Salvador Dali’s unforgettable image of watches dripping off branches has been a favorite of mine since I was a child. Time can melt, but never disappear, like the memory of an event. Except of course, it’s not true. Memory itself melts, distorts and recreates itself with a logic that defies science.
My husband Ron has no memory at all when it comes to social plans. I rack my brain trying to understand what trauma he had in his childhood that would make him incapable of remembering that we have tickets for the theater, that we’ve had the tickets for 6 weeks, that he loves this play and was the one who said he wanted to go. I’ll hear him on the phone, planning to get together with someone for the night we have the tickets. I try to get his attention. He hates when I try to talk to him while he’s on the phone. Never mind that he tries to talk to me while I’m on the phone, that’s another rant. He’ll say to his friend, “Hold on a second Jeff. My wife is jumping up and down with something that can’t wait.”
“You can’t meet Jeff tomorrow, we have tickets for the theater.”
“Um, Hamlet? Remember?”
“Yeah, I know the play.”
“No! They’re doing Hamlet downtown, we have tickets for tomorrow!”
“Well, why didn’t you tell me?”
“Tell you!? You picked up the tickets!”
“I did? I did! But that was weeks ago.”
“Right. But we haven’t gone to the show yet, didn’t you notice?”
“Of course I know we haven’t.” There is an uncertain pause. “Damn, I’ve seen so many productions of Hamlet. I wouldn’t know if I went or not. You have to write these dates on the calendar.”
I mutely point to the calendar, which is right in front of him, where I have written HAMLET.
He uncovers the phone. “Uh, yeah, Jeff, we can’t do it tomorrow. It seems we have theater tickets…..”
I used to pride myself on my impeccable memory. My family called me ST, for Steel Trap. Why look something up when you could just call Lavinia for obscure song lyrics or a forgotten recipe? Until recently, it seemed to me that women in general are better able to hold details like whose turn it is to do the dishes, or when was the last time you took a toilet bowl brush in your hand, with greater precision than the male mind. Ron’s memory seemed sharpest when reminiscing about his youthful exploits. We can go to a party where he will have a delightful conversation with someone we’ve met several times and then later that evening, when recalling the conversation, He can’t remember the person’s name. Yet the other day, an envelope appeared in our mailbox with an unfamiliar name. Ron came home and I called out to him, “You got a letter from someone I never heard of. From Ohio. Some guy named Robert Morris.”
“Ah,” says Ron, without even a pause. “My lifeguarding buddy at Cheesquake State Park back in ’62.” Then he spends a half hour trying to remember where he put his reading glasses, which are hanging around his neck.
Then it happened to me. I ignored some of the first moments I was caught. Not showing up for a lunch date because I forgot to look at my book. Forgetting my brother in law’s birthday. And then the shortest short term memory loss event in history: I misplaced my red clippers while I was using them. I had them. I put them down, got some Hollytone to sprinkle around the azaleas. I went back to pick them up. They were gone. I searched the area. Under the bushes. In the wheelbarrow. I went into the house in case I had gone in for something, (had I gone in for something? I couldn’t remember). I even looked in my car in case, in a moment of complete sleep I thought the clippers needed a ride. I decided to blame aliens. They had abducted my clippers. They were collecting earth items for an art show in space. Some day, they would dump all the stuff they had stolen on someone’s house in Iowa. I just knew it.
The other night, Ron and I went to a concert. In all the excitement of actually arriving early enough to have a glass of wine in the lobby (an essay on downsizing life’s thrills is forthcoming), Ron forgot his shoulder bag on the floor. Once seated in the theater, he suddenly realized what he had done and bolted out to retrieve it. While he was gone, the women in the row behind us began to talk.
“I have totally lost my short term memory.”
“I know, isn’t it awful?”
“One of the worst things is when you see an old movie and suddenly you realize, ‘wait, I’ve seen this before!”
“Sometimes I see the whole movie and don’t remember any of it from before!”
“You know what’s really bad. It’s when you actually rent a movie, bring it home, and then realize that you’ve seen it before. Has that ever happened to you?
Long pause, then, “I don’t know.”
We recently had a beautiful new patio built of concrete interlocking bricks. We were so proud, like parents of a new child, standing arm in arm, admiring our new patio. The next morning, the patio was riddled with tiny volcanoes as armies of ants tunneled their way through the joints to create their little condos in the brick foundation we had so thoughtfully provided for them. Ron became obsessed, starting with hot water, proceeding to boric acid, and then Windex. I came home one day to find him with a hypodermic syringe, on his hands and knees, injecting something into the seams of the bricks.
“What are you injecting?”
Silence. He looks up. “Someone told me they hate pee.”
“You’re injecting pee into the holes? How did you get the pee into the syringe? Never mind, I don’t want to know.”
When the pee didn’t work (plus, I really didn’t enjoy the odor, although the ants liked it fine), someone suggested grits. “OK, I’ll pick up the grits after work,” I grunted.
When I got home, Ron asked for the grits. I had forgotten to pick up the grits. “Halleluiah!” He cried. “I’m not the only one who forgets!”
The next day, he called me from Ingles. “Yellow grits? Instant grits? Quick grits? Grits with cheddar and bacon? Cheese flavored grits?” We settled on yellow.
“Oh, by the way, while you’re there,” I say, “Could you pick up some Epsom Salts?”
That night, I ask for the Epsom Salts. He looks up at me blankly. Smiles. “I forgot.”
“How could you forget, I talked to you in the store!”
He shrugs. “That’s how it happens. You just forget.”