Losing Days and Years

Once I asked an E.B. White scholar why White's essay, "Once More to the Lake," is so much anthologized and taught, and he answered: Because it's the best essay in the English language. Or something to that effect. Which may be why I'm calling it to mind. I guess a great piece of writing is one that you call to mind to encapsulate your own experiences, among other things. White writes about going to the lake in the summer as a boy and going back as a father, and that slippage that happens in which everything about the place seems eternal, and he doesn't know any more if he's the boy or the father or what year it is. That same feeling is in Thorton Wilder's "Long Christmas Dinner." It all takes place at, well, a Christmas dinner table, and it's populated by generations of a family. The members grow old and die (walk offstage) and different ones (who look more or less the same) come to the table and grow older. Some repeat the phrases of the elders. When we come together for a holiday, the same place, the same people (more or less), it's like one long event, punctuated by your life outside. Last week I stayed at the preposterously spelled Hilton Lincoln Centre in Dallas, which used to be the Double Tree, just like I've gone for we don't remember how many years. At the gargantuan buffet there was the same ice sculpture of a turkey and the same thawed shrimp and crab claws as in years past, and I remembered my great-aunt E heaping her plate with shrimp, and others remembered our cousin C piling everything on his plate, back before he became glatt kosher and stopped eating *anything* in non-kosher places. It was gradual: He'd just eat vegetables, and then just drink water, and then just come and not ingest anything. Aunt E died several years ago, and, eerily, after she died, I received a new year's card from her. Inside was a note from her daughter explaining that she'd found it on her mother's desk. C is still alive and well, but in Israel this year with his new bride. He called while we were at table, and the phone was passed around. After dinner together Friday night at a place called Celebration, which I claimed never to have set foot in before, and which everyone said I'd been to, some of us went back to the hotel. One of the little cousins, M, said he remembered when the hotel had large ceramic lions. I do, too. The place is decorated now in wavy-line Retro, but used to be Large-Scale Asian, which was rather attractive and plush but absurd. When it was the Double Tree, we used to get a dense chocolate chip cookie at check-in. When we were sitting in the lobby and talking, M and his brothers were telling stories about their father, and they seemed to be the same age their father was when we were sitting downstairs at dinner not that many years ago. But it's not the memories that unnerve me; it's the gaps in memory. I don't have clear memories of the last Thanksgiving I spent in Dallas. Two years ago I went with L to his mother's. The year before that, I spent many fruitless hours at O'Hare waiting and finally took a taxi home at about 4am. My bag, on the other hand, made a round trip to Dallas. The year before that? I must have been in Dallas. Was that when the Hilton was the Double Tree? I don't remember. Or was that the year we met in Houston? That year my little cousin (first cousin once removed) J was a freshman at Harvard. He just graduated in May so that was 2003. My last Dallas Thanksgiving had to have been five years ago. Then there were bar mitzvahs in Dallas, which feel the same, more or less, as the Thanksgivings, same basic players. My father's side of the family meets in Houston on the other feasting holiday, Passover. The memories of those gatherings overlap, too. We take pictures so that we'll remember. Photos as aides-memoires. You always hear statistics like: people only use one-tenth or one-fifth or 2 percent of their brain capacities. Does that mean that we have the capacity to remember more than we do? I used to know everyone in my senior class of about 750. I wonder if I'd looked at our very horizontal class picture every day, would I still recall everyone's name? The real question is, Why would I want to?

3 comments:

Bradley said...

Lovely post-- especially the observation about the role photos play in our memories. When I'm absolutely unmotivated, I'll sometimes pick out a candid snapshot from a get-together of family or friends from years ago, and try to locate the "story" in the "situation" that made the moment worth capturing in the first place, then write about it.

It was nice meeting you at NonfictioNow (I'm William Bradley, Natalia's former student?)-- if you do have some ideas for a panel about humor writing and cancer, we should talk more; after our chat, I got about a billion ideas...

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