I’ve been thinking a lot about memories lately. Due to work commitments I’ve been spending time in the town I grew up in. I hated that town, and I escaped it as soon as I turned 18 and made the pilgrimage to uni, and I never went back. Until now.
Legend has it that in pagan times much witchcraft occurred in the town on hills above it, called the Fire Hills. Famous occultist Aleister Crowley, who practised the dark arts up there, allegedly put a curse on the town and local folklore says that once the town has you it won’t relinquish you, even if you leave, it will pull you back. The only way to break the curse is to apparently find a pebble with a sheer hole through it on the beach, and to throw salt over your shoulder as you exit the town. I did both of those things.
Anyway, I digress, so I’ve found myself walking its streets again lately and it’s really stirred up a whirlwind of long-forgotten memories. I drive past houses I lived in as a child, I walk past places my mum and I used to go to, I saw an old pub where my dad had his wedding reception – which has now been turned into flats. It is all so familiar and yet so different.
But it got me to thinking about how much of our history is stamped into our environment. How the paving stones and the buildings hold so much of our narrative. All this reminiscence is tinged with sadness too, as now there is no one to share these memories with, all the protagonists in our family narratives are gone. My father has been dead twenty years, my grandparents are all gone, only my mum remains. But not really. Because I am also saying goodbye to my mother every day as she falls faster and harder into the grip of Alzheimer’s disease.
She no longer remembers any of the places of my childhood, she doesn’t even remember how to get to the town where we spent so much of our lives. She doesn’t remember the houses, the streets, the buildings, the barbecues, the picnics in the field where my dad grew up, and it is the strangest feeling for my sister and I, the only two family members left who do remember. We are the only ones left who bore witness to our history.
The thing with families is that they are their own systems, miniature versions of social systems, they have their own cultures, their own customs, their own stories which are constructed and evolve over time. The past makes meaning of the present. Academics call these stories ‘scripts’, unique to each family, they contain bodies of knowledge which store our biographies and within them members of the family develop roles and moral identities which fit together to make the collective identity of the family unit.
In the minutiae of family ritual, such as dinner time, the roles we occupy in our family are enhanced over time and they mirror the ways we will later interact with the world. Our family is a microcosm for the way in which our life’s drama will unfold. And within these narratives our parents usually take the role of protagonists – facilitating the narration of the children, translating the world for us.
But dementia reverses this, it turns our frame of reference on its head, because it turns children into the protagonists of the story, and the parent struggling with their cognitive decline as the monitored subject – the child, who must have the world translated for them. This is so incredibly painful to watch when a woman who was incredibly capable becomes totally bewildered with the world around her.
My mum used to drive to France on her own to buy coffee, and now she can’t drive into town because she doesn’t know the way. In her time, she was the most fantastic cook, her roast dinners were legendary, and now she doesn’t know how to use the oven. She has been fastidiously tidy and well-groomed her entire life, and now she is surrounded by clutter, piles of papers and objects which she doesn’t remember even acquiring.
But more than that, despite having a fractious relationship, my mother has been the one constant in our lives, I remember trawling the charity shops with her for clothes when I was little, her holding my hand so I wouldn’t get lost. Now it’s me holding her hand so she won’t get lost. It is the strangest feeling seeing your mother in front of you, she looks the same, she sounds the same, and yet she is evaporating before your eyes, disappearing into her own befuddled mind.
And those scripts, those roles that have been constructed over the last 40 years, our family narrative is now hopelessly floundering, because she no longer has the capacity to hold those memories for my sister and I. We have to hold them for her and project them back at her to give her a sense of her own identity, her own selfhood. And gosh, that’s painful. For her, for us. Mum was only 51 when we began this long goodbye.
Because we are orphans in a sense, our entire history only exists inside of us now, sometimes it reminds me of a banner, at one end my sister and I, the other end were our parents but now that side has been dropped and the banner flaps around in the wind. And that is why I devote my life to making memories for my daughter, because I am so mindful that these days of our lives are also part of her story, that one day she will look back and this time now will be her childhood memories.
So I document, I write, I take pictures, I write her letters that go in a box for when she’s older so that just in case there comes a time that I, like mum, can’t remember, I can continue being her narrator, I throw her creative, colourful parties and we go on adventures like two little explorers, because one day her memories will be so important to her. And they are part of her evolving narrative, these are the foundations upon which her identity will be formed, her resilience fine-tuned. And one day when she is left holding these memories, they will shine like jewels in her hands.