The nature of remembering

I don’t know how my daughter’s memory works. She doesn’t remember much about the winter she was seven, which experience has been scarred into my soul (“How can you not remember that!” is how it feels to me). She doesn’t remember the day camp teacher who saw her every day of every summer for four years, until she was eleven. She doesn’t remember what she got for her birthday or even, sometimes, when her birthday is.

Do you remember, I’ll ask, urgent, wanting to find some common ground, some continuity between one day and the next, and she’ll screw up her face and say yeah in a way that means she doesn’t.

She tries to hold onto the memories. She has never forgotten that she loved our dogs, but they have been gone many years now. So she has stuffed animals that look like them and old creased photos I took when everyone was a lot younger than they are now, and she talks about them all the time so that she won’t forget.

She bumps into me when we walk across the parking lot, and says, “I’m just like Dakota, aren’t I, Mom?” Because Dakota used to do that to me on our long walks, nudging my thigh, her tail curled over her back, briskly trotting down the street.

“You’re just like Dakota, darlin’,” I tell her, and kiss the top of her head.

For me the past is an uncomfortable companion breathing too close to my ear. Every error of judgment I ever made, every wrong turn I ever took, is a stone weighing down my soul, vivid and unforgettable. Nothing like the gossamer threads of the past that my daughter clutches at. I remember too much, most of it inconsequential, but it seemed important at the time, like the things you put in a time capsule. Thirty years later, when you crack it open, you marvel that you ever thought it was worth saving.

To me, the past is a burden, but I see Jessica on the couch, clutching the old photographs of her dogs, her stuffed animals ranged on either side of her, trying hard to remember, and I see it is also a gift. Some things are worth remembering: Dakota the dog, and the day my daughter was born, and the sound of my agent’s voice on the phone when she said, Your book is going to auction.

But I am coming to understand that the loss of all those yesterdays is its own kind of gift. I sometimes think this may be the secret of Jessica’s happiness: to be here now, present, eternally and always, with unremembered yesterdays and no promise of tomorrow.


  1. That was another powerful post.

    I loved this line….
    "For me the past is an uncomfortable companion breathing too close to my ear. Every error of judgment I ever made, every wrong turn I ever took, is a stone weighing down my soul, vivid and unforgettable."

  2. Hello Jennifer; Just finished reading The Other Side of the Desk you wrote for WRITER'S YEARBOOK 2011 and truly learn a lot from it. So I decide to check out your web site posted at the end of your article.

    I truly enjoyed reading about Jessica, she is blessed having such a caring mother who sees what she sees, understanding the road her daughter travels on a daily bases. I do plan on reading your earlier posts, thanks Liliane from Canada.

  3. A few years ago I read about a project at an Ontario university that aimed to help people with serious memory loss (due to accidents and illness, rather than ageing) by providing them with PDAs and other assists. Many of those profiled in the article were severely handicapped their social interactions were because they were unable to remember people, not just events. It made me realize that memory is everything: there is nothing we do that is not driven by it.
    But a friend in his sixties commented – about the spectre of Alzheimer's – that he wasn't particularly afraid of developing it, as in his view it was not a bad thing to lose memory of most everything but the present. Simplistic, yes, but his point was that without the knowledge of things that worry most people, one could be quite happy. Burdens lifted because of memory denied.

    Jennifer, this post was excellent, as your posts always are. You are a pleasure to read, even when the subject is hard. I have been catching up with your latest offerings and will move on to the next couple with anticipation.

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