Monday, November 3, 2008

Memory is a Funny Thing

When I was very small, men still wore hats to work. I have a vivid recollection of my father coming home from work and playing a game where he would pretend to be putting his hat on the shelf in the front hall closet and instead pick me up, swing me in the air and place me on the shelf “by mistake.” Then he would close the door (the closet light stayed on) and go searching for me. “Where’s Tina?” “Where could she be?” Then, after looking in two or three ritual places, he’d look in the closet, find me to great astonishment, and we’d go through the whole process two or three times, trying to “figure out” how I could have been mistaken for a hat and ended up on the top shelf of the closet. As I remember it, this game involved much giggling.

Knowing something about memory and how little I must have been to fit on the closet shelf, and considering how I remember this game, including my outfit, I’m guessing the visual parts of this memory must come from a photograph. We only lived in that house until I was 12 or so, and the memory is old enough that Michael has never heard me talk about it. If this picture exists, its whereabouts are unknown, though I’d like to find it. Even more, it would be interesting to know what has brought this memory, above so many others, back now; something must be stimulating it, but I’m clueless about what might be. Working on obituaries (one for public consumption, one for the scientific press), we’ve been looking through old records and that has been refreshing my memories about many of the scientific colleagues and students who populated my childhood, but all of those efforts have been focused on professional accomplishments and connections.

My father took me, and then my sister and me, to breakfast every Sunday morning at the Urbana Lincoln Hotel, so my mother could sleep. I had toast with the edges cut off, and cut into triangles, with chocolate milk. (The idea is now totally revolting, but it did help make me more accepting of the food preferences of small people when our own children were small.) Then we went to the lab to “work.” Large chunks of my early life took place in Roger Adams Lab. I had a small work area, did many “experiments” and wrote up their results. Later, after nepotism rules were eased enough that my mother was permitted to work again, I spent many hours at the lab with her. She’d been, in her day, the youngest woman ever to earn tenure at Cornell, but wasn’t permitted to work at Illinois when they first arrived. When she did go back to work, it was officially as a lab technician. Even later, when I was in high school and college, I did my stint processing BBRC manuscripts in that very same lab. (And still I turned out to be a lawyer.)

Even if I didn’t pursue science, and thus became the stupid, black sheep of my family, my upbringing among scientists shaped my career: I like scientists, appreciate they way they think, and enjoy big personalities in smart people. Even more, I have a high tolerance for conflict and clashes, even among big personalities, which has more than once opened opportunities that others passed up, leading to great chances for me.

Thinking about how we lay down childhood memories is interesting. My father often talked about the teacher at the one-room schoolhouse he attended with his sisters, and how important she was in his education. Her name was Evangaline McArthur; she was so important to him and he talked about her so fondly that I still remember her name. It’s probably been 15 years since we last had one of these conversations, but they’ve always stuck with me.

Another memory that’s been jogged by recent events is that both of Michael’s parents considered their deaths to be very private, and neither wanted a funeral or a memorial service. They couldn’t have been more different than my dad, except in this aspect. I’m wondering if this is generational? Geographic? Cultural? Something about growing upon farms? Dunno. Certainly I see notices for funeral services for people in their generation, but all three were adamant and went to great lengths to manage their final illnesses as privately as possible. My father died at home, and not “in a home,” which was of paramount importance to him. (I wish we could say the same for Michael’s parents. It’s clearly what they wished for, not the hospital deaths they had.) Michael and his brothers created a memorial to his parents that restored 12 acres of prairie in one of their favorite parks, and we held a memorial service for both of them some months after Ernie’s death, when the restoration was ready to begin. It was a wonderful celebration of two incredible people and made for a happy family reunion weekend. Thinking about that, and its timing, has been helpful to me, as its timing was similar to what we’re planning now. There’s some solace there that our absence of ceremony now does not prevent a suitable remembrance later.

Part of becoming more tortoise-like is learning to balance the urgency and imperatives of “to do” lists with the bigger picture. This is hard for me, as items on a “to do” list have given structure to my life. Cleaning our attic a while back, we found a list I’d made while in second or third grade that my mother had preserved; I seem to have been making lists since learning to write. And once an item is on my list, it generally gets done. There is much to do right now and my energy is still limited. Even more, the items on the ICG list are often emotionally costly to complete, there are many of us who must collaborate to get them done and there are raw feelings all around, even if the tough-guy contingent is being stoic about it all. Meshing so many styles would be complicated even without the emotional load. With it... Being gentle with each other and pacing ourselves must be a priority. I’ve put it on the list.

As I’ve been both tired and sad, symptoms are flaring up again: the headaches are back, my reading ability is coming and going, and my stamina is down. There’s good news in all of this, though: I’ve clearly made great strides in my tortoise lessons, as it’s become almost second-nature (well, let’s be honest, fourth-nature) to stop and rest and to heed the signals. If my head hurts, I take the meds and lie down. I’m even getting better at asking for help and delays where indicated. As always, the responses are fast, warm, generous and loving. It’s not getting any easier to be helped, just easier to recognize that it doesn’t make me defective or bad to need it, and that, were the tables turned, I would be glad to be asked. You’ve all made these points in many ways, and truly, I am learning.

We couldn’t have gotten this far without the great kindnesses and caring of so many. It seems inadequate to say “thanks,” but it is heartfelt. Thanks.

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