Friday, October 9, 2009

Persistence of Memory Loss

Whenever Patty grows frustrated with me because I’ve once again forgotten some important call I was supposed to place or check she’d asked me to cash, I defend myself by gently reminding her about the flaws in her own memory. Specifically, I call her attention to what has come to be known, in the O’Mara-Croft family lore, as The $60,000 Question. The mere mention buys me at least a short reprieve.

Patty and I, along with three of our five children, moved together into a rental condo in the spring of 2001. Patty had just sold her home, and we eagerly awaited the arrival of a sizable bank draft, her share of the proceeds (her soon-to-be-ex-husband received the rest). When it finally arrived, we were ecstatic, because we’d both brought into this relationship more than a few debts from the ones previous. In short, we were horribly broke.

Patty waved the check in the air. “We’ve got it. Thank God…we’ve got it!” A stranger taking in the scene would have been fairly convinced she'd discovered a black hole under our kitchen sink. She tossed the envelope on the kitchen counter, gave me a big kiss, and poured us both a celebratory drink.

When we returned for the check, it wasn’t there. Patty looked around everywhere; I looked around everywhere again. None of the kids had any idea. Our initial chuckles at her absent-mindedness—Ha, ha, you threw away our future, ha, ha—quickly devolved into a sharp, grating and nearly volcanic variety of panic.

“Think, Patty. Did you put it in your purse?”

“I checked my purse.” I grabbed her purse, opened it, felt a sense of awe about just how much she’d managed to fit in there, realized this task was bigger than me, and set it back down.

“Did you file it away in a drawer somewhere?”

“Why would I do that? It needs to go in the bank.”

“I know it does. But we’ve tried all the sensible places. Now it’s time to think of the dumb ones.”

“Then maybe you took it.” Why, at the mere mention of dumb ideas, do I always immediately become the patsy?
“Don’t put that on me. I don’t have it; I never did. Did you throw it out?”
“Now you’re just being ridiculous. Why on earth would I throw away tens of thousands of dollars?”

Fast-forward one hour: she’d thrown it out.

Patty hates clutter, so when in her short-term memory this check stopped being—oh, I don’t know—our fragile lifeline for the coming months, it instantly transformed into nothing more than junk mail. A year later, she would throw out another huge check from an inheritance. I could forgive the oversight, even after it happened twice; we’re all only human (even those of us who tend toward the dumb and ridiculous.)

I once raced like a man possessed to get our two other children (from my first marriage) to the airport for their return flight to Canada. I weaved in and out of traffic, cut off emergency vehicles and, once or twice, came close to breaking the sound barrier, all the while staring at the clock in the car, whose numbers were fairly spinning. I arrived with a screech of rubber at the curb of the terminal—only to discover, in my haste, we’d left home without their passports…or any of their luggage.

So I could certainly wrap my head around the idea that, in Patty’s frenetic cleaning, she’d swept the check into the trash. What I still don’t understand, though, is why I ended up the dumpster-diver. Or why I was the one nominated to deposit a massive check coated with what I presume was a generous swipe of pizza sauce and a soupçon of mashed banana.

On some fronts, Patty enjoys a near-photographic recall of things past. She can without hesitation draw out minute details of experiences from her early childhood. One of my favorites was a true Hallmark moment when, on a family vacation, her mother tried to skip a rock across a lake. The flat stone didn’t blip-blip-plonk across the mirrored surface, to the delight of her children, as she had intended. Instead, it shouted out a meaty thwock as it slammed full-force into the back of her daughter Kathleen’s head.

My sister-in-law, to whom I’ve bestowed two nicknames, Kiddo and Bitch, makes me crazy, usually in a good way. So I relish the retelling of this story about her near-demise, in exquisite detail, whenever Patty’s willing to share it. And all the details are there, every time.

So maybe, just maybe, long-term memory isn't about remembering everything. Perhaps it's just about remembering our favorite things.


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