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The Chain of Memory

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"Memories are hunting horns whose sound dies on the wind." -- Guillaume Apollinaire

Perhaps one way to liberate the image of chronological age from the body is through memory. For example, this would be not just my memories of my life or my childhood but also the living chain of memory of stories from my parents and others. Through memory, I can be any age from my past or, say, my father's past.

I can start with momentary images of green ivy on a red brick wall as I look up from my carriage. Tied to its top I have a rubber Thaddeus J. Toad that squeaked when I pulled on it. I have the taste of green peas in my mouth. (I still like peas, although in the form split pea soup rather than Gerber's purée.) But these are fragile, wispy bits of memory.

The first really concrete memory was of an event that occurred one November when we lived in Brooklyn, New York, and I was two. I remember the cold snow flurries, my plaid overcoat, and holding my mother's hand. She was pregnant with a baby that became my brother. We waited at the trolley tracks, because she had an appointment with her doctor. We waited and waited. My mother, always high strung, paced back and forth at the trolley stop until, finally, she spoke to a passerby. The person explained that the trolleys no longer ran in Brooklyn. The vast network that had even been part of the original nickname for the Dodgers, who were called the Brooklyn Trolley Dodgers, ended that day.

Down the chain of memory are memories of my father telling me about his childhood. My father was born in 1923, and when he was five years old, his father, a World War I veteran and Civil War buff, took him to a Fourth of July parade where they lived in Rochelle Park, New Jersey. At a stand for hot dogs and watermelon stood a man decorated with Civil War medals. My grandfather made my father shake that man's hand and told my father it was an honor to touch someone who had fought in the Civil and that my father would remember it the rest of his life. He did -- and now, through the living chain of memory, that handshake is mine.

My father had two unmarried great-aunts, who lived near Scranton, Pennsylvania. One of them, Aunt Henrietta (known as Aunt Ott) was quite senile by the time he was a little boy. (Unfortunately, a certain amount of senility runs in the family.) My father remembers her rocking on the porch of the Pennsylvania house, crying and saying, "The boys. The boys are leaving and they'll never come back." After trying to console her for a while, he realized she meant the "boys" leaving to go the Civil War. As to whether or not the War had anything to do with Henrietta and her sister being what they then called spinsters, I don't know -- and now that my father is gone, I have no one to ask. As the 15th-century writer John Lydgate wrote in Dance Macabre, "Man a wind which is transitory. Have this in memory."

Are my memories of my father's memories as ephemeral as the sound of Apollinaire's hunting horns? Yes, indeed, but I can sit here at my computer and be an infant, a child, my father as a child, or a senile great-great-aunt lost somewhere in her girlhood. It can be the 21st century or the 19th. Age is not always tied to the body.