Throughout my childhood, when seeing a place in a movie or hearing mention of it in a newspaper or news clip, there was a constant litany: you were there. It wouldn’t matter if I had been ten years old or three or a newborn; the reminder would come. Always from my father, and always with the implied expectation, sometimes joking but mostly not, that some place memory, some shred of the experience, would remain. Somehow.
I’m sure most parents attempt to do this once or twice at least. I can’t imagine how it feels to hear that so much of your shared life together — moments you congratulated yourself on being able to achieve, for your child, whether that was a first sight of the ocean or a first trip to an amusement park — is, in fact, forgotten.
Actually, well, I can imagine it, too well, but that’s not where I wish to go today.
But I bring it up because, above and beyond parental reminders, there is another far more benign source of chronological insistence we encounter every so often: the age at which whatever alcohol you are drinking was bottled, casked or distilled. For much of my alcohol-drinking life (I know, I know, I am a late bloomer in all things: I never snuck a drop of anything, and reviled what I was given to try at holidays, until well past most people had had their first headsplitting hangover) the years meant little to me. Namely because, if a date even appeared on the bottle or the menu, it was at most maybe two or three years ago, a time which blurred into the stress or college or post-college Trying To Make Ends Meet which, in large part, lacked definition.
This whisky, though, pictured above in my incredibly classy Daiso mug? This whisky was bottled in 1998. 1998. That is a year I remember. A year when I was an actual child, versus the child people say they were when they were teenagers or in college — old enough, in so many ways, to know better, even if not about the things on which their adult selves will judge them. No, in 1998 I was:
- Two years into well and truly disliking school, having loved it up until the fifth grade when we moved to a prestigious and self-righteously competitive school district that sucked most of the joy out of being a kid among other kids,
- Two years into having a dog, and realizing that yes, they can tell when you care about too many other things besides them, and thus that our dog was in fact my father’s dog more than anyone else’s, and that was okay because I loved her anyway,
- Tasked, for the first time, with not crying in the face of a parent’s undoing, as my father broke down trying to read, at his mother’s funeral, from the Northwest Passage, which she’d read to him as he lay abed with scarlet fever as a child,
- Three years out, still, from being shadowed in some form, and from organizing everything (lampooned though the practice is and probably will be, now, until something worse happens) into a pre- and post- attack landscape, geopolitically but also internally,
- Terrible at choosing friends, since my latest attempt had resulted in a girl writing my name on an orange and throwing it into her fireplace, to see if I would die a slow and horrid death as per the curse in a book she’d found prescribed,
- Entranced at the swift advance from the MUDs I’d played for the previous few years to their visual successor, EverQuest,
- Reading every Steinbeck book but Tortilla Flats, because, like how I next to never finish a TV series, I prefer there always being some scrap remaining, waiting.
- Just beginning to learn Japanese, having no idea how out of place a foreign woman would be. Imagining I could disappear there. Oh you foolish, hopeful child.
- Just beginning, it seems, to want to disappear. Not realizing yet that there was a rim of sunlight beyond the dank discomfort of looming adolescence.
You were there, you were there. The litany always made me feel guilty if I couldn’t actually remember being there, wherever there was. I like to tell myself I wouldn’t then do that to a child, but of course I would — like everyone else, with only the best intentions in mind. You want to know that you built a solid foundation of good and lasting memories, I assume, for your progeny. So you try to make sure they hang onto those. But the result of trying to conjure those memories up, time after time, and of being so easy to read, and so clearly disheartened, when your child can’t recall “being there,” is that you encourage them to horde memories like Reese’s peanut butter cups, long past the point where tiny pinholes made by tiny worms pockmark their surfaces. Long past the point at which anyone can savor them anymore — their value has been reduced to a simple pile of shiny foil-wrapped worm nests. But, as the child, you hang onto them anyway, in case someone wants to see your horde. You want to make sure you know how much you have, so you can brag reassuringly about their worth to interested parties.
1998. I was there. But I also wasn’t. Not the me of now, who can look back and cluck her tongue at the naiveté of the twelve year old Japanophile, or wince at that child’s determination not to cry at her grandmother’s funeral — as if anyone thought her better or stronger for it; as if it staved anything off. Not that grandparent’s death, or the next or the next, or the long slow march into dementia-laced oblivion of her own mother. Why not cry, little one? You’re twelve. You’ve got a long life of crying ahead of you. Get in some practice before you’re the one delivering the eulogy.
(I have, in fact, attempted to write my mother’s eulogy several times in recent years, when her body was with us but her mind wasn’t. But I dissolved into tears each time, and never produced anything worthy of her.)
These are themes I know Proust touches on, in the book I was warned to wait to read until my forties but which I (gee, 12-year-old self, you don’t change much!) stubbornly insisted that my advanced, unsought degrees in loss and longing deemed me capable of appreciating early. But I put Proust down. Not for the meandering sentences or the long ruminations upon the fall of light in a room or the shadows on a street, but because stories that revolve around memory as their focus are…still too sharp, for me. Like fumbling in a junk draw only to come up with bleeding fingers, I’ll stumble into stories with memory at their center and back away, reeling.
Just a few episodes ago in Critical Role — I am behind, as always — the illustrious Darin De Paul (of Reinhardt fame, if you pay Overwatch, or any of the 9,000 other characters he has voiced, if you do not) portrayed a memory-challenged gnome whose lightning-quick seesaws between tearful sincerity and forgetful cantankerousness gouged out my heart and left it in pieces on the carpet. I had to press pause and flee to the grim sanctity of a bathroom stall — again, like 12 year old me, I have no great desire to be seen crying in public, let alone at my desk on a workday. But Sprigg, his character.
It is the sort of thing that happens to you, I am given to understand. My peers are too young and too lucky, by and large, to have dealt with this yet, but I do read — and this happens, as you grow older. You set out wanting to hear all the stories, sing all the songs, do all the things. And then one by one as people are taken from you, gently or not, willingly or not, the number of stories you can hear, or songs you can sing, without being hurt…shrinks. I gather that at some point you become okay with this (or not). But I am not there yet. And sudden veerings off into the territory of memory — whether those doing the veering are real or imagined; aging spouses of once-lauded public figures or gnarled gnomes in an internet Dungeons and Dragons show — these things eviscerate me. In MUDs, it would look like:
And it would be correct. I have no saving throw. No luck or inspiration. It’s just a one-shot to the heart, and I am down.
So that’s why I haven’t returned to Remembrance of Things Past, among other things. If you were wondering.