Thanks to my friend’s bountiful garden and generosity, I held in my hand a beautiful beefsteak tomato. Plump, red, vine ripened, home-grown, juicy and flavorful. I carefully sliced thick pieces that I lightly seasoned with salt to top perfectly toasted bread spread with a thin layer of cream cheese. My first bite took me back to my parent’s kitchen, eating open faced sandwiches with tomatoes freshly picked from their lush garden still warm from the summer sun. It’s amazing how small things like a familiar taste or smell can take you back to another time, sometimes a memory long forgotten.
I was listening to a story on NPR (yes, I am a proud public radio nerd) about a study that revealed how our memories are constantly changing, being edited with each recollection, replayed through the lens of today’s filter and experiences. So, while we think we remember what happened, with each recall that memory can be subtly changed. Have you ever retold a story and had your friend or spouse pipe in and say they remember it differently? “We met at nine, we met at eight, I was on time, no, you were late. Ah, yes, I remember it well.” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GQxM5rJ-uiY (Hermione Gingold and Maurice Chevalier) Then there is childbirth. While I think I remember everything vividly, there is a selective amnesia that allowed me to forget about the less appealing parts (ouch!) and focus on that moment when I held my precious baby for the first time and choose to do that again. I really thought that I would remember every detail of that first year, how could I possibly forget baby’s first favorite vegetable (sweet potato)? Well, the specifics do get fuzzy after many sleepless nights but looking into my baby’s eyes for the first time is unforgettable.
Making memories is what life is all about in my opinion. Whether they are amazing and fun times like an epic family vacation or times when everything goes wrong, like a family vacation. How many times have you thought to yourself: one day we will look back on this and laugh?
I think about my mom, beautiful, strong and loving. An immigrant who came to the United States post war as a young woman. Leaving behind her brother and sisters to start a new life and make new memories and leave some bad ones behind. She met and married my father, had four children (the youngest is pretty ok) and had a long life, well-lived and full of memories big and small. Slowly those memories began to slip away. Just a moment of forgetfulness. Subtle at first and with the help of my father, hidden. At times she was angry and frustrated by it and then not. Lost inside her own mind, recalling old memories and forgetting new ones.
Alzheimer’s was steadily, stealthily stealing her memories away and in some ways, it was stealing her as well. Even when she no longer remembered my name, I feel like she knew that I belonged to her. Perhaps deep down, the memory of holding her youngest daughter for the first time was ingrained deep in her mind and when she looked into my eyes the wisp of memory gave her a sense that we were two parts of one heart.
Are memories what make us who we are? Our experiences shape us and how we react sets our path. What happens when our memories fade? My mom was still my mom, but we couldn’t relate the same way anymore. I didn’t want the woman who I knew and loved to disappear. The best way I could think to keep my mom was to share things about her with my kids, husband and friends. Recalling her fabulous cooking, warm hand knitted “Oma socks” and the uncanny ability to know what was going on in her children’s lives whether they told her or not. Even though she no longer remember those things, her memories could live on in our retelling of stories, experiences and love. She is no longer with us but the scent of freshly laundered sheets, a bunch of daisies and yes, a bite of a fresh tomato sandwich keeps her memory etched on my heart.