Cusp

How it feels to be on the brink of a life passage, from youth to middle age to death.

Who Will Keep Our Memories When We Forget?

Children used to be the keepers of their parents' memories. No more.

An essay that just ran in the New York Times "Booming" blog, aimed at Baby Boomers like me, nailed one of the qualities that's so different between my generation and the one that came before us: the way we parent. In the fifties and sixties, according to essayist Beth Thompson, children paid attention to their parents' lives. Mothers and fathers—especially fathers—were uninterested in the ins and outs of the social, athletic, and academic drama of their kids; helicopter parenting was not in the job description. As Thompson puts it when writing about her father:

It wasn’t his job to be interested in our activities or to facilitate our social lives. It was his job to pass on his values to us. And it was a full-time job. Oh, my father smiled at my friends as he passed them in the hallway of our home, but he didn’t cultivate them and adore them as I do the friends of my children or the friends of my parents. He didn’t memorize and savor their names. One of my friends in high school he always referred to as “the little girl with the broken leg,” though she had broken her leg when she was 3.

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Thompson, though, paid close attention to everything her parents told her, and with her steel-trap memory she kept track of all of her parents' friends, all their accomplishments, all their accumulated triumphs and tragedies. Her mother had a similarly amazing memory, so powerful that she used to memorize ENTIRE BOOKS and recite them on stages before women's club gatherings, wearing a beautiful wide-brimmed hat. Now Thompson's mother is 94 and her once-prodigious memory is beginning to stutter.

Thompson's mother is lucky; she can call her daughter and find out exactly who was there at her wedding, exactly who was the older brother of the neighbor who just died, exactly which Edith Wharton book she loved and the name of the Edith Wharton home she once visited (for the record, the book is The House of Mirth, and the home is called The Mount, in Lenox, Mass.). Thompson remembers it all for her. But she knows that this reprieve from oblivion won't be available to her when she gets very old and she calls her own children for confirmation of her passage through this life.  

I don’t expect my children will memorize every detail of my life and guard and conserve my memories for me. That is why I prepare myself now. I try to imagine losing my memory, my starkest talent, my most characteristic feature. I try to imagine who I will be without it. I try to imagine myself as my mother, alone without her partner who shared her memory, trying to sweep everything up before it blows away.

It's a beautiful essay, poignant and pitch-perfect, and well worth reading and reflecting on.

 

 

Robin Marantz Henig is a science journalist and co-author, with her daughter Samantha Henig, of Twentysomething: Why Do Young Adults Seem Stuck?

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