Do you ever stop to think about what a memory really is? Like exactly what it is that is sticking around our brains, how we store it, and how much detail we store? I sometimes wonder if memories, at least the kind we reproduce anecdotally, are just that–anecdotes–stories that we tell and retell to ourselves in our own mind. And as things that get told and retold are want to do, these stories morph as details blur or merge or disappear or get embellished (ever play the game Telephone?). So our memories are less like snapshots and souvenirs in a scrapbook and more like folklore–dangling from a thin cord of facts amidst a cloud of details and possibilities.
I think we’ve all asked ourselves at one point or another, or else have been asked, what our first real memory is. When do children start making memories, anyway? I can tell you things that happened when I was only a few months old, like the time I stole my cousin’s pacifier and clutched it–and my own– next to my face, giggling, while he bawled and screamed. But I’m certain that these are merely anecdotes related to me by other adults in my life and not real memories. I think I remember hitting that same cousin on the head with a hammer a couple of years later, but wonder if I only remember hearing this rather remarkable tale repeated by parents and other adult parties involved in ajudicating the situation in its aftermath.
I distinctly remember deciding when I was in first grade that my first real memory was of my cousin (yes, same one) biting me on the arm when I wouldn’t give him my Baby Glowworm (this might’ve been why I later hit him with that hammer!). But now I wonder if my memory of that event–which had no adult witnesses to retell the tale to me–is really just a story that I told myself, that I replayed in my little tow-head as I lay in my crib, and then in my big girl bed, until by the time I reached first grade it had solidified as a bone fide memory. I wonder.
But there are others types of memories I can’t explain in the same way. I can’t explain the way walking by a display of Love’s Baby Soft perfume after it’s just been sprayed brings to mind images of my hot pink Caboodles makeup case full of all my contraband cosmetics I used to hide in my closet; I’m certain I’ve never replayed a story like that (until just now, putting it into words). It’s more than just recognizing the smell and then associating it with a time and place in my past. The smell creates the memory, and suddenly I’m recalling slumber parties and dresses I wore on school picture day or to school dances that I didn’t remember I remembered.
Then there’s the memory of a familiar voice. Voice recognition–I mean, the recognition of a specific voice–is remarkable in the first place, and is probably where my serious pondering about memory and memory storage was sparked. But to be able to play vividly in your head the voice of someone whose voice you haven’t heard in a long time leaves me absolutely dumbstruck. While I may be able to retell myself stories involving a specific person and specific words and phrases they’ve uttered, I couldn’t begin to tell myself how their voice sounds while they were saying those things. To know and to actually hear those voices…maybe it’s insanity. Or maybe it’s the purest kind of memory.
On my grandfather’s last birthday I called him from California to wish him a happy birthday. He was surprised and delighted to hear from me, and we had a wonderful conversation–much lighter and more…us than the last time I’d seen him. Two days later I was walking to campus, thinking about that conversation and how happy and strong and optimistic he sounded about embarking on his 73rd year, when a song came on my iPod shuffle that I’d not listened to before. It was from the new Avril Lavigne album I’d received for Christmas, and once the lyrics began I recognized it from the liner notes; it was “Slipped Away,” a song Avril had written when her grandfather passed away. As I listened to the lyrics closely, I ached for her loss but felt a wave of strength and gratitude, reminded how lucky I was to still have all of my grandparents. About eight hours later I got the call.
“Stac, where are you?” My dad was more somber than usual.
“I’m in my office, but getting ready to walk home. I know, I know, it’s late. But it’s not quite dark here. I promise I’ll walk home before it gets dark.” I’d only been living in California and on my own for about 4 months, and a month of that I’d just spent home for the holidays. I was annoyed by the daily calls and emails checking up on me, but admittedly always glad to hear from my family, whom I missed dearly.
“Are you alone?”
“Yes, Dad, but–“
“It’s about Grandpa,” he interrupted me.
“Yeah. Stac, he’s gone.” And then something about calling 911 and an ambulance and names and names and maybes and hospital and not sure and blood and lungs and … funeral. I really didn’t catch much of the words he was saying because in my head I was raking up all my memories of my grandfather into a big pile so that I could bury myself in them and drown out the sounds. It worked pretty well, obviously. But one sound resonated through the layers of memories–his voice.
In the days that followed–the crying sobbing, the travel arrangements, the redeye flight, the trying to understand how someone who had always been in my life could just not be there anymore, the afternoon with the entire family crowded into my grandparents’ living room, seated awkwardly so as not to sit in Papaw’s seat–through all this his voice was unrelenting. It was there as I scribbled a eulogy, as I sat with my mom, with my cousins, with my grandmother. And then came the visitation, and I saw him…or what they said was him. He looked so, cold. His warmth, his smile, the compassion that radiated from his blue eyes–all gone. And as I stood there searching the coffin for some familiar trace of my Papaw, his voice was gone, too.
For the rest of that evening his voice didn’t return. At first I was relieved; the visitation was hard enough to get through without him being there, in my head, taunting and teasing me. But later, as I sat down in earnest to finalize the eulogy I would give at the funeral the next day, I got scared. I needed to hear his voice, to hear him reminding me of all the right things to say. I gathered all of his other grandchildren together and we sat recalling our favorite memories of Papaw–the anecdotal type of memories–which each of us had told and retold ourselves so many times more than a few arguments erupted over details of the “memories.” This helped me decide what to say in the eulogy, but the voice was still silent.
As I lay in bed that night I kept trying to tell myself what Papaw’s voice sounded like. It had finally hit me that I was never going to hear his voice coming from his mouth again, and if I couldn’t even hear it in my head I might just forget what it sounds like. That thought haunted my dreams more than any other that night. I could imagine nothing more horrendous than forgetting the sound of my Papaw’s voice.
My only memories of the morning of the funeral are of Sheila, a woman my parents used to teach with, coming to my parents’ house to receive the casseroles and desserts and other dishes neighbors and friends were bringing by for the family. I was a mess. Everyone was a mess. I’d been to a few funerals before, but usually just for distant family members i didn’t know well. I had no way of preparing myself to say goodbye to someone I knew and loved and hadn’t had the chance to properly say goodbye to. I was not ready, and the silence of his voice would make saying my goodbye that much harder.
My grandfather was well-loved by everyone he ever met, so half the county showed up for his visitation, and I think the other half came to the funeral. I believe our small town funeral home nearly ran out of folding chairs, and there were guests standing in the back of the hall where the funeral took place. I don’t remember much about the music played or the scriptures read, and I’m not even sure how I knew I was supposed to come to the front to deliver the eulogy. What I do remember is that the minute I got to the front of the room and could see my Papaw in that casket, my eyes brimmed over and the tears splashed from my eye to my cheek to the paper in my hands, smearing the notes I’d scrawled. My teary eyes made it too hard to read my prepared notes, anyway, so I took a deep breath and just started talking. A couple of sentences into the eulogy, I paused mid-sentence with a mildly perplexed look on my face.
There was an echo. My voice was echoing. I finished my sentence, listening carefully, then smiled and carried on. It was Papaw’s voice echoing my words. He was back.