Time it was
And what a time it was, it was
A time of innocence
A time of confidences
Long ago it must be
I have a photograph
Preserve your memories
They’re all that’s left you.
(“Bookends”: Paul Simon)
Like the taste of the madeleine cake Proust’s Narrator dips in his tea in Swann’s Way, a smell, a song, an object can viscerally evoke a moment from our past. Years drop away. We experience again the heat or cold, the doubt or certainty, the grief or exultation of a younger self.
The holiday season—whether you celebrate Hanukkah or Diwali, Kwanzaa or Christmas—is ripe with “madeleine” moments for most of us. Our individual traditions are both the result of and prompt for a host of treasured memories.
We remember moments that took us outside ourself and expanded our awareness of the world.
Opening the boxes of tree ornaments each year, I find myself kneeling again beside a large Mayflower storage carton, lifting out the red and green glass balls, the silver angels and cotton-bearded Santas of my childhood. At the bottom of the box, I discover a postcard. A photo of a place my mother tells me is the French Quarter in a city called New Orleans where she and my dad honeymooned. I’m not quite four years old, and this is the first time I understand that a world with my parents in it existed before me.
For some years to come, I’ll check each Christmas to make sure the postcard is still there. To marvel at this New Orleans neighborhood, so different from my Midwestern landscape of single-story clapboard and brick houses, apple orchards and snow. But most of all, to wonder at my parents—these staid people who never go to the movies or play records. How is it possible they were young and romantic in this place of Mardi Gras debauchery with its jazz clubs and zydeco musicians?
The postcard has long vanished, as have the ornaments with a few exceptions. My father is dead, and I left the Midwest years ago. But I never trim the tree without recalling that postcard, its power undiminished to evoke those childhood Christmases. Its lessons: That I was not the center of the universe, but the newest link in a timeless chain. That how we see other people is always the tip of the iceberg, never the whole.
Sometimes a memory extends so far back, it defies our ability to place its origin. It simply seems to encompass our entire existence.
At the top of our tree is wedged a little silver glass dog. One of the few survivors I mentioned. The delicate curl on his back that took an ornament hanger is broken. He is missing his snout and one leg. As the ornament from my first Christmas, he’s been with me virtually my whole life. Each December, I lift him from his cloth cocoon with care and reverence because in some strange Druidic way, this little dog is the repository of my life, the oldest witness to my existence. If he were to fall and shatter, I would mourn that lost link to my past.
Memories also possess the power to recall and strengthen our emotional connections. Like time-lapse photography, the moment we are sharing today with loved ones is a moment we have shared across decades.
Around the time my children were born, I watched Frank Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life, that Christmas film of all Christmas films. It became an annual staple at our house. Curled up together on the big bed in the late December dark, we watched a young, impassioned Jimmy Stewart lose faith in himself, then through a long, dark journey, rediscover the light. In this time warp, my children are again 5 and 2, 12 and 9, adolescents morphing into young adults. If we were scattered far and wide, none of us could watch this film without conjuring the others. “No man is a failure who has friends” and nothing matters more than the people we love.
Perhaps the memories hardest to explain are those moments when we were awed by the sheer beauty of existence.
When I was seven, I went caroling with a church group. I don’t remember what songs we sang. I do recall that it was freezing and that one house gave us hot chocolate (for which I felt both grateful and shy). Had that been the evening, I doubt I would remember anything more than the fact of the event.
But the last house we stopped at was the home of our new church organist. After we sang, his wife invited us into a narrow hallway cluttered with coats and bicycles. At the top of the stairwell that led to their apartment, stood the organist. In gratitude for our songs, he offered to sing one to us. The song was “O Holy Night.” His voice, a pure, clear tenor. I stood in that shadowy vestibule, spellbound.
To this day, the opening notes of that carol transport me back to the moment with its clanking steam radiators, smell of damp mittens, and the most profound peace I have ever known.
The persistence of memory. Sometimes hard, sometimes a balm. Both gift and wonder.
In a fragment from my own bad poetry, age 19:
What we love
Is not the new, the beautiful, the unscarred
But the stained, the torn,
The weathered and broken of
Whatever celebrations you observe this season, as the earth once again emerges from darkness into the light, I wish you the joy of reliving many long-cherished moments, and the delight of creating new ones.
Above all, I wish you Peace.