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Memento Memoriae

I went to see my Mum yesterday. She turned 91 last week and is in good health for her age, though she eats far too little. The only real thing wrong with her is her memory, which has increasingly deteriorated over the last few years and is now so bad she can’t remember how to make a cup of tea.

Until fairly recently, she did a passable imitation of being fine. I remember the time that I visited and it became apparent that she had not a clue who I was. I’d never have guessed, but in Polish, as in French, one doesn’t say “you” in the same way when speaking formally. When your mother effectively addresses you formally, it’s a fairly safe bet that she doesn’t recognise you as family, let alone her daughter. It was a huge shock and very upsetting (for both of us). I didn’t have the children with me then (fortunately) – although she seems to still recognise them most of the time and even remembers their names.

I have become accustomed to her not knowing who I am at least half the time now and I sometimes feel as if I’ve fallen into a time loop, repeating the same short conversation over and over in a matter of minutes. It is as though something has taken an eraser and is just steadily rubbing out most of her memories, sometimes hot on the heels of their formation. The thing I really have difficulty getting used to, is the feeling that one day I will almost certainly be that bewildered and frightened old lady, who remembers almost nothing of her life or the people in it, not even where her bedroom is, let alone who she is. I already find myself struggling to recall a name or word sometimes.

The strange thing is, that although she has forgotten so much, some memories seem to have stuck and get trotted out regularly. They seem curiously insignificant things, like the description of a hill with a big tree and a house that none of us recognise, but obviously holds some significance for her, though she can’t say other than asking if this is where I live. Earlier in the summer, she described in detail the state of the house and garden when she first moved there about 50 years ago. The older memories come more easily.

Over summer, my sisters managed to get her into respite care for a few weeks, but now she is back at home. The problem is, that for most of the time she was at the home she was disorientated and now that she is back, she is disorientated again. I am hoping that when she settles back into what should be familiar surroundings, she will be less afraid, but I suspect that it is just going to get worse. She has good days, when sometimes the memories come and bad days when she knows nothing and is frightened and upset. Yesterday was a bad day. Maybe next time she will remember the house on the hill or maybe, that too, has left her now.

After a visit a couple of months ago,I started thinking on the curious nature of memory and the odd mixture of things that I remember with such clarity from when I was very young.  Not the second hand memories of events that people tell you about, or that you’ve seen photos of, and convinced yourself that you remember exactlythat way, but the things that are real – the smells and feelings and thoughts.

I wasn’t sure if I wanted to share any of this publicly, but I wrote most of the following then (lest I forget!) – I’m still not sure I want to share this post, but here are some of my earliest memories, from before the age of 6:

I vividly remember…

…sitting at the top of the garden steps and drinking  juice made from rosehip syrup out of a baby bottle. I’d bask in the sun on the warm concrete step, leaning against the wall. I liked getting hiccups because then I’d get gripe water. (I’m still very fond of the taste of alcohol dill).

…the pale blue leather leash harness that allowed me to get out of the grey pushchair and walk and which I would always struggle to escape.

…the day my Dad made me a rocking horse and I “helped”. It was made of planks, with a stripey pink and white seat made of quilted vinyl and a mane and tail made from beige knitting wool and I loved it. I’d ride it gently watching cowboy films and furiously when watching horseracing on TV. It was still around a few years ago, though I’m not sure where it is now.

…riding on the lawnmower as my Dad cut the grass. (This one may be slightly second hand, propped up by photos and stories.)

…spending a lot of time sitting and crawling under tables and in particular the green footstool, which had a leafy cave-like quality and which my Mum still uses. I can’t imagine being small enough to have ever managed to fit beneath it.

…my Mum completely losing her rag when she found that I’d drawn (in pencil) on the wall in the corner of the living room that was one of my little hidey holes. I never did it again.

…the night I caught a glimpse of Santa leaving a present in my cot. It was a cotton wool bunny in a red satin dress with cream lace around the neck and cuffs. It was the first toy I remember being all mine and not a hand-me-down.

…waiting for my Dad to come home from work. There was rice and tomato sauce/soup for tea. It was my bedtime and I was waiting to see him first. It must have been winter because it was dark. My Mum and I both kept going to the window to see if we could see him coming. I was wearing my red dressing gown and pink nightie. I can’t have been very old. I’m not absolutely sure, but I think I had to go to bed before he got back so I didn’t see him. It was the waiting that I remember.

…picking sorrel on Hampstead Heath with my Mum. We’d been to the clinic for a Polio booster (I didn’t know this at the time, but it was medicine in the form of a half-coloured sugar lump). I resisted all attempts to feed me the sugar lump – my Mum offered to eat half if I ate the other, so I agreed if she ate the coloured half. (No flies on me, even as a toddler). In the end, she bribed me by promising a trip to the Heath to pick sorrel – I loved sorrel soup. This must have been early summer because the sun was shining and the Heath was green and alive, with young sorrel in amongst the long grasses. We picked the leaves and I chewed on a few, enjoying the vinegary flavour. I suppose we must have had sorrel soup that night.

…walking along the top of the low wall of Whittington Hospital on the way to church on Sundays. Then after the service, going back through Waterlow Park. My Mum always took monkey nuts in her handbag and the squirrels would come and take them from your hand. I liked going to look at the big aviary full of noisy, brightly coloured birds too.

… mushrooming in autumn. The whole family would go off to Highgate Woods on a Sunday, fan out and scour the ground for edible fungi. I had my own little knife and basket. I wore ski pants and a red cape (yes, just like little red riding hood, but without the hood 🙂 I remember once I spotted the most enormous mushroom, must have been a foot across,  just standing on its own on a bare slope. It was huge and I’d found it!
We’d get home afterwards, spread newspaper on the kitchen floor, fill a couple of washing up bowls with water and then the whole family would set about washing, trimming and sorting the haul. Wild mushrooms take a lot of cleaning. The smaller ones would go for pickling, the larger ones sliced for sauce and the offcuts and stalks for soup. This part is largely one of those composite memories made up of repeated activities.

…my Dad and his friends sitting around in the living room on a Saturday afternoon, smoking and drinking beer while watching the wrestling and sports on TV.

…my first ever day at school and sitting cross-legged in a big semi-circle while the teacher talked to us. I’m not sure how much I understood – I’d only just started learning English. The only thing I recall from the lessons was art, blowing paint around with straws on the paper and potato printing. I remember the smell of mash and beans at lunchtime in the big hall and the curious old outdoor toilet blocks. I remember lying in the long grass of the meadow in summer, picking buttercups and daisies and rolling down the slope until I was dizzy. These are happy memories that still make me smile.

…the morning my Mum got the call from the hospital that my Dad had died. She had just finished getting me ready for school and we were about to go out of the door. She told me that he was happy in heaven now and I didn’t understand why she was crying, because this was a good thing, wasn’t it? I remember being taken to the funeral parlour to see him on my way to school, what seems like weeks later, but must have only been a few days. I couldn’t really see over the edge of the coffin. I was 4. We stopped to look at the statue of Whittington’s cat as well.

…pretending to feel unwell one morning so I didn’t have to go to school. They told us the doctor was coming in to give us jabs. The school phoned my Mum and she let me stay at home for the day on the understanding we would go for the jabs later.  We got to the school and I grabbed a hold of the doorframe, planted my feet, cried and screamed my head off. I wouldn’t go in to the same room as the doctor. They gave up trying to make me 😀 (I still mistrust doctors – I’ve no idea why)

Why do we remember relatively insignificant episodes, things of no particular importance, and forget other more important things? On reflection, as I read these, I have begun to wonder if some are as insignificant as I’d first supposed.

At risk of being slightly morbid, I wonder which of them and my other memories will stay with me to the very end.

What are the memories that have stuck with you? Are they turning points or just ordinary things?

12 September 2011

One Comments to “Memento Memoriae”

  1. Just wanted to say,I think it’s the oldest memories that are most likely to be remembered the longest …

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