thought would be permanently tattooed on my gray matter, but I can remember the over-arching themes. I can remember the point. I can recall some of the texture and color. The emotion. I am beginning, as an adult, to relate to more and more of the "why" behind the telling. 

So. It dawns on me as memory problems plague so many of our parents, that perhaps nature has a plan. The American Indians kept their culture alive by listening to the stories of the Elders. Stories were told over and over and over again. Talk-story it was called. Lectures hidden in tales. Lessons interwoven in drama. History, not boring, but entertaining. Again and again. Repeated and repeated until it wasn't so much learned as absorbed. 

Now as my mother-in-law tells me daily of her life in France during WWII and my mother tells me one more time about her favorite teacher in high school, I realize that there is probably a deeper reason—a reason bigger than simple loss of memory or the need to talk—for the retelling of these particular tales. My survival will be served well by listening. My going forward will be informed by what they have to say. 

It's Nature's will that we forget, it seems. It may also be her will that we repeat what we remember. Because if we're not going to choose that the oral repetition of these stories be part of our way of life, if we're not going to formalize the passing down of these words, Nature's going to choose it for us. Because I'm sure, very sure, it is her will that we listen, learn, absorb, then tell again when it is our turn. —Charlotte


  1. Anonymous9:02 AM

    A couple of my biggest regrets in life was not having my dad record some of his'stories' after he was diagnosed with cancer. He died at the ripe old age of 49, and Rex 28,Lisa 27, and Janet 19. He had some wonderful, funny, stories, he tended not to share the bad memories with us.
    My second regret was not learning from that experience and getting some on mom's stories recorded. She would load us up on many details of a time long ago about Gran and Papa, her mom and dad, and yes even our dad's childhood troubles (including his mothers death when he was 4).
    Everything was made mom and dad who they were as individuals and as parents.
    At my ripe old age of 58, I still miss them both terribly.
    Happy birthday, my dear mother. Hogs and kisses to you both.

  2. Thank you so much for saying this. This adds a whole other layer to the discussion...which is, of course, that once these precious people are gone, we can't ask them anymore. It's funny, as I was writing, I was thinking about things I wanted clarified. I wanted all of a sudden to know my great grandmother's name, and now that my grandmother and my father are gone, there's no one to tell me. I'm sorry for your losses, Lis. But it's good that you carry these people, and their stories, with you. Big hug, Charlotte