Does Memory Serve Its Own Purpose?

“Memory is a crazy woman that hoards colored rags and throws away food.” Austin O’Malley

Early this morning I awake to a murder of crows hiding out in my magnolia tree probably trying to verify if the heady conspiracy of an extra garbage day is true or not. I listen to their crazy banter as I amble to the kitchen for a second cup of coffee. It’s entertaining and annoying all at once, sort of like rock concerts, or a season of The Bachelorette.

Yes, I’m a little crabby before the second cup, read on…

I couldn’t help associating all their racket with my old sorority house often packed with coeds crowing about this or that. Or maybe it was because Martha Foote Crow was our founder? As pledges we had to memorize all the names of the founding members and be able to say the entire greek alphabet in the time it takes a match to burn. Hazing in the ’80s was fraught with danger, I mean if a pledge (we’ll refrain from naming names), was slow with the alphabet someone could get their fingertips burned.

Regardless…during my undergraduate years, I lived in a large white colonial-style sorority house located on S. 10th Street, across from the Business Tower at San Jose State University, where I worked part-time. I remember being on the 18th floor of the tower during the 1981 Humboldt earthquake. I think it was classified a magnitude 7 on the Richter scale. My coworker and I hovered in the doorway of our office as the building swayed so intensely I felt as if a crow perched on the branches of a tree during a wind storm.

We flew down the stairwell as soon as the rocking stopped.

Sororities were making a comeback in the ’80s and Alpha Phi was at capacity. The first floor of this eloquent house was devoted to our living spaces with a huge formal living room, a small family room with a 20-inch television (heavily populated during Days of Our Lives and General Hospital), a dining hall, the commercial kitchen meticulously attended by Chloe our cook, and at the back of the house, there was a small apartment for our house mother who only came out for dinner, and maybe if there was a major disturbance, but I’ve never seen her on second.

The second floor was a unique formation of hallways that formed a square around an enclosed courtyard below. On both sides of the halls were doors leading to bedrooms, bathrooms, showers, a study hall with a library, ending in a huge dormitory-style room for our current pledge class.

I remember when Sigma Chi Fraternity decided to do a panty raid on our house late one night. This activity involved ascending on an unsuspecting sorority as if storm troopers, entering through open windows and fire escapes, grabbing every panty they could find, and spending the rest of the evening creating a banner of underwear which they would string up as if Christmas lights across the front of their house. Can you imagine the controversy this would cause today?

I was sound asleep when I heard the window being pried open and a hairy leg came into view. I’m screaming at my roommate to get up and help me as I attempted to simultaneously hold both the window and door closed (it was a small room but still) or our worn panties would be strung up by morning and we would have to go through the humiliating process of retrieving them or buy new ones. Let me just say she was a stubborn sleeper and refused to get up. Somehow I managed to lock both entries before anyone pushed their way through and I believe that should come with bragging rights. The house was in utter mayhem, I went back to bed, I believe we can safely conclude our housemother was an ornamental presence at best.

There was always lots of shenanigans going on at the house but the rule was “no men on second” (unless of course, you were experiencing a panty raid), meaning you could relax upstairs in your reclaimed underwear because you would not encounter a man. Once a week a service guy restocked the upstairs coke machine in which case a lowly pledge was forced to yell, “man on second,” at least three times.

I remember one afternoon I was taking a long shower after a Jazzercise class and my cheeky roommate decided to steal my towel hanging on the hook outside the shower stall. Upon leaving the shower I had no recourse but to return to my room down the long hallway, dripping wet and naked. Regrettably, I did not realize the warning had been sounded. Yeah, it was one of those unfortunate moments, with the coke man screaming in alarm, and the dripping wet naked coed apologizing as she attempted to cover her private parts with lanky arms and floundering hands. Total fail. I was so annoyed with my roommate I decided it was only fair to crawl into her nice clean bed soaking wet and enjoy her dismay as I wiggled around drying my hair on her pillow. I think we can agree the charming thing about the past is it’s the past.

I have no idea what this recollection has to do with crows but I think it’s interesting how our memories are either ignited or thwarted by our present circumstances? As Robert Warren claims reality is not a function of the event as event, but of the relationship of that event to past and future. I might need a therapist, or new towels, maybe cut back on the Ginko Biloba?

“Drive down any road, take a train or an airplane across the world, leave your old life behind, die and be born again ~ wherever you arrive they’ll be there first, glossy and rowdy and indistinguishable. Crows, the deep muscle of the world.” Mary Oliver

As I stood gazing out my bedroom window I notice one of the crows decided to linger in our yard? He didn’t fly away with the rest of the murder, I watched him waddling around the lawn poking his pointy beak into the grass. He seemed quite content, much more so than one of my current roommates. I read somewhere that crows will remember a kind face so I smiled sweetly at my crow and told him he looked rather dapper in his black silky feathers. He cocked his head at me, holding my gaze with his eyes funereal and questioning, then flew away. I have that effect on people.

We all know what it is like to have an uncommunicative patient who is suddenly lethargic, throwing up, and panting incessantly. If not, let me share with you my current reality.

My dog is sick. He woke us up at around 3:00 am panting as if he’d just run a marathon. He has Addison’s disease so his system can easily get out of whack but the problem is we don’t know if he’s has a stomach issue, a headache, or heart failure. We settled him down rather quickly but around 5:00 am he barfed up something foul about two feet from our bed.

I don’t know about you, but that’s how I like to wake up, carpet cleaner in one hand, and cleaning rags in the other.

Shaggy decided to settle in the sitting area as far away from the vile vomit as possible and I sat with him for most of the morning massaging his back and crowing soft words into his floppy ears which seems to comfort him. He looks up at me every now and then and gives me this throaty moan. It’s rather pathetic as I moan back my misery at his sordid condition. This is how we communicate, it’s all very cogent.

When he tries to stand up his legs give out I scream to Larry, “I think he needs to go to the bathroom?” Larry pulls himself away from the football game long enough to carry Shaggy outside but he just collapses in the shade of the magnolia tree. I sit with him for a while getting a little emotional as his listlessness increases. He did drink a little water and seems to enjoy the breeze and the shade.

Of course, it’s Sunday and the vet is closed so we decide Shaggy has to wait it out until Monday.

Larry says, “Shaggy has used up all his medical benefits and now we’re digging into Cheryl’s.” Nice. We spent thousands on him when he was first diagnosed with Addison’s as a pup, and hundreds every year on the prednisone he needs to survive. Taking a dog to the emergency room on Sunday is a guaranteed $3,000 bill in the Bay Area.

Larry wants to wash the cars so he carries Shaggy out front, a place he normally loves to be, as he enjoys watching the people pass by and the commotion of the neighborhood. I sit with him out front offering water and encouragement before deciding I need to move my decrepit old body before I can’t walk, end up panting uncontrollably, bemoaning my aliments in the shade of the patio.

By the time I finish my ride, Julie’s family has returned from a weekend at the lake, and of course Shaggy got up to greet them. I think he’s putting on a show for my granddaughters because he actually wags his tail for the first time all day and ceremonially pees on the lawn. Alleluia.

As we’re closing up the front yard, lining up the clean cars in the drive, I notice that same community of crows gathering in the neighbor’s ginkgo tree. Oh my, they are squawking about something fierce, and I can’t help but wonder what a crow has to crow about? As if an alarm sounded they all flew away at once, except one, who landed in my yard, waddling around the lawn, eyeing me with his beady eye. I think it’s the same one from this morning but they dress the same so it’s hard to tell.

I said, “Hey little fellow. Are you worried about Shaggy? He’s doing much better.” The little bird ruffles his feathers which I took as acknowledgment, tilts his head, then gave a little squawk, before flying off. Birds can be so flighty.

Larry and I decide we’re going to watch a movie tonight so that means we’ll waste at least a half-hour watching trailers. I like romantic comedies and although he doesn’t dislike romance he prefers some sort of violence. So we settle on a showing of Reminiscence, which involves both romance and violence, with Shaggy curled up at my feet.

Reminiscence is a story about Nick Bannister, a private investigator of the mind, who navigates the darkly alluring world of the past by helping his clients access lost memories. Imagine that? Living on the fringes of the sunken Miami coast due to climate change, his life is altered by a mysterious woman with a sordid past. Isn’t that always the case?

Let me just add there is a lot of token violence, I had to leave the room three times, but I’m a self-professed wimp, others might be unfazed. Shaggy would leave too but he’s having trouble walking. Poor thing. Reminiscence is based on a futuristic world, where people are forced to do their living during the night due to global warming, and sleep during the heat of the day. The sparseness of dry land has created a natural barrier between the rich and the poor as the oceans have risen to unprecedented levels. The images of our coastal cities becoming Venice-type municipalities is striking and worth the trouble of hiding your eyes during the barbaric parts.

We’re constantly changing facts, rewriting history to make things easier, to make them fit in with our preferred version of events. We do it automatically. We invent memories. Without thinking. If we tell ourselves something happened often enough we start to believe it, and then we can actually remember it that way says S.J. Watson. The premise of Reminiscence is intriguing, they’ve figured out how to allow people to revisit the past cognitively, but the memory becomes visible for others to see. Who does this serve? Think of the implications?

Ann Patchett says coming back is the thing that enables you to see how all the dots in your life are connected, how one decision leads you to another, how one twist of fate, good or bad, brings you to a door that later takes you to another door, which aided by several detours–long hallways and unforeseen stairwells–eventually puts you in the place you are now.

In case you’re wondering, Shaggy made it through the night, he’s standing beside me wagging his swifter-like tail. The sun is on the rise again, the murder of crows suspiciously amiss, but I’m thankful all those doors, stairwells, and long hallways that landed me here today. Maybe we just need to look around and figure out how to be happy right where we are, unencumbered by the past, fully exposed, dripping with possibility.


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