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Ways of Seeing: Where do memories live?

When we moved a few months ago, downsizing from a large Victorian house that we will hold in our memories as the home where we raised our sons, the act of taking the house apart brought — to my surprise — an image of my father’s brain to mind.
My father died at the age of 86 from causes related to a disintegrating brain. We thought of it simply as dementia, but there was much more going on.
We removed our things from our home deliberately. The shell, the house itself, “home” on the outside, was composed now of empty rooms. At the end of my father’s life, the shell was there, too — and this was comforting — but his extraordinary ability with words, the building blocks of his rich knowledge of history, geography, politics, business, nature, had evaporated.
Where does memory reside? What is home? Is it the place we live, the very shelter, or is it something we carry within? Is it a construction of memories? Do we furnish our memories the way we furnish a home? Do we furnish a home by filling it with memories?
Flashback: Eighteen years ago, we took our sons on their first trip abroad to visit friends who were spending a sabbatical year in Ireland. We rented a whitewashed cottage next to theirs on a green hillside. Arriving late at night, jet lagged, our friends greeted us in a warmly lit interior, hot food and tea ready, a refrigerator fully stocked. Laid out on the boys’ beds were Irish children’s books for a bedtime read, and little Irish flannel nightshirts. Yet Angus could not sleep. “I want to go home,” he cried into his pillow. “I want my own bed.” “How can you be homesick?” we asked. “We are all together, mummy, daddy, Charles. Your good friends are next door.”
“That’s not it,” he said. “I miss the air in my room.”
As we packed our things for the move, or gave them away, or sold them, the rooms of our home became more spare, then emptier. Slowly the richness of the fabric that we had woven changed. Pictures came off walls revealing cobwebs. Books and treasures came off shelves. Drawers were emptied, releasing odors of ancient perfume bottles, wax, rubber bands, random keys, matchbooks, and old playing cards. Anything that had fallen out of use, long-neglected books grown dusty, boxes unopened for years in the attic, pictures faded in worn frames — we looked through it all. Some of these things were worth keeping; some were not.
Memories triggered. The Willa Cather books, gifts from my father, brought back the memory of how through my childhood he placed books on my bedside table that he thought I might enjoy. The Welsh Love Spoon from a beloved spinster aunt. Three copies of E.B. White’s essays: one from a college roommate, one from my grandfather, and one from my father. Which to keep? Pink and gold place plates from a grandmother, never used. A tiny pieced quilt for a doll’s bed — who made it and where had it come from?
We found the school reports and artwork from the boys’ preschool days I had packed away in memory boxes for them; their baby clothes, tiny woolen sweaters, and cotton onesies; childhood dolls; a box of beanie babies; a box of matchbox cars; smocked dresses made by my grandmother in Wisconsin; X-rays of John’s mother’s spine; a roaring ’20s wedding dress packed in tissue; Legos; an electric train set; broken furniture; a poem to our home written by a friend of Charles’ at the age of 15. And box after box of family photographs, going back 150 years.
My father realized he was losing his memory long before his family figured it out. By then, he had amassed a collection of books on the brain, from biological treatises on its biochemistry (“In Search of Memory,” by Eric R. Kandel, is a good one for lay people) to art books of brain imaging. As he tried to grapple with the incremental changes progressing inside him, he was trying to furnish his brain with new information. But biology was in charge — he couldn’t forge enough new neural pathways to keep going.
Empty, the old house was no longer home. The new house became home as soon as we furnished it — literally and metaphorically. Something of what is “home” is inside us. Something of what is “home” is also in the memories and associations we have with the things we choose to carry with us.
Now and here is where we will make — and lose — new memories.
Kate Gridley is an artist residing in Middlebury. She is currently working on a new series of paintings, “An Iconography of Memory.”

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