In the final semester of my senior year at college, I discovered I was one credit shy of what I needed to graduate. As a prospective English teacher, I was student-teaching full time and desperate to find a professor who would give me a one-credit, home-study course that I could complete while I was teaching and graduate.
A nasty professor agreed that if I read “The Iliad,” “The Odyssey,” “The Aeneid” and all seven volumes of Marcel Proust’s “Remembrance of Things Past” and wrote a paper comparing them as epics, he would grant me the one credit I needed. Reluctantly I agreed to do his bidding.
My memory of completing that assignment is both bitter and triumphant. I did as he demanded and graduated on time and intact. And I have a lasting recollection of both the exhaustion and triumph I felt as I ascended the stage to accept my diploma. Today, I keep Proust’s seven volumes in a bookcase in my living room to remind me that what seems impossible can sometimes be accomplished.
I think of memory as an involuntary life habit.
At some point, permanent memory begins and at another point it often falters or fades completely. For some this happens at death; for others, sooner. In his first volume, Proust observes that with regard to memory, “I could not move without carrying it about with me.” As an older man, he discusses memory, “so distant and so deep within me, I could recapture it, go back to it, merely by descending more deeply within myself.”
At 72, I carry a plethora of memories within me. Most of the time, they are of the really good and really bad times in my life. But as I look at my 4-year-old granddaughter Jayden, I see what I think is the beginning of her permanent recollections. That’s how old I was when special events first assumed a lasting location in my mind. The day World War II ended and my neighborhood exploded with excitement. The day my parents brought my new baby brother home from the hospital. The day my first grown-up bed was carried up the stairs and put together in my bedroom. Again Proust echoes my senior understandings when he writes, “My head swam to see so many years below me and yet within me.”
Jayden, however, has memory assistants that didn’t exist when I was her age. I only had the photos my father loved to take. In addition to photos, my grandaughter has videos, movies, tape recordings and a computer to help store her memories.
Some of us write to preserve a moment in time, as Proust did, and as I guess I do now. However, he observes that “After death, Time withdraws from the body and the memories...are effaced.”
That was then. This is now.
In today’s world, many of our memories can be preserved for generations to come. Time no longer obliterates them. Technology allows us a preservation that rekindles a different kind of recollection.
But what still fascinates me is what we remember. Is it a choice or an automatic response? At times I have asked some of my friends about their very first memory. Their stories are both unique and revealing.
Proust was right. We carry them within for as long as we live. What is your earliest memory? Please let me know.
Freelance writer Judy Kramer can be reached by email at [email protected] She is author of “Changing Places: A Journey with My Parents into Their Old Age.”