Honoring the Past: Weaving Story from Memory

“There was a long hard time when I kept far from me the remembrance of what I had thrown away when I was quite ignorant of its worth.”

― Charles Dickens

book-skull

Here’s a story about my mother (and I hope she forgives me for telling it). She heard once on TV that the safest place for something in a house fire is inside the oven, because an oven is insulated to keep the heat in and so it’s pretty good at keeping the fire out. If you wanted to salvage something in a house fire — like say, important financial documents or a family heirloom — sticking it inside the oven might just work. (I should note: I have no idea if this is true. Do not try this at home.) So one year, before leaving on vacation, my mother put her wedding photo album inside the oven… just in case the house burned down while she was away.

As these things happen, she and my dad returned home from vacation happy but exhausted from the trip, and decided to order pizza for dinner so they wouldn’t have to cook. They turned the oven to preheat so they could keep the pizza warm once it arrived. Soon, the whole kitchen smelled of scorched paper. My dad threw open the oven door to discover the wedding album sitting there on the rack, just starting to crinkle and brown around the edges. Luckily, he pulled it out in time (accompanied by much confused shouting and cursing, I imagine), and none of the photos were lost.

Not only does this story capture something exquisitely true about my mother — her attachment to photographs and mementos of special occasions, her quirky way of problem-solving, her anxiety about fire — but it seems to me to be deeply human. It’s a story about the irony of memory itself. We want to remember things from long ago, but sometimes in trying to salvage those memories we can become distracted and forgetful in the present moment. We might take all the precautions in the world to preserve the past, but nothing can slow the passage of time and the forgetfulness that comes with age.

Pagans like to say, “What is remembered, lives.” Memory is re-membering, the act of giving life to the past through rituals of witness. A photograph by itself is not a memory, only a record. Collecting dust in a drawer, it does nothing for anyone. Only when it is brought into the light of the present moment can it become something — a reawakening of mindfulness, a memory stirred to life — or perhaps only ever a reimagining, each time slightly different, each time new. But that’s life, too, isn’t it?

I’m like my mother in my desire to remember the past, I just go about it differently. Instead of sticking my wedding album in the oven, I tell stories. (And share them on the internet, where everything is forever and yet nothing lasts.) But we both face the same irony — that the act of remembering is the very act by which we might accidentally ruin or replace the past we seek to honor.

I don’t even know if this story about my mom is true, at least in all its detail. I only heard it second-hand. But it feels true, it feels like her. It reminds me of her and the things about her that I love and learn from. It almost doesn’t matter if the story is “factually” true or not. Like life itself, it’s more complicated than that.


Inspired in part by today’s Daily Prompt: Ancient

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Alison Leigh Lilly
Alison Leigh Lilly nurtures the earth-rooted, sea-soaked, mist-and-mystic spiritual heritage of her Celtic ancestors, exploring themes of peace, poesis and wilderness through essays, articles, poetry and podcasting. You can learn more about her work here.

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