The Long Memory

There is a photograph on my desk of my father. Actually, it’s of my father and me. Sitting in a Mustang convertible. It’s a recent photo, just last summer. I had flown up to Wisconsin to visit and, the weather being particularly beautiful, I rented the wild red thing and drove him around his hometown…my home-town…and simply let the memories overtake him. He is a Depression-era kid who grew up in a tough time in a tough family. He sold the doughnuts and bread his mother baked door-to-door to help make the family’s ends meet. Fought in World War Two, came home, and went to college on the GI-Bill. And has spent the rest of his life decrying wasteful government programs. Go figure.

He married and helped raise nine kids on a blue-collar paycheck. Go figure.
He’s in his eighties now and his memory is failing, so the memories are a balm. His old house, our old house, his high school, his parents’ graves. The plot he’s purchased for himself. I remember calling him on my 50th birthday and asking him, “Dad, when do you feel old? I’m 50 now and I just don’t feel old.” His re-sponse? “When your kid calls you and says ‘Dad, I’m 50,’ that’s when you feel old!”

My old friend, the late Utah Phillips, used to say, “The Long Memory is the most radical thing in America.” The ability not only to know, but also to remember is in short supply these days. We have “technologized” memory so that listening is unimportant. We confuse information with knowledge and facts with truth. The old become increasingly sequestered from the young and, along with them, memory is lost. The result is a kind of communal Alzheimer’s: everyone asking the same questions over and over, the answers immaterial. Jon Stewart has made a success of “The Daily Show” by replaying video clips of the rich and powerful contradicting things they said just weeks and months earlier. Things that all the rest of us forgot they said, too. The long memory…

The Long Memory is about more than recollection. It is about knowing how you felt, how you wrestled with things, how everything played out. It is about struggle and resolution. About defiance and compromise. About living long enough to understand how and why to forgive. Or, as my grandmother used to say, “…or at least to forget what you were mad about.”

I’ve lived in the South for nearly forty years now. I cannot imagine living any-where else. One of the most apt descriptions of Southerners I’ve heard is that they are, collectively, obsessed with food, religion, and ancestor worship. I guess a good bit of that’s rubbed off on me after all this time. I certainly came South, as a young, audacious 19-year-old to sit at the feet of elders. And now that I’m as old as those I thought at that tender age to be “elders,” I find a still-insatiable hunger to seek out those who’ve logged more time here on the planet than I. People like my father.

If family history is any guide…and we know it is…this is likely the decade in which I’ll become an orphan. So that snapshot on my desk is more than a Kodak Moment. It’s a memory, yes, but also a reminder. A reminder that the Old Man and I still have some convertibles to drive, some hometowns to scour, some jokes to tell, some stones to turn over. As the present slips further from his grasp, the past still beckons down the road. It feels strangely like a trip forward, not back. As though the Long Memory does…and must…stretch both ways.