The Art of Remembering Your Entire Life
A writer on how memory is his greatest ally
I have been asked repeatedly how one can avoid the memory blocks that so often plague older people. As a novelist in my 87th year, I can attest that memory is the key to writing. Everything that happens in the life of a human being is stored somewhere in the brain, intact and perhaps as fresh and viable as when it was first experienced.
So, when I wake in the morning, I never get out of bed until I have wrung what I can from my memory.
I try to go back to babyhood; I have managed to remember as far back as my days in a carriage. Sights and smells come back to me: the touch of my mother’s hands, her voice, my father’s face, his voice, his hands, the shape and feel and every bit of my parents’ physical selves.
I have vivid memories of my third birthday and the names and faces of those among my relatives who were present.
I force myself to remember my grandparents on both sides, what they looked like, how they lived, what food they prepared, their Yiddish chatter, the rituals that they lived by. I can taste my grandmother’s lokshen kugel and her gefilte fish. (Her Hamantashen had no peer.) I can remember the addresses of their homes and the sound of their voices.
My grandmother’s hands were swanlike in their grace, with long white tapered fingers; their touch was gentle and warm. My grandfather’s hands were strong and suggestive of early physical labor. My mother’s hands were more like his and my father’s, more like his mother’s.
I try to remember their funerals and how they looked in open coffins. The first dead person I ever saw was my father’s mother, who died at the age of 56. She was made up to look lovely and almost alive.
I remember my grandparents’ home in Brooklyn, a tiny two-story house which became a place of refuge during the height of the depression when my parents were dispossessed from their apartment. I try to remember the configuration of their living space, and I can map out in my mind the way their rooms were laid out and can place where each person slept. Eleven relatives were housed in that little three-bedroom house: my grandparents, the Goldmans, my parents, my Uncle Sunny and Aunt Ida, my cousin Joyce, her parents Chic and Rose, and my brother Cyrus, and myself.
I can remember every single detail of that house and the look of all of my relatives, the cherry, plum and pear trees and the grapes that crawled up the fence for homemade wine, all growing happily in the tiny yard. And in the one bathroom, the big bathtub with the clawed feet.
I remember the party line old-fashioned telephone where the conversations were never private. I try to remember the telephone number but can so far only remember that it began with Dickens.
I try to recall the names of all my relatives, my aunts and uncles, my cousins, my friends from the very beginning of my life, their names and faces, their voices, their clothes, the games we played.
I force myself to remember all my teachers from kindergarten onward and have come up with a roster of names from public school through college. I can name many of my earliest classmates. The crowd gets larger and larger as I progress.
I remember all of my girlfriends, my earliest loves and sexual experiences.
I can vividly remember all the actors and actresses and their names that appeared in the movies my mother and I went to every time they changed the schedules. In those days, movie houses were ubiquitous, and ours wasn’t more than a block or two from where we lived.
I catalogue in memory my favorite books from childhood to present, my favorite authors, my favorite radio programs, and all the old television shows. I can remember many of the commercials when radio was the go-to medium. Who can forget Lamont Cranston, the Shadow, and that creepy commercial – “Who knows what evil lurks in the hearts of men? The Shadow knows!”
I try to live in the moment of memory. The past stays alive even in the present. I have no knowledge of the exact mechanism of remembering, but it has become an integral part of my life and my writing. I do this every morning, and then I turn to my morning ablutions.