The Disintegration of the Persistence of Memory

Last weekend was Homecoming at the college. As a part of that, they hold a Saturday morning brunch during which they recognize winners of our Distinguished Alumni awards. This year I had the honor, along with two of my science colleagues, of being an invited guest of one of the recipients. He’d been one of my first group of advisees, assigned to me in the fall of 93, my second year at Georgetown. After graduation, he went to medical school and has gone on to a notably successful career as a surgeon in Florida. He married a classmate and they have six children, the first two of whom are now enrolled here; by coincidence, I was assigned as an advisor to the oldest last year.

Each awardee had the opportunity to give a few remarks. My former advisee used part of his time to talk a little about each of the three faculty he’d invited. It was interesting to hear him briefly describe details of his interactions with me, things I’d long forgotten, and maybe in a case or two, something that didn’t quite jibe with how I thought it had gone. And that got me thinking more about the memories we carry around with us.

When I write about things that happened so long ago, am I getting everything right? Did my sister really jump up and down for her tricycle?  Was I in the front or back of the car when I listened to the young woman who didn’t get a sorority bid?  Do those sorts of details matter? I guess to a reasonable extent I hope not; I’m trying to be an honest broker, but I’m also telling stories, and after inserting a few phrases of the “it’s my recollection…”/”I believe it happened this way…” kind, one hopes the reader gets that point. (I’m sure I also choose to leave out some things from time to time, for a variety of reasons.) I suppose it’s a piece of the whole “truth vs. Truth” thing—I just hope I’m doing alright by the T.

I’m discovering as I age that my near-term memory definitely doesn’t work like it used to. I’m still an ace at getting students’ names down within the first three weeks of class, but I’m regularly finding now that a semester or two later, the name doesn’t automatically come back when I pass someone on the sidewalk. The “right” word to describe a situation doesn’t surface as freely as it once did. I joked with Martha the other night that should I wind up with dementia someday, all she’s going to hear about over and over is stuff about AT40 and the stories I’ve been posting here. I am totally seeing the likelihood that the tales of our younger years are the ones that persist in our minds.

The Saturday before Thanksgiving 2013 was the last time I heard my father speak. He was in the hospital after hitting his head in a fall at the nursing home. A brain scan showed no blood clots, but as the days passed it was clear things were becoming less right. Throughout that Saturday afternoon I had the sense that Dad’s whole life was unspooling in his head, hurtling toward his youth. He introduced himself to the doctor who came by as, “Ira Richard Harris, from Transylvania College”—Transy calls itself a university now, but he was naming it as it was in the 50s, when he attended. And at one point, he asked me (I don’t know now if he addressed me by name) what time the Reds played—while he was a lifelong fan, he’d followed them quite closely growing up. (That question came rushing back on Opening Day 2014.)

Appropriate or not, a well-known painting by Dali sprang to mind as I’ve been mulling these things over. When I looked it up a few days ago, I discovered he also painted a sort of sequel, The Disintegration of the Persistence of Memory. It’s on display at the Dali museum in St. Petersburg, FL, and from what I can tell is about his reaction to the coming of the nuclear age. For me, the title of the follow-up expresses what seems to be happening in my own head as the years steam by.

Sorry/not sorry for going meta and getting too serious here. I’m not sure I’m making sense or saying exactly what I want to, but it’s part of a conversation I apparently want to have. With whom, though? Maybe lots of folks–family and friends near and far, new and old, living and dead.

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