Weeds: Sometimes memory needs a kick start

I wanted to write about that guy, you know, he worked at Norwood. He lived in town, I don’t know, ten years ago? Fifteen? I think he lived by public school. You remember who I’m talking about, right? What was his name? Wait. I wrote some stuff down in the notebook that’s always by the computer. Where did Pam put that? Never mind. She put it in my drawer. OK, I guess I might have.

If you’re over 50, that last paragraph might sound familiar. Memory, or the fading of it, is something half-centenarians share war stories about. Names, dates, car keys, all tease us by being right there on the tip of our frontal cortex.

Last week, I was sorting used paint cans getting ready to paint the living room. There was a can of blue paint that didn’t look familiar. It was stamped from the hardware store “1-4-2013” and “Basement.” Our basement isn’t blue, but I didn’t think much about it. When Pam came home she reminded me that I had painted the office in our basement blue last winter. Then we changed our minds and I covered it with tan.

Oh, yeah. That was a whole 11 months ago.

I guess the good news is that I have never had a strong memory. My nickname in college was “Float” as I was notoriously absent-minded. I’ve always struggled with names and misplaced objects. The blue paint disturbed me though. I recalled it once Pam told me its story. But why couldn’t I pull that one up on my own?

The decline of memory skills is something we will all deal with if we are blessed to live a long life. We won’t all have diabetes. We won’t all have cancer. We will all face some loss of memory. There is a broad spectrum here. On one end are 90-year-olds who are as sharp as a tack. On the far end of the spectrum is Alzheimer’s disease. There is a whole range of forgetfulness-to-dementia in between.

None of the ailments that come with age sound like anyone’s idea of a good time. But if I might speak for a generation, dementia/Alzheimer’s are to be dreaded most of all. If my body slowly gives out, but my mind is good, I still am who I am. But if my mind goes, even inside a healthy body? Well, I’m not sure who I am. Or was.

Memory has always seemed fickle, more random than intentional. While I have never had a good memory, odd things stick in my head. Years ago I was in a motorcycle accident. I remember coming to in the ambulance and trying to convince my attendant that I was OK by reciting the Twins schedule for the rest of the season. Then there were summers I was coaching my daughter’s softball team. It occurred to me once that I could remember every game she had played and probably most of the innings.

Other things, important things, are blurred. They are a blur, like watching a fan. If you blink, you can see the blades for a split second. Much of the past is like that; snap shots of memory, a lot of it not identifiable. Thirty seasons of farming are a jumble. Some farmers can tell you that 1995 was a such-and-such year. I can’t. There are a thousands of disconnected memories: looking at plants, wishing for rain, wishing for no rain, fixing equipment, etc., etc.

Daughter Abby had a remarkable memory. And then she didn’t. Until she was about ten, she could recall moment by moment of hundreds of events in her short life. “Remember when we saw that squirrel by the library.” “I miss that blue shirt I used to have when I was little.” “We bought sweet corn here before.” It amazed me, and we had great fun talking about the happenings in her life.

Then much of it was gone. Abby didn’t remember the squirrel in front of the library. She had been a repository for a whole set of experiences we had together, and I missed that. A few years later I heard a memory expert on the radio saying that many children can hold huge amounts of memories. But as the brain develops toward adolescence, it sheds these. That explained it, but it still made me a little sad.

Lately, I have noticed that if someone reminds me of something that happened back in our growing-up years, there is an almost physical sensation in recollecting that. When something has been buried in my head for decades, and I can recall it, it is stimulating. “Re-collecting,” is a good word here. It’s like picking something up that you have dropped, “collecting” it again.

Friends and I joke about brain cells we have killed off. I don’t know the science concerning alcohol and if it really eradicates brain cells. But sometimes I wonder if nothing stronger than Nesbitt’s had ever crossed these lips, would I have a better memory? Who knows? It’s quite too late to run that experiment.

I do wonder about all those times that are gone from my memory. Good stuff, like working with my dad and raising young children. Bad stuff, too, arguments, wrong decisions, stuff that I’d probably just as soon stay buried in my consciousness. If my life was a book, lots of pages are torn out. If I don’t remember a tree dropping in the forest, does it make a memory?

In the gospel of John, Jesus says, “But the Helper, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, he will teach you all things and bring to your remembrance all that I have said to you.” That’s good. Some of us can use a little help.

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