There is no stipulated time in life when we start “forgetting.” We all forget. As we increase our knowledge, so also we begin to forget: an item here, an occurrence there, a dangling thread that goes nowhere. Sometimes retrieval is simple: a particular smell, sight, sound or touch may jog the memory and most of what we have forgotten comes flooding back and we recall so much. Sometimes, it is not, and the memories fail to come.
Spending time with old (i.e. longtime) friends, one often takes a walk down memory lane. Soon, we are recreating an entire evening, for example, of an event that happened some 25 years ago and pictures flood in helter-skelter – we cannot wait to recall this or that person, how we looked and felt, what we ate or where it all took place.
There is much nostalgia that we recall with wistful and loving good feelings. When we think about a close chum who was special, we remember our times together; when we open a drawer and our eyes spot a long-forgotten photo or trinket lodged at the back, we relive a past moment.
Not everything is pleasant to remember or rehash, of course. Sometimes in the remembering, we re-feel the pain of long ago, and the sadness that often accompanied the ache. Even though time has passed and healed so many wounds, there are some memories that time does not allow us the forgetting.
Remembering is not heartbreaking per se; it is simply that we are looking through the other end of the telescope. The past is not as sharp or as large as the present and, in that moment of reflection, it appears so far away.
How do we remember? A touch on the arm, a particular look in someone’s eyes, a suit or a dress found in the closet.
When we start on a journey into the past, we are often off and running, breathlessly gulping down gobs of stuff that hasn’t crossed our mind in ages. We wonder how So-and-so is. Is she still around? How many kids did she and her “no-goodnik” husband end up having? Well, he was a character of the first waters, that’s for sure!
At another time, we might think to ourselves, I remember that handsome guy who used to come to the club; for the life of me I can’t recall his name … but I remember he was a damn good dancer and I loved being held and gently beguiled around the floor. Wonder if my friend in Australia would remember him? There was something about him having more than a drop or two of royal blood – from his father’s side, because his mother must have been Jewish … and, horror of horrors, we heard he was a bastard! (We didn’t use words like “illegitimate” back in those days where I came from.) Somehow, my friends and I didn’t seem to mind.
I could go on. One mental image leads to another so swiftly and a part of one’s life is relived in sizzling rapidity. We sometimes stop to examine a nugget, turning it this way and that, enjoying the feelings, the movements, the music. Not only do we not miss a beat, but we recall the tiniest details sometimes: faces, antics, what we ate, even the weather. Remember how it rained that night? I had to throw away my shoes! And so it goes. Or so it goes for us on such journeys in time.
Is this traveling safe? Of course it is! However, we are not meant to sit and brood for too long on the past. A dip here and there into something is quantum sufficit, and we do our best not to dwell unduly.
Is it time well spent? Should we be doing something more worthwhile? Somehow I get the feeling that we all need to connect with the past; with our pasts. It is like connecting the dots of our personal history and, in that way, somehow legitimizing who we are; not only who we are today but who we were then. Hence, these rememberings are very special, very important.
You can find your genetic makeup but that won’t tell you about your grandfather’s first suit, or how fast he outgrew it! Or how nerdy he felt wearing it for his bar mitzvah.
How much do you, dear reader, know about your parents’ rememberings? What do you know about your grandparents’ memories? Do you have a sense of who you are in that way? You can find your genetic makeup but that won’t tell you about your grandfather’s first suit, or how fast he outgrew it! Or how nerdy he felt wearing it for his bar mitzvah.
Events usually are recorded and can be recalled. However, it is being able to sit down comfortably next to your parent or grandparent and “chew the fat,” so to speak, that is truly meaningful. The plum in the pudding is the rare offering of a safta’s or a bubbe’s feelings, a saba’s or a zayde’s memory, and the contemplation today about how it was in the yesterdays of their lives. When a parent or a grandparent begins, “Oy, I must tell you,” it is in that moment that you start to get a sense, a brief glimpse, not so much of how it must have been, but rather how it felt.
Engaging in this sort of companionship is a win-win situation. A safta, for example, feels tremendously good, almost like she’s making you a meal, feeding you once again. It is that sense of giving, sharing, depositing for safekeeping. And, really, it is so much less exhausting and stressful compared to making another batch of komish broit, another bowl of matzah ball soup; never mind the washing up after! And you feel strengthened and joyful receiving the precious gift of a part of your heritage, which is unique to you and your family. It’s a little bit of your history, as well as a piece or two of the fabric of the community in which you live.
It is never too soon to have this type of interaction. It is sometimes too late – I never had the good fortune to know my grandparents, who came from Baghdad in Iraq and Persia (Iran today). My mother died when I was 12. My knowledge of my forebears would fill less than a page. This is my tragedy. Researching the history of these Jewish communities is akin to a starving person scratching for food from a parched earth: too much desert with nary a signpost to sustenance.
So, how do we remember? You can look through a box of photographs but if no one is there to tell you at whom or what you are looking, or if you didn’t experience those moments yourself with your loved ones, you might as well add the pictures to your recycling pile and take them to the curb. As an elder, I say to you: we need to be remembered – not just for our health and happiness, but for your sake as well!
Seemah C. Berson, born in Calcutta, India, in 1931, has lived in Vancouver since 1954. Married to Harold, with four sons and various grandchildren, baruch Hashem, she and Harold are longtime members of the Peretz Centre for Secular Jewish Culture. Author of I Have a Story to Tell You (Wilfred Laurier University Press, 2010), comprising the personal recollections of Jewish immigrants to Canada between 1900-1930, subsequently working in the Canadian garment industries, she is a freelance writer and occasional dabbler in art, children’s poems and stories.