Monthly Archives: April 2010

Memory and Memory Eternal

My father-in-law has been forgetting things. In fact, in the last many months he can’t remember most events longer than a couple of minutes after they take place. If they happened 60 or 80 years ago there is a good chance that he will remember them, but what one would call his short-term memory, that which he is losing, is broadening in scope. Ten years ago he often told us stories about things that happened 10, 20, 30 years previous, and I heard some of those stories enough times to remember them myself.

One had to do with his old leather jacket. We were at the assisted-living place where he lives, about to go out to dinner, and I wanted to take his recent favorite jacket home to launder, so I handed him another old favorite to put on. As we took the elevator down and signed out at the front desk, he got several compliments on his appearance. I told the concierge, “He and his cousin both bought leather jackets in Spain when they were on a trip there together more than 30 years ago.”

“I did?” he chuckled. “I’m glad you remember these things.” I remember some other stories he used to tell, but lately I hear new stories, from further back. Even his daughter was surprised to hear, when the conversation at a Christmas gathering turned to pets, “We always had fox terriers.” She didn’t know anything about a fox terrier tradition, because the dogs of her childhood were dachshunds and schnauzers. But W. was referring to the first dog he remembered, when he was a boy, named “Spot.” And he’s told us a few times since about Spot.

When we passed a purple house on the way back from a doctor’s appointment one afternoon, he said, “That reminds me of a woman in our church who we always called ‘The Purple Lady.’ Everything she had was purple. I haven’t thought of Mrs. Finnegan for a long time.” That was a church of his childhood, 75 yeas ago. It’s as though the loss of one data set has forced his mind to resort to a long-neglected mine of memory if it wants to keep busy.

One tale that is like the overarching First Story of his life, sweetly involves his wife, my late mother-in-law. And it happened when he was only about five years old, so I hope it will be the last one to be forgotten. Their families were friends–an aunt and uncle had even married–and they lived only a couple of blocks from each other. W. came by and walked F.K. to school on the first day of Kindergarten. They were always companions, never dated anyone else, and married when they were 21. The picture was taken in 2nd grade, cropped from the class photo where they were sitting next to each other.

W. has some good habits, which trump the rational; that is, he doesn’t have to remember to do these tasks. On another laundry-gathering visit, I asked him to take off his clothes and put on clean ones right then, so I could take the dirty ones home. When I came back into the bedroom, he had neatly folded the pants and hung them back on their hanger on the doorknob, and hung up the shirt likewise. Because he always does. And he had already forgotten why he was changing his clothes in the middle of the day.

He has a habit of being friendly and gentlemanly, so that he kept trying to help ladies scoot their chairs up to the table even when he was becoming unsteady on his feet. And he cracks really funny jokes–new ones–in the emergency room or anywhere there are people, strangers or friends.

God only knows if I have any good habits that will remain when I lose my mind’s faculties. How many pair of pants needed folding before it made a habit that endured? If I start now, building the habits I think might serve me, or God, is it too late?

I once heard Wynton Marsalis exhorting young people about the power of the daily habit of practicing their musical instruments: “Every day you go around making yourself into you.” We are not what we dream of being, we are not our vision of ourselves, or God’s plan for us, but a collection of usually little, seemingly insignificant acts that add up to a unique person.

I see people I love weaken and become confused by the afflictions of age and the loss of memory, like Vivian, who asked her daughter, “Am I myself?”

“Yes, Mom, you are.”

But there are people who don’t seem to know themselves, and certainly multitudes who have forgotten their own important stories. One aunt of ours thought she was in her right mind, but did not recognize her own daughter, and told her she was an impostor.

The possibility that I might forget important people, forget who I am, is certainly disturbing. It happens to a lot of people, being another way we are not in control, even of our own memories.

The scariest thing imaginable is to forget God. When Christ said to “take no thought for the morrow,” surely this thought was included! I have to quickly move on, and rest in the belief that it’s more important for God to remember me, than for me to remember Him. And I pray He will not soon forget someone who has tried to “stick to Christ like a burr to a coat,” as Martin Luther’s wife Katharina is said to have resolved.

Recently I read Tolkien’s “Leaf by Niggle,” which added a new dimension to my musings on this mysterious unknown toward which we are all headed. Niggle and his art are eventually forgotten by everyone on earth, and what he accomplished in his life “down here,” which was always less than he should have done, and always incomplete, has faded somewhat from his own memory. God remembers him, though, and makes use of Niggle in surprising and grand ways. What Niggle learns of Love becomes a story, a work of art and even a spiritual retreat, called by his own name, that continues to benefit souls out of time.

In the Orthodox Church we sing a simple hymn, “Memory Eternal,” at the end of memorial services, and in me it is a prayer for just this wondrous kind of thing God can do, to wrap us up in Himself and carry us through whatever shadowy places we encounter, whether in our minds or along our pathways, until our minds and hearts, and all things, are made new in that heavenly and everlasting Kingdom.

Cats, Chickens, and Tree Houses

It all started when one of my grandsons was beginning to read “chapter books,” a category of literature I hadn’t known by that name before then. He didn’t start with The Boxcar Children as my children did; what got him excited was a series about talking cats. I wanted to be able to chat with him about his reading so I got my hands on a copy of Warriors, a series by Erin Hunter. I did get pulled in to the politics and magic of wild cat clans made up of individuals with names like Ravenpaw and Bluestar, clans that fight territorial wars and look down on “kittypets,” their derogatory name for tame kitties. Hunter has written 19 books in this series so far, but perhaps Grandson B. grew out of them; he hasn’t gotten around to reading the last story.

Another grandson, in 2nd grade, recommended the Magic Tree House Mysteries by Mary Pope Osborne. 28 have been published at this writing, and he’s keeping up. I let him read several chapters out loud to me a year ago, and then I came home and read one of the series myself. Through time and earth travel that happens when they are in their tree house, the two children enter into historical events great and small all over the globe, in many different eras and cultures. The format is a vehicle for learning lots of social studies and even science trivia.

My most recent exploration of children’s literature came as a result of blogger contacts, where I heard about the books by Frances O’Roark Dowell. The two I’ve seen so far use a conversational first-person style that reminds me of The Sugar Creek Gang books of yore. In Chicken Boy the main character is a 7th-grader from a decidedly dysfunctional family; he spends the latter part of the book in a foster home, even though the reader has become sympathetic to the good hearts and potential of the family members who are neglecting Chicken Boy.

I liked the grandmother, and Boy’s school friend who gets him involved in a science project to prove that chickens have souls. A bit of philosophy hooks me in, especially when added to the fact that Boy gets several chickens to raise at Grandma’s. Grandma and Friend have a discussion on this question of souls, and Grandma concludes, “I’d believe a tree had a soul before I believed a chicken had one.”

Overall Chicken Boy is full of hope. Our 7th-grader gets over some of the major obstacles of entering junior high without a supporting family, by having kind friends and teachers and extended family. Even before Social Services enters the picture, you get the feeling he might make use of limited resources and succeed in life. Instead, the foster family provides a refreshing and not unrealistic option in his case, and it is hopeful as well. At the end of the book we don’t know if and when the original family will come together again.

Why do some children read Warriors and some books about foster children? It is heartening to think that borderline neglected children are finding Chicken Boy in the school library and taking it home to read. It could give them ideas for making the most of adversity, and ease some anxiety about the future. If just one child is uplifted by this book, the author will have accomplished a great blessing.

Bit by Bit Remodel Report

This picture shows the living room while Armando is refinishing the ceiling. Last week I painted the family room ceiling three times, in order to get a primer coat and two finish coats on it.

I do love painting, though I am as slow as molasses in January. My tutor in the art was my friend L.M., ten years my senior, lo these 30+ years ago working on a church project. After we moved here she visited from New Hampshire and helped me paint my own walls. Naturally I always think of her when I have a brush in my hand.

My new stove is in, and the sink, so I heated water for tea this morning and washed a sinkful of dishes. That felt good.

Yesterday I worked at cleaning up the garden and planting the remainder of the things I bought two weeks ago, because rain was forecast for today. I brought in some lilies in honor of the milestone of usable counters and sink.

This window will be getting some wood trim, and before the end of May I’ll have more progress to report and broader views to display of our beautifying efforts.

Waterfall with Train and a Dipper

Over the weekend Husband and I enjoyed a trip together to visit Pippin and her family; this time it was a short vacation, not the grandma-only working visit. Though I must say I prefer not to split life into such categories; I like the attitude that we tried to take as homeschoolers: Always on vacation, always in school. When traveling, I always learn things, whatever you call it.

We were in too much of a hurry on the drive up for me to take pictures, but I have to at least mention that my eyes were sated with lupines, great spreading fields and banks and roadsides full of them, on and on for two hours. The farmland, once we got toward the center of the state, was impressive with plantations of tiny tomato plants, onions in rows, and clouds of wild yellow mustard filling the ditches and anywhere the fields hadn’t been plowed.

A smudge on my camera lens turned into a glaring spot on most of the photos I took (and yes, it was the real reason, I know now, for the mysterious brightness of that calendula I posted a while back), but we will just have to overlook this imperfection when it shows up, as in this shot showing how my socks happened to match the tiny violets that have sprung up all over Pippin’s back yard.

Four cats still co-exist in the household, where they line up for meals twice a day. The big eyes belong to Little Cat.

A highlight of the weekend was seeing some waterfalls that flow year-round. Near the parking area from which one sets off for the falls, we had to wait for a train to pass over the crossing, before we could get to the other side and leave our car.

Everyone thought that someone else had put the diaper bag and the baby backpack in the car, but no one had. We did without, and took turns carrying Baby Scout.

We had to walk close beside the railroad track for a mile to get to the scenic spot. As soon as we began hobbling over the rocky slope next to the rails, the train that had just passed reversed direction and slowly came back alongside us hikers. If I had any hobo blood in me, I’d have wanted to pull myself right up and go somewhere, anywhere, just for the romance of it.

The train was remarkably quiet, rocking gently on its tracks. Our boots made more noise crunching on the largest gravel I’ve ever seen. After five minutes or so of this unreal intimacy with the looming cars, they had rolled away behind us, and we could see the Sacramento River, down the mountain where the train had blocked our view. We looked back to see this image of the locomotive backing away behind us.

The falls come right out of the hillside, not from a specific creek or spring, and fall into the river, which bends into a curve at that spot, so that it’s not possible to catch the whole span of water falling. It’s even hard when you stand in the middle of the river downstream, as we learned from one who has done it. So my photo shows about 1/4 of the total waterfall.

Pippin notices birds. She pointed this one out to me after she’d been watching him for a while.

She’d also seen his kind before at this falls, and was pretty sure she’d seen it go under the water. When we got home she looked him up in the Peterson Guide and found out he is an American Dipper or Water Ouzel. And they do walk on the bottom of streams! My picture didn’t come out as clear, so I give credit to my daughter for this one.

On second thought, my photo is so different, I think I will show it to you, too. But it’s hard to see my guy in all the glitter of the water spray.


John Muir called this bird the Waterfall Hummingbird, and wrote a lot about it. The illustration below comes from his writings, and I assume is by his hand.


I never know what I will learn when I’m with my “Nature Girl” daughter. We looked at the cedars growing around the falls, and she showed me that some of them were Port Orford Cedars, which love shade and water. Their needles are softer and finer than the incense cedars that are more common.

The contented Grandma and Grandpa are walking back along the tracks
in the westering sun.

I learned the name of a brilliant bush that startled me several times on my journey earlier this spring driving this route, it was so dramatic popping out of the grey-green hillsides. Pippin told me it is Redbud.

Frequent sightings of Redbud cheered our way home again yesterday, and we weren’t too hurried to stop and capture it in one dimension.

It was a very full weekend. I haven’t told half of what I saw and heard–but writing this fraction in a blog I hope will help at least some of it stick with me a while.