When an acquaintance criticized my columns for being too melancholy, I didn’t know what he meant. The last one had been about the joys of grandparenting. Before that, happy memories of living in Germany. “You always write about the past,” he said. But that’s not true, I thought. I’ve written about dogs, San Diego, hearing aids, winter walks and a visit to the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Yet his criticism contained some truth: even when I write about the present, the past sneaks in.
Now I know why. The past has become another sense, like hearing and vision, for interpreting reality. It’s a frame of reference, a yardstick that measures everything I encounter. Even when I’m focused on the present I can’t help thinking of the past because “now” reminds me of “then.” At Thanksgiving I’ll remember spending the holiday at my grandparents’ house in Unadilla in the 1950s. When I see today’s millionaire ballplayers resplendent in gold necklaces but unable to bunt, I compare them to the players of my youth. When the current occupant of the White House appears on TV, I compare him to presidents.
Pleasant memories can be a refuge, too, something solid to hold onto in uncertain times. Everyone who’s ever been alive has lived a precarious life in uncertain times, but bad news is thrust in our faces all the time now. We’re bombarded with news we don’t need to see and images we can’t forget — until the next ones come along. Reminiscing may reduce stress. It’s probably healthier than staring at TV commercials for cars, drugs, insurance and Stuffed Cheez-it Pizza. When I was a kid, the evening news on all three networks lasted only 15 minutes. In the early 1960s the broadcasts expanded to 30 minutes. But now the world’s suffering is with us 24 hours a day, at a time when many of the traditional institutions we looked to are in decline.
Memory is like a stew. The ingredients are identifiable but their flavors blend together. First, there’s my extended, multi-generational family. Not a day goes by that I don’t think of them. I remember boyhood pals from the old neighborhood, high school and college classmates, Army buddies and co-workers. Many memories involve travel in this country and abroad. But I also remember sledding in winter, and snowball fights in soggy woolen mittens. Clawing the earth to play marbles in the spring. Summer afternoons pulsing with heat and possibility. Stickball in the school yard. Sticky hands from melting Popsicles. The smell of warm grass and the feel of a new baseball in supple fingers. Wearing sweaters or zippered jackets to grammar school on autumn mornings and tying them by the sleeves around our waists on the walk home in the afternoon.
I’ll suddenly remember my best friend’s orange cat, Yadnik, sleeping on a sunny windowsill. Or the biography of Napoleon by Emil Ludwig I was reading as a teenager when an older cousin, a college student, dismissed the book as “sensationalism.” Or three purple plums in a white bowl on a windowsill in the kitchen of my aunt’s 18th-century farmhouse in Pennsylvania, where we held family reunions in the 1970s. Or a pretty, black-haired girl in a yellow dress, wearing a bow in her hair, whom I glimpsed once, just briefly, in the lobby of a movie theater in Corpus Christi, Texas, in 1967.
Memory is our individual history. It tells us who we are. It gives us our sense of self, distinguishing us from every other human being who’s ever lived. At the end of our lives, memories may be all we’ll have left, our most precious possession. Who among us doesn’t fear dementia, losing our autonomy and memory, our ability to function, our unique identity?
Contemplating the past is a form of self-discovery. It’s an opportunity to achieve self-awareness. The Danish philosopher Kierkegaard said, “Life can only be understood backwards; but it must be lived forwards.” Being in the backwards-looking stage of life now, with more past than future to think about, I can tell you he was right. Growing old is like climbing a mountain peak and discovering on the other side a panoramic view of the valley below, where you see not only the big river of your life but also its many tributaries and the bridges over them. All at once, everything makes sense. And the view is spectacular.
Robert Bechtold lives in Morris. ‘Senior Scene’ columns can be found at www. thedailystar.com/news/lifestyles.