Outsourcing Memory

In the last week or so, my mom has reconnected with several of her (and my father’s) old friends on Facebook. I remember these two families well from my childhood in Kentucky. We lived in a neighborhood–a treeless new development of modest homes that belonged to transient families who had come to Lexington for jobs at IBM like we had. These families weren’t part of our  neighborhood, but they were very much of that memory-moment for me, because we saw them so often. We played with their kids.

I don’t remember very much of Lexington at all. Really not much more than the portion of our street–Monticello Boulevard–where our nearest neighors lived, the street above ours where I would ride my bike and swim in a friend’s up-ground pool, and the yellow metal gate that opened into Shillitos Park’s dusty baseball diamonds and creaky swing sets. I remember our backyard, of course, and the inside of our brown split-level house with roses scrambling around the railroad-tie fence.  These are memories from when I was 5, 6, 7 years old.  I’m surprised I have as vivid a grasp on them as I do.

But I wonder how much richer these images, these stories would be if I brought in the memories of other people? People who knew us when we were a young family. Who knew my father as a 25 or 26 year old man.

A few years ago, I got in touch with one of his best friends from childhood, a kind man who had remained a close friend up until his death. Who had, in fact, been with my father on the last vacation he took only three weeks before he died–to Maryland’s eastern shore, where they gorged themselves on blue crab and Molson Golden. The last photos of my father were taken on this trip. He looked healthy and happy standing next to his friend on a slanted wooden dock, wearing a pink polo shirt and brown deck shoes. Smiling.

But what happened on that trip? I asked my father’s friend if he would be willing to share some anecdotes with me for the purpose of writing the book, and he was thrilled to comply. A few days later, he emailed me several type-written pages of beautiful, exacting, illuminating prose about that trip and about the many years of their friendship to that point. I remember feeling energized, fascinated, confused and overwhelmed as I read. It was like meeting my father as the person he was to his friends–a relative stranger to me.

The document was a treasure, and I imagined it would inform the part of the story closest to his death. But then my computer died, and took the entire thing with it.

I was horrified, but I never pursued getting a copy. I felt terrible for having asked such a huge thing of this man (whose own grief over losing his best friend had been immense and palpable), and then neglecting to care for it. I gave it up for lost.

And it remains mostly lost, but there is something about knowing that there are people in the world who knew him, who still remember him and  might have stories to tell (me?) about him that is comforting to me. My mother’s family, for instance, as well as these long-ago friends from the days of deep-fried banana peppers and beer in Kentucky summers, of Old Bay blue crab and beer on Chesapeake Bay.

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