Mnemonic Devices

My grandmother was full of wisdom, and she passed much of it on to me. Not in the formal sense, but in the day-to-day, conversational way that many of the greatest lessons in life are given and received. We have to pay attention, otherwise we’ll miss them. Even then, with our eyes wide open, we often don’t realize what we’ve learned until much later, long after the person who taught us is gone.

My grandmother said I should take vitamins every day and keep a journal. I’d kept a journal off and on throughout childhood. But if I got angry or felt like I had too much stuff, even if the journal was a few years along, I’d throw it out, thinking in my convoluted teenage way that this act of defiance and destruction would hurt whoever or whatever I thought it was that was causing me such internal pain. But of course, internal pain is just one’s own emotional reaction to external events, and the only one I really ended up hurting was myself.

So in 2000, amid all the hype about the fact that, come January 1, the world as we knew it might come to an end, I started another journal.

Even with a move to an apartment, then to a house, it’s still growing. A few years ago, I mentioned to my grandmother that, because it was all in Braille, it was getting pretty big. She said if it ever outgrew its place in my home, she had a whole third floor in her house where I could store it. She figured that since it was in Braille, I could keep it there without worrying anyone would be able to read it.

My grandmother passed away last summer, and my journal is tucked in among the piano music that fills cabinets and shelves in my house. Rather than a straight journal, mine is more like an old-fashioned commonplace book. Poetry, quotations, recipes, lists, they all get copied in there if I find them to be something I think I might want to hold on to, revisit some day.

Funny, though, that while I look up information in the volumes from years past, I’ve rarely sat down and read extensively from the journal. In my searching for the occasional recipe, I’ll come across entries and read a few lines. Some are too painful, even after five years’ remove, and I don’t want to revisit the raw outpourings of my heart, now that I’ve at least started the process of covering over old wounds.

But also, I find that, at least for now, my memory gets triggered by things far simpler than a journal. For instance, my grandmother had a recipe for peach cake that she taught my mother, and then my mother taught her daughters. Two weeks ago, I decided to try a different recipe for peach cake that wasn’t my grandmother’s.

I didn’t have baking powder, so my husband assured me that I could just substitute baking soda, same measurements and all, no problem.

Well, the most charitable thing I can say about my peach cake was that, even if it didn’t taste very good going down, there was so much baking soda in it that you wouldn’t have to worry about getting indigestion. I’ll give it one more try with the proper ingredients some day, but I also can hear my grandmother, with a line she often used after she’d put down some incredible word in a Scrabble game: “There! Put that in your pipe and smoke it!”

Our hearts and minds go through life searching for things to hold on to, anchoring points that allow us to make sense of a vast world that often is beyond our understanding. Just when we let down our guard and begin to love, our hearts and minds begin to search for all those little things we experience that capture the feeling of that love.

They can be so random and hit us so unexpectedly–the scent of a particular perfume, the way light comes slanting through a window at a certain time of day in a certain season, a few phrases of music. Even though we know that all things pass away and we leave this world as empty-handed as we entered it, still we try to hold tight to the people we share our journey and pieces of our hearts with.

We think to ourselves, once the loving has begun, “Aha! Here it is at last!” And yet …

The things we hold on to often make little sense to us. Why, as a blind person, do I keep a few photographs of people and events that I will never see myself and rarely have the inclination or opportunity to show to other people? They are pictures I can certainly call up in my mind, even adding layers of what I remember being said. Still, it’s sometimes a reassurance to have something to hold in your hands, as if by touching it, you can prove beyond the tenuous mists that inhabit our minds that, yes, those events did really happen.

As a concert pianist, I am constantly asking my memory to hold vast amounts of information, to recall it at any moment and, note by note, to create the world of sound that I have as the ideal I spend my life working to attain. Once the note is struck and the melody fades into silence, the only thing remaining for me and for any listener will be the memory of it.

Our written records and sound recordings and photographs are nothing more than crutches. At the end of our days, we will be left alone with only our minds to carry what we know, what we have learned, what we have experienced, as we make our way into the next passage of our journey. It will be the sounds, sights, feelings, emotions, dreams and stories and songs that sustain us.

Explore posts in the same categories: Blindness, Braille, Family and Friends, Food, music, piano, Reading, spirituality

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