The Middle Distance 3.23.12: Memory Tree

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Photo by Sean Cayton

For months, my mother has been waiting for her Meyer lemons to turn yellow so she can pick them from the tree. I planted the tree in her front yard the winter of 2010, the year before the worst drought to hit Texas in 100 years. Watering was prohibited throughout most of last spring and summer because of severe shortages, but my mother saved every extra drop in the house in a pan and went out each day to pour it on the roots of the lemon tree. It bloomed and set fruit, and by Christmas of 2011, when we were there visiting her in Galveston, she showed me its four sturdy green lemons.

This winter there was plenty of rain and the lemons have plumped up and begun to turn.

When the skin is smooth and yellow and the flesh just barely soft, my mother will pick them and make a pie. She has nursed this idea with patience and delight and is determined it will happen.

She has never had a fruit tree. At 84, homebound with hospice nursing care, she is doing this one thing she has never done before. She is making a memory from new experience.

The Spanish film director Luis Bunuel said: “You have to begin to lose your memory, if only in bits and pieces, to realize that memory is what makes our lives. … Our memory is our coherence, our reason, our feeling, even our action.”

Out here in the middle distance, some memories are like jewels, hoarded and kept in a box for protection against forgetting. They get dusty and fade, and at moments when we think they’re gone, we panic. Then, if we’re lucky, in a dream or in a mundane moment walking the dog or sweeping the carpet, one of those gems reappears, bright and gleaming. Or a memory, like a waiting dog behind a fence, will ambush us with its sudden, fierce roar.

Five years ago this month, my beautiful nephew Teddy died at age 25. His liquid brown eyes, his carved physique, and his straightforward nature have not dimmed but seem now to be entering a new realm of treasured memory. Something about that five-year mark causes a shift. My son is headed to Galveston this weekend to join Teddy’s friends, his brother and his parents in a celebration, a fishing and surfing day dedicated to his way of life. A new memory, and at the same time, a ritual to keep the old ones alive.

“Memory is a house with ten thousand rooms; it is a village slated to be inundated,” says storywriter Anthony Doerr in his collection Memory Wall.

Some days, I wish they would go away, the memories that keep forming us and drawing us back in our march toward the horizon. Relieved of the burden and weight of memory, we might experience life anew, like a kid, as if it all hadn’t happened before. I believe that is why people love becoming grandparents, because at the point when their memories have become weighty or might be disappearing, here suddenly is this new person who experiences everything fresh, unclouded by memory.

I think too much about all of this because I teach memoir writing to adult students who are unearthing and crafting and carving the stories of their lives on paper, out of memory. Sometimes when I don’t want to think about it anymore, I go to the garden and dig in a place where memory is dirt and rock and has no feelings attached.

Then, a miracle happens and memory rises up in a dance.

The other day I was on the phone with my mother, a routine call to ask how she was feeling, how was the dog, and how were the lemons. Somehow the conversation turned to childbirth. I asked, knowing the answer, if she had been born at home.

“Oh, yeah,” she said, “We were all born at home and we all made it.”

Then she told me a story about the day her baby sister was born and she was no longer the youngest in their large family.

“I remember it,” she said. “A neighbor from the farm across the way came and got me for the day. He walked across the field and took my hand and we started walking back.

“He told me, ‘When you get home, you’ll have a baby brother or sister. The doctor’s bringing it in his black bag.’”

Here was a story I had never heard before, a newborn to my ears.

Kathryn Eastburn is the author of A Sacred Feast: Reflections of Sacred Harp Singing and Dinner on the Ground, and Simon Says: A True Story of Boys, Guns and Murder in the Rocky Mountain West. You can comment and read or listen to this column again at The Big Something at “The Middle Distance” is published every Friday on The Big Something and airs each Saturday at 1 p.m. right after This American Life.


2 Responses to The Middle Distance, 3/23/12: Memory Tree

  1. anne lennox says:

    Thank you Kathryn.

  2. Mark Noble says:

    Somehow I think of my life as my consciousness, and my memories as my history. The one is me, the other the history of my expression as a person.

    This year I will have my Medicare birthday, and I think I will plant a fruit tree in my yard.

    Thanks Kathryn, for sharing that of which you are conscious.

    Mark, one of the many of the One


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