Haven’t you always wanted to remember things? I have. Okay, so we all remember some stuff, but like socks, the ones we use are usually those that are sitting closest to the surface in the drawer. And you can get lost if you rummage around too deeply in there –things you forgot you had are sometimes unpleasant surprises when you grab them. I have to confess that for years I’ve been a top layer person. I’m not proud of it or anything –it’s just how things are. I mean, you can live with foam.
But every once in a while, I feel a need to delve, to push deeper into my mind, and that’s when I run into trouble. It’s like digging in a midden, and shards of things long buried and broken under the weight of more recently deposited debris are razor sharp and dangerous to disturb. There should be a way to mix them from time to time, dig in them like compost. Aerate them.
And yet it’s dark in there, mysterious, and I am hesitant to risk falling in. I am leery of quicksand. I do not trespass where there are no rules and little hope of rescue. For years I have let the past lie fallow, skimming only what I need from the surface. My life has become a slowly cooling latte.
More recently, however, I have become discontented with what has fallen into the non-recyclable bin that is my head. I have decided that I need to become more ecologically conscious of my innards –well, at least my head, anyway. I’m going to file everything. Put stuff in specially labelled canisters near the surface. Reorganize the drawer. In short, I’m going to do something about my memory.
“Is it actually possible to help the memory?” I think I meant it as more of a rhetorical question, but George gobbled it up like it was a challenge from one of his students. He was a professor of Philosophy –now emeritus, as he is always proud to remind me- and we were sitting on a hard wooden bench stationed like a breakwater smack in the middle of a main corridor in one of the city’s nameless malls. I’d seen him on the little bench calmly knitting as he watched the world shuffle past and I couldn’t resist joining him. Actually, I was more curious about what he was knitting, than about why he would be sitting amongst a silent crowd of old people who were staring sightlessly at the passing crowds while they sheltered from the weather outside.
“I’m knitting a black toque,” he said amiably, in answer to a question I hadn’t asked. He was wearing a dark blue scarf around his neck, and despite the fact somebody had jacked the temperature up to compensate for the blizzard pounding on the glass doors, he was still ensconced in his favourite heavy, grey, ankle-length coat.
I smiled, nodded politely, and used his answer as an excuse to sit beside him. “I thought you already had a toque, George.”
He deftly hooked the red tassel of one in a side pocket and wiggled it for me to see. “I sometimes feel a need for a change,” he said, and continued knitting.
“The black colour should go well with your coat…”
He smiled and nodded without missing a knit –or whatever you call a single stroke in the business. “Black isn’t a colour, Goz.” He ventured a brief eye contact, while the needles continued clicking out their hypnotic rhythm. He was back in the classroom, I could tell.
I hate it when he calls me Goz –a childhood nickname I confessed to him a few years ago in a moment of weakness- but he always uses it, even though I had asked him many times not to. “Nonetheless I thought you already had one of that… uhmm, shade –not red.”
One of his eyes left the developing toque and circled around my face. I’m not sure how he does it, but it is very effective. A wry grin surfaced briefly and then slipped back behind his teeth. “That one is blue –you can use the colour descriptor for it.” The wandering eye returned to home base and the other promptly fledged and headed for a roost on my cheeks. I suppose it must have given a puzzling report, because he immediately raised his head so both the twins could rest on me. Meanwhile, the clicking continued, steady as a clock.
“I… I don’t remember the red tassel on it, though.”
His face softened. “I put a red tassel on the blue one so I could find it more easily.” He let his eyes return to the embryonic black toque. “I’m going to put a yellow one on this,” he added, before I could say anything.
I sat back in the uncomfortable little bench and stared at the unmoving others. I think some of them were asleep. After a deep, and unfortunately visible sigh, I turned to George. “I wish I could put a tassel or something on things I want to remember…” Another of his eyes flew up to inspect my mouth, as if it were tasting the words I had just produced. “Things are not getting any better as I age…” I purposely used 2 ellipses to see if it would notice.
It did, apparently. He glanced at me for a moment, like a teacher looking over his glasses at a recalcitrant student. “I used to teach my students a memory trick –I gave them a tassel, I suppose. Philosophy is more about organizing one’s thoughts –stringing them together coherently- but you still have to memorize the times-table before you can do mathematics.” He concentrated on the soon-to-be toque and smiled.
‘Is it actually possible to help the memory?”
The smile remained, but his eyes seemed intent on some yarn problem. “Damn,” they said as their master cursed silently beneath them.
“We were talking about tassels, remember?” I prodded, like an acolyte sitting at the feet of a preoccupied guru.
“Yes,” he said, absently, more intent on solving a tricky knit issue. “A tassel is a shout, isn’t it –a contrasting label. It’s almost as if you’ve spoken about the toque out loud.”
I stared at him, uncomprehendingly, and when he noticed, the wry smile slipped out from behind his teeth again. His eyes, rolled upward, as he sighed. I don’t know how he could continue knitting with all that going on.
When he had put everything back in place, he shook his head slowly. “Memory needs help, sometimes, Goz. A tassel…”
I didn’t like the sound of his ellipsis, but I waited patiently as he finished another row on his toque. “You mean…?”
But, before I could even finish my thought he interrupted –somewhat irritably, I thought. “If you want to remember a toque, you put a tassel on it.” For an almost imperceptible moment, the clicking stopped while he tried to decide if I understood. Then, figuring that I hadn’t, he started on another row. “Or,” he continued, as if he’d never paused, “You say the word out loud –it’s almost the same thing, really: a verbal rather than a visual clue, though. The brain likes either.” He smiled warmly to himself, convinced that he’d put it well.
I perked up my expression, less convinced however. He seemed so smugly content at his explanatory powers, I decided to ask him about something that was bothering me. “Well if saying something out loud helps you to remember…” I paused for rhetorical effect –I thought he’d appreciate that- “Then why can’t you remember my real name anymore?”
His eyebrows merged with his forehead, and the clicking paused. “ I thought that was your name, Goz. It’s a bright tassel –and I can remember it, you have to admit.”
Sometimes I can understand why he finally retired.