My earliest memory, at least the earliest that my mother can set a date on, was sixty years ago now, in 1962, in the summer. My grandparents and my aunt and uncle had two houses, right next to each other, with a narrow driveway in between, and vegetable gardens that my grandfather had terraced up the hill in back, just as his own parents and everybody else in his hometown, Tiriolo, Italy, had done, down the side of the mountain where their town was perched. I remember many a time going up there to pick a couple of tomatoes for my mother, or in the morning to fetch a few fresh eggs from the chicken coop, but I can’t say exactly when that was.
On this day, though, everybody was bustling about, grandma, grandpa, my mother and father, my aunts and uncles, with a lot of cousins here and there, and all kinds of furniture and whatnot going from one house to the other. They were, in fact, trading houses, with grandma and grandpa going into the smaller of the two, because, now that the six children were grown, they didn’t need the space anymore. It was a happy day. I remember that I sat outside, on one of the two concrete strips that they had laid for my Uncle Frank’s car – my grandfather never learned to drive – with the grass still growing up in between. I was three years old, and I think I enjoyed myself by tracing words in the dirt. That was a favorite habit of mine. I have no memory of a time when I didn’t know how to read.
Well, most of the older people in that scene are gone. My mother is still with us, and one of my aunts. My cousins are all alive and well, and many of them still live nearby Spring Street, that short dead-end street I loved so well, where kids could and did play all day long, and the women often sat on their front porches, chatting with each other over the shouts of our play.
We say that computers have memory, and we started saying so back when you had to pedal them and they worked with strings and rubber bands, but they don’t have memory, no more than a card catalogue or a file cabinet has. Oh, they do a lot of shuffling, sure, but the difference between the most sophisticated computer in the world and my small self, sitting in the driveway as the house exchange was made, is like the difference between a rock and a living thing, or between nothingness itself and the light, when God said that it should be. Saint Augustine was the first person I know of to ask what we are doing when we remember. For God’s memory is none other than his present seeing, which is none other than his Providence; for God is not subject to his creature, time. We are subject to time, yet there is this God-given difference between us and all other creatures: we transcend time by memory. My dog Jasper had a great memory; that was how he learned to do his 80 tricks. But he did not remember as man remembers. He did not recall: he did not bring past time back into the present, to consider it, to think about what was and what might have been, to return the old people, whose bodies now the gentle earth covers, to the mind, to see their faces and to hear their voices, and to think of them and their stories as I was far too young to do then. We recall, we imagine, we make the past and the possible future present; and we look forward to the time when this present will be past, and our sons and daughters will say, when they themselves have gone gray in the temples, “Do you remember the time when?” – and the stories and the persons return.
Such is the power of human memory. The power of God’s memory is not just to summon up images of the dead, but to summon them up to life itself. Our human memory is a shadow of, and, as has been revealed to us, a promise of the Resurrection.
The word memory comes to us from the Norman French memorie and from Latin memoria, a word you’d have heard often enough in church services in the Middle Ages. It comes from an ancient Indo-European root that meant the same thing. Its descendants show up all over the place, in the great limbs of the one original family, and it often describes something sad or troubling – and in this world of sin and death, won’t that often be the case? So we have Welsh marth, sadness, and Greek mermeros, care, and Old English murnan, to mourn. But we should recall the words of the thief on the cross: “Lord, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” And we remember how the Lord replied.
Word & Song by Anthony Esolen is a reader-supported online magazine devoted to reclaiming the good, the beautiful, and the true. To receive new posts and support this project, join us as a free or a paid subscriber. The subscribe button below will take you to an page which describes what is included in each of the subscription tiers. We value all of our subscribers, and we thank you for reading Word and Song!