My tombstone is probably going to read: She still doesn’t know where her car keys are.
I’m a relatively intelligent woman. I’ve earned a degree, held several respectable jobs, and raised two children. I can recite most of the dialogue from It’s a Wonderful Life. I remember lyrics from old Partridge Family songs which, as a child, I used to belt out into a microphone I’d built from Tinker Toys. And, yet. Sometimes I forget to mark withdrawals in the checkbook. I forget to order heating oil. I can’t begin to count the number of times I’ve asked a friend to swing by my house to see if I’ve left my iron plugged in.
Memory can be a fickle thing, but like all of God’s gifts, it ought to be stewarded well.
I was taught, at a young age, to care well for my physical body; to eat right, exercise, and floss. I learned the value of using hand sanitizer. Yet despite my best efforts, I’ve started to notice aches creeping into my joints and my eyesight growing dim. Although as a woman I don’t worry about losing my hair, it does seem to want to show up in the most unwelcome places. Like my chin.
Alex Haley, author of Roots, wrote, “The death of an old person is like the burning of a library.” Years after my Uncle Chuck’s death, I learned about his service during World War II. He served as crew chief on a plane that dropped paratroopers ahead of the Normandy Invasion which, as I understand, was sort of a big deal. I’m sure my uncle had stories about that experience which were never included in any textbook. His memories went to the grave with him.
None of us know how long or how well our memories will serve us. According to the Alzheimer’s Association, in 2011, nearly one in eight adults over the age of sixty-five suffers from Alzheimer’s disease or some other form of dementia. Not surprisingly, a thriving market exists for helping people hold onto their memories and stories. Techniques, tricks, and cures abound on infomercials and the internet, promising to improve memory and enhance cognitive functioning.
Several organizations have developed tools to assist those desiring to preserve their family stories. StoryCorps, a program which seeks to record oral histories of ordinary Americans, has archived over 30,000 interviews from more than 60,000 participants at The American Folklife Center in the Library of Congress. And Creative Memories, the scrapbook supply company which began in 1987and now employees more than 40,000 home sales consultants worldwide, identifies its mission as:
seeking to re-establish the tradition of photo historian/storyteller and the importance of memory preservation and journaling for future generations.
How often, though, are scrapbook photos posed to create the illusion of a happy memory? Not all of my memories are pleasant ones. There are certain episodes I wish I could forget. Fashion choices made during the disco era spring quickly to mind. I also wouldn’t mind forgetting the years I spent nursing the grudge I held toward a friend. I wish I could erase the memory of hearing the words brain tumor spoken in connection with my father.
As a gift to my family, I pored through old photo albums and scanned the Christmas pictures into digital form. Reliving some of those memories was painful. The ghosts of illness, financial hardship, and estrangement haunted my memories of Christmases past. I saw sadness reflected in the glow of festive holiday lights. As I worked my way through the years, however, I also saw physical evidence that joy returns to those who mourn.
Maybe Alex Haley was only partially right. It’s important to know our histories, to be able to revisit those places—especially the hard ones, where God met us and showed evidence of His mercy. But maybe those memories which burn to the ground or lie in the grave aren’t really lost after all.
Perhaps they only lie dormant like the kernel of wheat, waiting one day to be restored. Perhaps memories, along with our resurrected bodies, will also rise with new life, no longer diminished by regret. And perhaps then it won’t really matter where I left my car keys.