What happens when shared memories are no longer shared? When – even as you are living a wonderful moment with a loved one – you know you will probably be the sole keeper of its memory?
Lately I’ve been spending precious time with family at both ends of the age spectrum.
The Christmas break has given me the opportunity to see more of my eight-month-old granddaughter and my 87-year-old mother. Sometimes both at the same time. Along with my daughter, four generations spanning 87 years sitting on the same couch in the same room. It’s a privilege not everyone is lucky enough to have.
Last week I took my granddaughter to the aquarium.
I don’t know who had more fun. It’s a long time between visits for me, and the first time ever for her. We loved watching the silvery schools of tuna flying overhead as we gazed upwards through the glass water-filled archway. The giant stingrays and sawfish seemed to hold no terror for her – unlike for her grandmother – and we both laughed at the antics of the king penguins as they jostled for food and tottered down the ice slide.
Our last stop was the ‘snow maker’, essentially an enormous bubble blower spouting out ‘snowflakes’ in the middle of a Melbourne summer. I watched the unfiltered delight on my granddaughter’s face and wondered what memory she would have of our first expedition to the North Pole together. I’m guessing none.
Living in different states raises the stakes of our time together.
I want her to remember our good times in order to raise capital for myself in the good gran bank account. To recognise me every time we meet as that rowdy funster who takes her to the aquarium. I also want a red Vespa. And guess what? It ain’t gonna happen.
I have to be content that some kind of capital is built upon every time we get together; that the fun stuff we do provides stimulation for a growing brain; that my memories of the good times are mine alone, but none the less worthwhile for that.
In some ways, the same is true of the time I spend with my mother.
Her short term memory loss means that we often have hilarious, insightful, thought-provoking conversations that she won’t remember. She may be light on as far as the details, but she will retain the strength of the emotion. Sometimes I ask her what kind of day she’s had and she frowns slightly and says ‘It was exhausting’. She may not remember who dropped in or why the visit was challenging but she feels keenly the physical after effects of the visit.
Similarly she might say ‘I had a lovely day – I spent it in the garden.’ She won’t recall what tasks she performed, but she carries the sense of achievement and wellbeing with her until bedtime.
Two weeks ago, we watched Ladies in Black together at the cinema.
Set in 1959, there were scenes of Sydney Harbour with the iconic bridge as a backdrop. I leaned in to whisper ‘That’s Sydney, Mum’ and she turned a tear-streaked face towards mine. ‘I know,’ she said. ‘It reminds me of visiting Auntie Jan when I was 18.’
Mum’s memories of her golden youth are clear as yesterday. It’s just yesterday that’s hazy. I held her hand for a few minutes in the dark of the cinema. She may not remember that. But she does remember how much she loved watching the film. With me. And she remembers how much she loves her great-granddaughter. And that’s enough.