I don’t like oysters, their slimy succulence completely eludes me.

Although my Daddy, in ever optimistic efforts to tempt with his oyster stew (only the best in three counties) told me repeatedly how I would eat raw oysters by the peck as a toddler. So often, in fact, that I remember the wood panels and oaken chairs of the kitchen, I remember Daddy in a short sleeve button-down shirt soft and sun-smelling from its many washings, and I smell the piquant brininess that comes from fresh ocean food. But the oysters, no recall whatsoever.

By contrast, I remember sitting up on a nurse’s station telling Dr. W that I was going to be a thoracic surgeon and fix other kids’ moms the way he’d done mine. The clicky floors, the hospital green walls, the smell of disinfectant and fear are vivid when I close my eyes. I must have been four, but I distinctly remember how dry and papery his hand felt as he patted my knee, telling me that would be a long time, but he believed I could do it… mmmmmm, medical school now — don’t think so — though I felt horrid abandoning the PLAN for “liberal arts” when I outgrew my Dr. Aly phase.

Why does one memory resonate to this day and the other remains just a story in the family logbook?

As I’ve been working on the book, I’ve been trying to triangulate the interviews, accounts and other information — making sure that I’m following sound journalistic/historical standards. Sometimes that’s problematic. How do you verify context?

For example, a friend and I were talking about the cultural context for the monuments on the Gettysburg battlefield. If you think about the symbolism on all that stone — it asks the visitor to speak not only the language of the battle, but to understand a classical education, to “get” the references the veterans were making.

In other words, I not only have to take the personal memories that are colored by each subject’s life experience, but also filter them for cultural clues, and what was the “accepted” understanding of the era….. which makes the stories vastly more complex and the unravelling more fantastic!

Memory-tripping songs:

"persistence of memory"

Seasons in the Sun (Terry Jacks) we sang this song in my elementary school chorus class, I remember the tiered chorus room with its echoing tile floor, and the smell of chalk & industrial cleaners. This is an odd song for 4th graders to sing, don’t you think?
Dooley (check out the Dillards’ version) — my parents listened to all sorts of music, but bluegrass brings me over to Charlie Parker’s house (not THAT Charlie Parker). He taught a welding class for my Dad, actually he taught me to use a blowtorch when I was eight. Back to music — I would sit out on the porch with Daddy & his guitar, Charlie & his banjo and their friends as they plucked, picked and played. Drinking sweet tea, smelling the cut grass of summer and listening for the guitar to join the banjo and the fiddle as they followed each other into familiar paths of melody…
Upside Down (Diana Ross) — the smell of raw lumber, fresh paint and my brother teaching me funky dance moves in an almost built house
Piano Man (Billy Joel) — snow storms in Durham, smoky bars where you could only order Coke and RA’s who were wicked good singers (or so my sixteen year self thought)
Ways to Be Wicked (Lone Justice) — the front porch at my first house. I was still young enough to think of it as “playing house.” Listening to Lone Justice, the Stray Cats, Siouxie and the Banshees as I learned.
Higher Love (Steve Winwood) — school days and realities. It conjures burnt umber and grey, an old photo that you don’t have the heart to take from its frame.
What About Love (Heart) — they were never my favorites, but this song reminds me of long talks, unmade journeys à la Robert Frost and taking myself way too seriously….
All Around the World (Paul Simon) — Graceland is such an iconic album and this song was my explore the world dream song, and for some reason I picture Noah Wyle??? Not that that’s a bad thing, it just a little baffling.
She Moves One (Paul Simon) — A lot of people who loved the above just didn’t adore this album. For me, it was midnight dreaming and waterfalls — the songs ease you into a blue-green place…
US Blues (Grateful Dead) — Buffalo Bills stadium July 4th. Blazing hot day having given way to a humid night. The encore starts, and a light rain mists down on sun-reddened skin. The smells of patchouli, sunscreen and an ozone-y rain odor mingle in the darkness, with the occasional sharp tang of fireworks. Pure bliss.
Not Fade Away (Grateful Dead’s version, although Florence & the Machine have a cool cover on the new Buddy Holly tribute album) — camping and music. Listening to a motorcross race somewhere in the distance, while a drum circle in the camp nearby pulsed out rhythms that rumpled the night….
Teach Me Tonight (Amy Winehouse’s cover, may she rest in peace, is awesome, the song was originally made famous by the deCastro sisters, I also love the Diane Schuur version) — for someone who has always found learning that most potent of aphrodisiacs, this joins the pantheon of inappropriate school songs that conjure scents of chalk, marker, new packs of notebook paper and that bubbly nervous anticipation of infinite possibility in the first day of class
One Clear Moment (Little Feat) — the happiest sad song ever. With this one, I’m transported to a spring in NC when one life was ending and another was beginning. The newly-widened road to my childhood home seemed a sun-bleached tether keeping me from flying into pieces.
Moondance (Van Morrison) — somehow I end up in Georgia with this one, high ceiling fans, old houses and billowy curtains — and roadside stands bursting with fat peaches.
I Take My Chances (Mary Chapin Carpenter) — my single girl anthem! “Cut the deck right in half, I’ll play from either side!” I remember coming back from a girls night out, damp from midnight swimming, getting to my apartment and twirling in “independent” pleasure…
• Harbor Lights (Bruce Hornsby) — I hear this song and I’m two places, both back in NC. In one memory, I’m riding in a car down Benjamin Parkway, the windows rolled down, the music turned up summer blazing and in the other, I’m high in the nosebleed seats at Ovens Auditorium hearing Bruce from a distance, and enjoying on of the best concerts I’ve ever imagined.
On Every Street (Dire Straits) — hmmm, this song has a guitar solo in the middle that echoes those primal melodies, and it also brings a faint odor of printer toner…
Sending Me Angels (Delbert McClinton) — a mild winter day, swinging in the porch swing with a bundled up baby in my arms, hearing the stereo through the reversed baby monitor, I would sit in the sunshine, sharing the afternoon with a baby and a big-footed cat.
All Four Seasons (Sting) — think about those crazy days when you’re running hither and yon as babies need changing, comforting, feeding — and oh! the mood swings. Then transpose the song to the teen years — it works either way 🙂
• Breakaway (Kelly Clarkson) — this song carried me back and forth over the Blue Ridge as we began our adventure in TN
Love it When you Call (The Feeling) — cars & moms go together, when I here this I think of piano books, basketballs, backpacks, snacks, and girls creating a dance that provokes giggles and lots of mom looks in the rear view mirror…
For Good (from Wicked) — We share music, and this song takes me to a snowy afternoon in Kentucky, a dark, crowded theater and looking at Chris over the heads of the girls as they lose themselves in a play. Music makes memories a “handprint on my heart.”

One of the oddest things in life, I think, is the things one remembers –> Agatha Christie

Take care,

3 thoughts on “Persisting Memory, 7.24.11

  1. Thanks for this Aly. “Piano Man” reminds me of overnight Forensics trips in college. A van full of my best friends listening to Billy Joel’s Greatest Hits Vol. 1 and 2.

    Memory is indeed a peculiar thing. It seems the sum of being a person is the life experience and the wisdom gained therein. We see Alzheimer’s take a person away, a shell left over after a ravaged body and mind can take no more.

    And on that note, I am happy for the memories I still have, music being an intangible key.

    • True, I think Billy Joel & perhaps James Taylor end up as “portkeys” for memories more than you might think.

      I think memory plays such a pivotal and perhaps under-researched role in historical/journalistic research. I think memory shapes the context for each era, both individually and collectively.

      Alzheimer’s is such an appalling tragedy, and it is one of my darkest fears….

      Jared, I do hope you are well! and that your project is progressing!

      Take care,

  2. The project progresses and regresses. I finally have it in the hands of a production company that might actually care; one step beyond standard query, so yeah. “Progress”

    Hope you are well too!

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