David L. Robbins
Novelist, Educator, Playwright, Essayist
Man Eternal (Native Son #18)
by David L. Robbins on May 19th, 2014

Thumbing through a photo recently, I came across a picture of a dear old friend.

She was the dorm mother for my William and Mary undergraduate and law school years. In the photo she holds a big fish by the tail, she is gray haired and jolly, a game old gal. She embodied New England class and grandmotherly sass. I watched my first episode of Saturday Night Live in her flat. She helped me push-start my crappy van a dozen times on cold mornings. She was a friend and confessor who remained those things after I graduated. I visited her in retirement three times on Cape Anne; she got me on a lobster boat for one of the hardest working weeks of my life. I never looked at her then, and did not in the album, without thinking what a pretty girl she was in her mid-70’s.

I fingered her image, searching for her name. I could not, and do not now, remember it.

I’ve taken some solace from Boomer friends who testify to similar lapses. They forget what they went to the kitchen for. Forget who they’re dialing. Can’t recall the last thought in a conversation. They seem inured to forgetfulness. Like a trick knee, it warrants a shrug. Sadly, I’m not so sanguine.

I understand these little random erasures as harbingers. I’m getting older, dottier. Even if the body’s holding up fine, what good will it do if my brain drifts away? I think of the dimming of my memory as a mosaic reverse-engineered; one by one, tiny tiles are being pried out of me and re-assembled elsewhere. The whole of me exists but in the commune of other people’s memories, those who can still remember me and us.

Take my father. He wasn’t a notable man, didn’t do much beyond what good a father and worker does. His job is long since wiped away, his wife dead, his friends have passed on. His only legacy is his sons. He lives nowhere but in our four memories. We are the last neurons of the mind that retains him. When we go missing, he’s pretty much done.

That’s sobering. Few of us build lives like pyramids, though most of us want to be memorialized somehow. Children, wealth, inventions, fame and glory, art, sacrifice, all are in some way grave markers. This isn’t a bad thing; it’s what drives me to write books, plays and this article, to teach, what fuels my charitable work, my strong desire to leave behind some better mark of myself. But in the final tally, the reminiscence of a good life usually outlasts the actuality. Once we lose the recollection, what have we got?

My old dorm mother could have gone home to Manchester-by-the-Sea, could have grown quiet and cold with the winters there until she too melted off the earth. However, after a long career as a college administrator she stayed in Williamsburg to do another decade’s worth of close combat with post-adolescent boys and girls. I was gifted with her friendship, made part of the collective recall of her. Forty years later, my little part of that brain is failing. She’s a little deader a little sooner than she ought to be because of me.

It’s not mete to be forgotten after so much generosity, toil, accomplishment, sorrow and love, the things that fill every life. We build a bonfire with our days, tossing each one onto the pile until they burn so high, so brightly that death sees and comes. After that, the flame banks, the embers collapse and glow, warmth fades then quits.

I am bound for this cooling erasure, no matter how strong the intentions may be to hold me in others’ hearts. I am flesh and flesh is what you will let go and bury, beginning my second life, the memory of me that will surely prove far more fragile than I was.

But I can still hear her voice and see her move. I personally took that picture of her hoisting the big fish onto the kitchen counter. I remember how much I admired her and appreciated her fondness for my ungainliness. I recall brassy stories of her own youth, the layout of her small apartment, that first SNL.

She isn’t gone yet. I’m going to make up a name. I’ll keep us both alive, until I can’t anymore. Then she’ll be done and, after a while, I’ll follow.

Posted in Boomer Articles, Boomer Mag    Tagged with boomer magazine, native son, richmond, friend, memory, recollection, remembering, forgetting, rva


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