When the Past Comes Back to Save Us

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Memory is an odd thing: slippery as a fish, shapeshifting and disappearing with the flick of its tail. We call our memories ours as though we had some dominion over them. But nobody knows why memories surface when they do, after decades of absence.

In his final years, my grandfather was tormented by a rhyme from his schooldays that he could only remember part of. It was a verse listing the presidents, and each time we visited he would recite what he knew: “Washington, Adams and Jefferson, James Madison, James Monroe. Adams again, then…”

He begged my father to look it up for him, ask a librarian, do something to ease his mind by recalling the rest of the verse. Each time my father promised he would, though I could tell by the look on his face that he would not. He never did.

The past can haunt us, but it can also come back to save us.

It was the Spring of 2008 when out of the blue I remembered my first piano recital, in 1967. I was five years old, the youngest student and therefore first on the program. Our recital was held at the Chapel of the Chimes in downtown Oakland, with its beautiful Julia Morgan architecture.

The room seemed cavernous to me, and my family sat on a pew several rows back. I remember feeling confident about my piece, and calm about playing it in front of everybody. When my name was called, without hesitation I walked up to the front and sat down, played my piece, took a bow, and returned to my seat. That was that.

What I remembered most in the Spring of 2008 was how matter-of-fact that performance had felt. There was no moment of hesitation, none of the agony and nerves of later recitals and performances. I had no idea why the memory had surfaced, but used it as an opportunity to reflect on my current life of public speaking and teaching. Did I ever feel so calm and confident about performing now? Would I ever find my way back to that simplicity?

When a memory from the distant past revisits us, we turn it over in our minds for a few hours or days and then it recedes again. This memory did not. For weeks it kept returning, as I planned workshops, traveled and taught. Then, that Summer Solstice, my father died.

His death was quite sudden, and took us all by surprise. I was about to fly to Portland and teach, so needed to coordinate with my family to make sure his service was scheduled for right after I returned. That’s when I learned that his funeral would be held at the Chapel of the Chimes.

I had always intended to speak at his funeral, to honor what an important figure he was in my life. Now I learned that neither my sisters nor my mother wanted to. I would be the only one of us to speak, and therefore first on the program.

How could I possibly rise from my seat and proclaim that my father was dead? Because if I spoke about him in the past tense he surely would be gone, and therefore his return would be impossible. In that extreme, surreal state of grief, writing his obituary and then his eulogy, flying and planning and teaching and returning to speak again, returning to the scene of my earliest memory of public performance, seated now in the front row of a room that seemed so very small, that memory saved me.

By some miracle the words had come that I wanted to say. I wrote them down. I felt calm, sitting next to my mother waiting for the service to start. When it was my turn I got up, went to the lectern, said my piece, thanked the crowd, and sat back down again. It was done.

That simplicity had returned in the moment I needed it most. Unmoored by grief, there was no part of me left to be nervous or insecure. There was just this piece, the delivery of it, making people laugh and cry, and then the long drive home, wondering all the way what had just happened, how I had been so lucky to have a memory come like a lifeboat and carry me through rapids that I hadn’t even known were going to be there.