Wednesday night after dinner, my 17-year-old daughter, Piper, posed a challenge. She asked how many songs could I sing (which she defined as knowing at least a verse and the chorus) that had the words memory, remember or remind in the lyrics.
As a part of her junior class retreat at school, she and her classmates attempted the exercise. She had spoken of the difficulty of the task, but I am hardheaded. I pride myself on the retention of details from long ago, including lyrics of songs I love — and I love a lot of songs. I haughtily said, “I’m sure I could come up with 20 easily.”
I was wrong.
After the first four obvious-to-me songs that were swirling around my mind, filling my brain and giving me false confidence, I realized the err of my ways. Piper and I combined our efforts. With her help, we hobbled together 12 songs. The sappy, sentimental songs from my youth were much less obvious to her — and vice versa.
Exhausted brain in hand, I got up from the table and explained that I had to write a column. Piper had no idea that her exercise was a perfect segue into the theme of my week — memories (misty water-colored ones, to be exact).
This is my birthday week. Birthdays always make me consider the power of the past and its impact on the present. Birthdays make me think about childhood and prompt me try and connect the dots between then and now, reflecting on the way one thing led to another, the hows and whys of one place or person leading to the next.
A fragment, or glimpse into yesteryear, can lead down an imaginary road untraveled in years. A single memory can send me ping-ponging from one face to another place and on and on, each connected by wispy spider webs of nostalgia.
For example, the Japanese magnolia in my front yard today reminds me of the Japanese magnolia in the front yard of my childhood. My current tree bloomed a month ago, but I grew up a few hundred miles further north where the Japanese magnolias saved their blooms for my birthday week. Thinking about that blossoming tree, which sat to the right of the driveway of my youth, reminds me how it marked the out-of-bounds line for the neighborhood pick-up basketball games.
Now, I wonder about the impossibilities of a four-foot wide tree marking the out-of-bounds line of today, but the nebulousness I see today had more clarity back then. We rarely quarreled about basketball boundary issues and settled disagreements on our own, no adults necessary.
From there, I think about the people who played basketball, the people who were such an integral part of my day-to-day life then, but I haven’t seen any of them in years. I remember the way we tried to make the basketball teams even with talent. We realized early on that lopsided games grew dull quickly and weren’t as fun as the even matches. I remember most of the guys had a faded circle on their jean pockets where the Skoal cans had almost worn through.
I remember the day one of them was playing with a BB gun two doors down. He literally shot the eye out of one of the guys in our neighborhood gang. The incident barely seemed, from where I was sitting then, to slow either of them down. Yet, I now realize that afternoon surely changed the courses of both of their lives.
Every time I start channeling down a memory pathway, I know that if I keep connecting the dots, eventually I arrive at the present. Yes, some routes are more circuitous than others, but I also recognize that the pathways are murkier. Evaluating and examining the pieces of the stories we remember leads us down completely different paths.
All in all, birthdays make me marvel at the years that have passed and the way time marches on.
As Louise Gluck wrote in her poem, Nostos, “We look at the world once, in childhood. The rest is memory.”