The recipe for chocolate cake that was always a signature piece in her culinary repertoire was one of the first things to check out of her memory. It departed like a train car one day, trundling down a long and winding track in no particular hurry. You could catch a glimpse of it in the distance for a long time as it neared the horizon line, and then it was simply gone. It was followed by a series of other such cars retreating in the distance til they could not be seen. Cars stuffed with odd ends and bits that we hardly know we have in our heads. Names. Faces. Places. In the end, everything disappeared down the winding tracks except for a few hymns learned in childhood and a persistent sweet tooth my loving grandfather nurtured to the last by bringing her a milkshake every time he came to visit. He held her hand. She let him because it seemed the right thing to do. But the lucid moments were fewer each day.
I ached to see my grandmother leave us like that. This horrible long goodbye went on for years. A ghost of herself for a spell. Then a pale shadow of a woman. Finally nearly a blank slate as if everything had been erased from a chalkboard. The erasers beaten stoutly until only a floating mist of chalk dust remained hanging in the air.
My Grandma Carter was the short woman with hair like snow and a quick nervous laugh who always jumped up from the small stool where she sat at the dinner table for all the things you should have thought to get before you sat down. She always found the thing you lost. That was her most remarkable quality. You would call out to her that you could not find thus-and-such-a-thing anywhere. She was on the case instantly, rummaging through closets and drawers. Every other project dropped. She took no rest until it was found. One on occasion, she had been on the job for what seemed two and a half hours before a cousin recalled he had never brought the object in question with him in the first place. I can’t tell her, my cousin said. You have to tell her, I said. She’ll keep on looking and not finding. It will drive us all crazy. What if I told her I lost something else she could find easily? he asked. Then we could get on with our lives.
We exist only in our own memory for good or ill. It’s a fun house mirror of a memory all bent and distorted since we are contradictory creatures always trying to re-craft our own narratives to erase the ambiguities and inconsistencies. If we have forgotten all that was bad and wrong about ourselves, we must be great indeed. Who is there to tell us differently? Our spouses usually are there to remind us of just how dumb and inadequate and untrue to our best selves we have been.
If a tedious journal was kept of every day of our life, accurately recording all the deeds and misdeeds like a baseball players stats, what could be learned from it? The ridiculous nature of day to day lives. What a waste has been made of the time at hand. A thousand mundane moments recorded in minute-by-minute detail. Most of us don’t want or need that kind of scrutiny and could not stand up to that sort of penetrating gaze. It’s a mercy that the trains leave the station slowly and tote away all those things we can’t let go of and yet need to be rid of. It’s an unburdening to let them slip on by and not live under the constant weight of heavy remembrance.
But the South is a land heavy with memory.
I sometimes think the eastern seaboard is like a rubber band being pulled in two different directions at once. The North straining to move forward with relentless energy. The South pulling back against the tide to return to someplace lost and forgotten that almost never was and could never possibly become again. So many ghosts in the attic.
People in the South do not want you to leave the South for the North. It is like forsaking an old lover for one with more money, flash and pluck. If you go, you will forget. You will plunge ahead with the invisible web of memories that connect you to the world slowly untangling, unraveling and snapping at last. If you go, you will remember nothing. And lose everything. And who will you be? And what will you do? And when you are gone, who will remember your name up there in that strange land?
We remember the names in the South. But we worry that everything will be forgotten in the North where you may not even be noticed at all among all the noise and din and throngs of people, never to reside in the living memory of the land. And the further you get from the South, your own memory will drift and err and skip a beat along the tracks. You will remember nothing of any importance, treasure nothing of any consequence and amount to a soulless automaton.
The War of Northern Aggression (as we are sometimes taught to call the Civil War in the South) has left a slight lingering hiccup in our cultural stride. We move at a quarter step slower pace with a soulful awareness of tragedy and loss that unburdened Northerners do not possess. There’s something beautiful about this movement that suggests appreciation of the past and awareness of the heat of the sweltering sun. Conversely, the cold in the North tends to speed you up. You want to get somewhere fast to be warm. The Late Unpleasantness is not an impediment.
New York City is full of history, but its story is constantly being rewritten, revised and retooled to advantage. Razing something to the ground and rebuilding it better and stronger is the natural instinct. In the South, renovations are always in order, but the foundations have been salvaged through great effort. Whatever is new is a reincarnation of the old, another iteration of the past.
In the end, you will have to return to the South where the invisible tide is pulling you constantly. There, when all other memories have retreated like dust bunnies, you will remember a hymn you learned in childhood. And that somebody somewhere loves you. Maybe that’s all you need to remember anywhere ever anyway.