My friend and I were talking about polio and discovered that each of us had once had a neighbor in an iron lung. I remember visiting the young woman who lived a few doors down the street from us. I was fascinated by the machine that kept her alive. And I pitied her because she couldn’t walk to my house the way I could walk to hers.
That brief memory led to a drive home filled with the neighbors of my past. The one who always drank milk for dinner. The one who had such beautiful violets in the window. The one who ironed her husband’s underwear. It’s always been a mystery to me why some of the smallest details of life remain vivid in our memories, while other more important things elude us. I’ve read that traumatic events stay with us. So it’s no surprise that I remember standing in the back seat of a car that smelled like wet wool, and holding onto the little strap above the window while my grandmother screamed “Bobby slow down!” My grandmother told me I was not quite three when we were skidding along that mountain road and she thought we were going to have another accident (I was in one as an infant). I understand why I remember the shock of a window falling on my face and my mother yelling “Don’t open your eyes!” Or the rush of adrenalin I feel any time I’m in a small dark space resembling the storage room I got trapped in. What I don’t understand is why tiny bits of information stay with me. Why can I still remember that our neighbor in Georgetown, Texas had green roses?
Don’t say it’s because they were so unusual. I also remember that another neighbor made strudel on her kitchen table. I can still “see” her rolling it out and cutting it. I remember another neighbor who had shelves and shelves and shelves of National Geographic magazine. And yes, I would sneak peeks at the naked natives. Didn’t you? One of our neighbors loved to dance. So what? Why do I remember that?
When I was about eight we had a neighbor who always smoked. I’m talking about one of those people who never used her left hand for anything except holding a cigarette. I clearly remember her ashtrays. They were all over the house and they looked like little mountains. I don’t think she emptied them more than once a week.
I remember exactly what my grandmother’s neighbor to the north looked like and how she talked and the gestures she used when she was excited. I can’t recall what the neighbor to the south looked like even though I talked with her as often and eventually bought her house. Why? What intrigues our brain and triggers our memory’s “record” button? Or is it all there and we just can’t find the replay button?
And why would I remember anything about any neighbor, given our history of moving every time the wind blew? Yet there are some memories of neighbors, and their houses that are more lucid than memories of our own home. I’ve probably given this more thought than any sane person should, but I’ve come to the conclusion that many of my childhood neighbors made an impact on my memory because focusing on them was an escape from some of the pain of moving. It was as though I could soften the impact of the move if I could retain as many memories as possible. Their faces and their stories became part of my past, part of my story. It helped add a bit of normalcy to my life if I could envision them going about their daily lives while we “hit the road” again. The people left behind were carrying on, and hopefully, remembering me as part of their story.