Paths to Memory

Memories are a part of the strange workings of the human mind.

We have been preoccupied with death in the last months; when it visits over and over, it looms in importance.  Many of my concerns have been for my grandchildren and their exposure to so much loss in their young lives.  Life seems unusually brutal for them.

I thought about my experiences of death in my childhood. At first it was almost dreamlike. I saw a blurry mental image of the little blonde neighbor girl.  Her skin (unlike my own) was beautiful and pale.  She couldn’t always go outside and most of the time we played inside games.  Then one day when I knocked on her door, she wasn’t there.  She had died.  No one ever said why. Soon after, I went to her house to see if her brother could play and the mother seemed upset and sent me away.

More memories came rushing in.

A small child again, I felt myself sitting on my Dad’s lap at a funeral.  I knew that was the father of my Sunday school friend, but I didn’t connect him to her. I know that at the time I felt no grief or comprehension of her loss.  I didn’t muse that she no longer had a lap to sit on.  I didn’t treasure my own father. I just remember feeling sleepy and a bit mystified.

In those days and in my family, explanations weren’t given to children. And no one discussed it with us.

My unaddressed thoughts about death were evident in grade school. A friend had borrowed my dress at a sleepover.  She brought it back in a mesh bag which hung in the cloakroom unnoticed.  …Until I went to school one morning and heard that my friend and her cousin had died the night before in a house fire. The old house where I had played was burned to the ground. That afternoon the dress was all that I saw.

My mother had asked me about that dress each day after school, but I couldn’t seem to remember to take it from the cloak room to my house. The day I learned about my friend’s death I removed the bag from it’s hook.  As I walked toward home I swung it by the drawstring that pulled the mesh together at the top.  My arm made wide circles.  At its highest arc, in a quiet area near a mobile home park I released the bag into the trees and weeds along the road.  And kept walking. I don’t remember that my Mother ever asked after the dress again.

And then, suddenly, the morning after writing about suicide, I woke up thinking of another childhood friend. I was excited when I discovered her on Facebook.

What fun!  She accepted my “friend”ship.  Scrolling through her page, I saw the name of her older brother and a small frisson of shock jarred me.  It couldn’t be her brother. It must be a nephew. Until that moment I had forgotten that he committed suicide when we were twelve years old.  A pungent memory of shaking anxiety filled me, the same anxiety that had caused my sister and I to giggle inappropriately at the funeral.

Suicide HAD touched my childhood. More memories…

…of another friend who committed suicide in high school.  His death had fascinated me much more than his life had done.  He had lived close to the library and after his death when I went to check out books, I always studied his house.  Which was the window to his bedroom where he had died? Even in high school, my morbid curiosity won out over my grief.

Is this why had I forgotten all of these tragedies of my youth?

I would have thought that all my concern about my grandchildren would have jogged my buried memories.  And what strange quirk of the mind caused me to think of my friend as the pathway to memory? I don’t have answers.

It startles me to realize how resilient we are as humans.  Perhaps a psychiatrist would have something to say about repression, or callousness. Still, in retrospect, my grief then was less than my grief now. The known friends of my childhood seem less of a loss than the friends of my children and grandchildren who have been wrenched from their lives. It’s all more real to me now.

My memories are real, too. If my friends were waiting for me to remember them – then we have come full circle in my mind.



  1. Memories of all kinds are as much part of our personalities as anything else is. Death of people we know starts to play an important part in our lives when we are young and stay with us till our own death. Something or the other will trigger these memories and revisiting those memories act as safety valves for us. Perhaps our, Indian I mean, culture treats death differently than the Western one as right from childhood, it is not kept hidden from children and often young children are asked to be part of rites that trains them to handle this with equanimity. Like you, I have many memories of long gone people and I find it quite easy to handle those memories. I can even write about them with nostalgia.


    • In my family culture, I don’t think death was hidden as much as unexplained in many ways to the children. That was generational, too. Now death is so evident in media that perhaps it needs no explanation to children. At any rate, it is much more a topic of conversation than it was in my youth. I agree, too, that we are touched by those who are gone and they become a part of us.


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