C.W. Gusewelle

Even as memory betrays us, it also yields great gifts

C.W. Gusewelle, 1964
C.W. Gusewelle, 1964

Originally published on July 30, 1980.

Memory is an unruly servant, like the butler in one of those dated English comedies. For years you imagine that he is in your employ, then one day you discover he has really become master of the house. You issue commands, but they are ignored. The butler has a capricious will of his own.

In a strange city a fortnight ago I observed a young couple out wheeling their bundled infant in a carriage one evening. They stopped at a bench in a little streetside park and took the baby from its buggy and sat holding and playing with their newborn while, in the sharp air, the life of the sidewalk flowed by.

Hours later, back in my hotel room, there came over me a sudden realization that I could no longer remember the physical sensation of holding my own children as infants in my arms. This discovery produced so keen a pang of regret that I actually gave a little cry aloud.

That I did hold them — many times — I knew perfectly well. I even could call up a mental picture of the act, and some indistinct recollection of the pleasure it gave. But that was all an exercise of intellect. The true feeling of it, the exact tactile sensation, had been altogether lost. Had those quiet moments been swept under and away by too much busyness? Was I simply inattentive? Or does it happen the same way to everyone? That I can’t say.

But as I look at my daughters now, plunging on toward young womanhood, more than half their time in our care already elapsed, it is distressing to know that so rich an interval of one’s life has fled beyond any power of deliberate recall.

And yet, treacherous as memory is apt to be, it also is capable of wonders of quite the opposite sort.

Toward the end of this summer past, we were together, those daughters and I, in a boat on a lake in the far north. As night came on, we determined to pursue a particular kind of fish. But where on all that water was it to be found, and how were we to know? Darkness was deepening and far across the lake, from a bay behind a dark wooded point, the loons were sending up their cry of desolation.

Something more than 40 years ago, in the starry cold of just such a northern light, I had crouched in the bottom of the boat on that very lake while my parents puzzled out and answered that same question about the fish. I had not thought about that in all the years since. But now, with memory as the navigator, I steered the boat to a place on the water that seemed as if it might be the right one.

With each oar stroke the picture in my mind came clearer. The risen moon was in the proper place. The curve of the reed bed was unquestionably the same. Suddenly, then, I was certain. The years rolled away with a rush, and my parents were there in the boat with us, as alive as they had ever been, their sharp cries of surprise ringing out over the water as they swung the many fish aboard.

In absolute faith we cast out our lines. And, of course, the fish we sought — those and no others — were there.

Old as that memory was, it was as powerful and vivid as life itself. Which must mean that nothing really is ever lost, only oddly cataloged. Surely you have heard people of great age discuss this curiosity. The most distant events, they say, come readily to mind in exact detail. It is the recent ones that are clouded or mislaid entirely.

They declare this a terrible vexation. But I count it to be a fine promise, at least where the matter of my daughters’ early childhood is concerned. The memory of them in my arms years ago is irretrievable now. But with any luck I will survive long enough for that to become a matter of fairly ancient history.

The girls will go out of our house. Their lives will take independent shape. They will have children in their time, if they choose to. And, if they do, the probability — the certainty, you might almost say — is that those children will sometime be presented to me to hold.

And just as happened on the lake that summer night under a certain slant of moon, all the clutter of years will pass from mind. In that instant, an old man will be very young once more. The life in his arms will be his own daughters as they were. And all he imagined to be forgotten will be securely his again.