The Death of a Memory

My mother in law has a rich cache of memories that find their way easily into a conversation – a walk on the beach, a cup of tea in a comfortable chair, or on the bleachers of a child’s baseball game. Her stories span from a rural childhood riding a horse to school to a young nursing career. Marriage lead to an expat life in the seventies in Asia with a husband who travelled back and forth to New York. Follow this up with a return to Australia moving to and from three separate cities, children educated in each and a foray into small business which had her working six day weeks. The majority of her memories have a central character, her husband who was her confidante and best friend – he died two and half years ago and I still look for him over her shoulder as she walks into a room.

“I’ll be married 53 years tomorrow” she told me last week. There’s an awkward pause. “You don’t stop being married just because…” her voice trailed off, we both found somewhere else to look. She began again “The trouble is when a marriage ends you don’t just lose half… you also lose all of the memories that they had that you’ve forgotten.

I thought of G and I filling in the gaps of each others conversations. The people I’ve lost that G has kindly returned to me. “I was talking to Paul. You remember Paul? He worked in Adelaide but he came to Canada.” G is playing expat charades – two words, one Australian, first word…Paul…

I’m completely blank, shaking my head slowly while searching back through the years like a time traveller.

“Remember that night in Canada?” G goes on. “His luggage didn’t arrive, he showed up to dinner in a track-suit, really nice guy”. It slowly starts to come back thread by thread, the jacket, the grateful face, the sparkling eyes. “He told me he’s never forgotten you because you drove into town the next day and gave him some clothes”.

Seven countries, four children, parent teacher nights across continents and I somehow struggle to remember Paul who lost his luggage. Paul with the kind eyes who’s from my home town. Paul who I genuinely thought enough of to head into town in the middle of a brutal Canadian winter with kids in tow. I find myself desperately searching for the details. How old were our kids? I want that memory back, I want to picture the kids, my friends, my house in Canada. I want just five minutes of it – let me stand in the kitchen with a baby in a high chair, a toddler on my hip and an eye on the clock. I want the sound bite ‘kids we’re going to grab a few things to take into town to the man from Dad’s work’.

Our days that roll into weeks months and years often feel endless. Small children, bath times and planned menus amongst grocery shopping and carrying the folded washing to the bedroom. An ordinary day with a mundane task punctuated by a chance meeting at the letterbox or the supermarket. Those were the days I let slide by, feeling they were the hours I was pushing through to get to the end goal – the holiday marked on the calendar, the weekend brunch with friends, the return home for Christmas.

How fantastic would it be to place each day carefully in a vault to return to. Maybe that’s what my mother in law was missing, hers was a shared vault and now half it was missing. She’d been robbed and the good were irreplaceable.

Our expat friends provide the same, maybe more of a lock box than a vault. While smaller and easier to relocate, the lockbox gets carried year to year, scuffed and dented along the way. As it fills with new experiences and friends old memories spill out and remnants are left behind. You can remember the street, the house but not the exact address, what was the post code? You can see your front garden but were the bougainvellia pink or white? The teacher from Ireland, she was so lovely you went on the field trip together when the bus got a flat tyre – where did she end moving to? Did you ever say goodbye?

How great would it be to return to the vault – to that one day – the day you thought was so ordinary.

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