The Past, Present, & Future Construction of Memory & My Opa


I’m currently reading Ian McEwan’s best-selling novel, Saturday, which takes place in a single day, and is basically about how one encounter completely alters the protagonist, a surgeon’s, outlook on life (think: Mrs. Dalloway, Ulysses, A Christmas Carol). Of course, part of the 280 pages extends outside of the one day itself, because in order for us to understand the impact of this particular event, we must also go back to Henry Perowne’s childhood, where he met his wife, his children’s relationships with their grandparents. We must construct a prior Perowne in order to understand the present Perowne, and to predict the future Perowne; the book suggests that, while we are all currently living in the present moment, our existence is actually an accumulation of our past, our presents, and our futures; we can never be defined as just one moment in time.

My Opa, one of the greatest male influences in my life, passed away this weekend, and as I begin preparing myself for a future without his physical presence, I can’t help but also think about what an interesting study into my own memory grief has become, and all the ways in which memory is constructed.

Past memories: I do believe there is such thing as a collective memory between people; that we dump each of our memories into a pot, for others to pick up, and we use these memories as ways to construct multi-dimensional views of each other. We have collective, past memories from large cultural events, such as 9/11, and we have collective, past memories from much smaller, more intimate events, such as proposals and weddings and family gatherings, and we share these memories via storytelling. Much like Perowne in Saturday, my past memory of my Opa relies upon quilting together other people’s memories of him, and his own. We remember the stories he told, about running to his mother as a very young boy, upset about the train of Jews he saw being carted off to a concentration camp, about meeting Oma in an elevator, about traveling to China, Europe, Australia. We remember the stories my dad and my aunts share, about growing up 20 miles outside of town, in a house with shag carpet, avocado green counter tops, Holly Hobby wall paper, and gusty winds. We remember the stories we all share, about my sister running the riding lawn mower into the farm equipment, the “dead body” we encountered in the field, building Fort Opa out of hay bales. And, as we sit around, we dump these past memories into a pot, allowing someone, who perhaps does not share that same memory in that same way, to pick it up, and add to their very own and unique construction of Opa.

Present memories: They say that there is something that just sticks about traumatic memories. People will always remember where they were when they received the news of JFK’s assassination, Columbine, the planes hitting the Twin Towers. It is interesting to me what our memories decide to leave in, and what they decide to leave out. Of course, memory is an unconscious process that I can’t necessarily control. For the most part, I think that memory tends to leave out pain and suffering. I vividly remember standing outside in the streets of Paris, gazing up at the sparkling Eiffel Tower, and I do remember THAT I was hungry, thirsty, my feet hurt, and very, very cold, but my memory doesn’t allow me to feel that “pain and suffering”. On the other hand, when I hear a song, such as Uptown Funk, I’m immediately overcome with a feeling of extreme elation as I remember that dance party in my backyard. And, I know that this next week will be a special time to add to the present memories of my Opa. To the concept I hold of him in my schema, I will now add the moment I received news of his passing, the delicate moments I’ve spent with my family, the song in church that induced tears, and the new information I’ve learned while we share our past memories.

Future memories: The day my Opa passed away, I went to Chipotle, handed the cashier my credit card, and he spent about five minutes, asking me about my last name: “Does anyone ever call you Everdeen? Evergreen? Enderveen?” (When my Opa immigrated from The Netherlands, he changed the pronunciation of the last name to be more ‘Americanized’, and it means ‘uncultivated swamp’ in Dutch). I once was told by a literary agent that I had to keep my last name, for its uniqueness, and now every time someone says it, I write it, my Opa’s memory will be evoked. As I stood in yoga this weekend, I noticed all the physical features he passed onto me: the long legs, skinny fingers, slender frame, no hair, hyper-extended joints. He was a builder, a constructor, of which is a prominent trait in all the men I like best. He carried a witty, dry sense of humor; he asked my dad one time if he picked me and my sister “up off the streets”. He was a hard worker, avid traveler, genuine man, and as we embark in a world he has departed, we will find these traits, mannerisms, interests embedded in ourselves, and we will continue to construct future memories that reminisce of Opa.

Of course, this new world also requires some changing, some adjusting; it probably means family gatherings will take place at a different place, in a different time; no more birthday celebrations at Chucky Cheese’s, and Kendall Jackson may have to find another buyer for their wine. But, I am comforted by the many memories I have, both my own, his own, and others, of the great man that is my Opa. While his physical presence may have left our Earth, it is through these memories that I feel he is still very alive, breathing, and influencing us, and I know that he is never truly gone. I will forever carry with me very fond memories, of his thick, Dutch accent (and the new words we heard when my sister ran the car into his legs), him letting me win every time we played Monopoly, of drawing on the big pads of paper from work and building forts in the hay stacks, and of the big, wet kiss he always planted on my cheek every time we left. This weekend, it’s been difficult for me to say, my Opa “was”, or that he “did”, because in my memory, he very much still IS.

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