At the very beginning of her journey is Harriet, my sister’s three month old baby. Bright eyed and eager to discover all the magic of life. At the other end of the journey is my mother Mary, increasingly distant and frequently asleep. As one life begins another draws to a close. To observe both ends of life’s journey, the beginning and the end, I experience a flood of emotions, a mixture of sadness, sentimentality and nostalgia.
I find myself thinking about memory. As an older person’s memory begins to fade it becomes harder and harder to pin point important events in life. Births, marriages, divorces, deaths. As memories become elusive I wonder what a person is, if not a mere collection, a basket of reminiscences. Without memory we lose that key element that makes us individuals. Those experiences that form us as unique and exceptional. In fact without memory an essential element of our character is lost forever.
When I’m talking to my mother she’ll say to me, ‘Yes I remember that,’ grasping, straining to reach a thought, a memory, tucked away in the corner of her mind. Just slightly out of reach. The memory is like a mischievous child hiding round the corner, just out of view. With just a little extra effort it can be reached. But then just when you can almost reach out and touch it – it disappears altogether. Meanwhile Harriet, the baby, is absorbing sights and sounds very rapidly. She is remembering, recognising, learning about the world around her. She can identify her parents and gives them a huge smile when they approach. Babies learn quickly. Harriet is at the start of her voyage, Mary is at the end.
One of my favourite writers, Robert Macfarlane, considers the past and the present in his eloquent prose. In his book ‘The Old Ways’ he examines how our landscape, roads, lanes, and footpaths bear witness to thousands of foot steps that have gone before. This concept of the ‘memory’ of the land is fascinating. So often we walk along a street, across a field or through a wood without pausing to understand how the path we tread might have developed. Perhaps it was originally an animal run, mule track or a cattle route. The path is influenced too by the geology of an area. For example in a chalk landscape there is very little surface water, hillsides tend to undulate gently, vegetation consists of low grasses, bushes and a few trees. Whereas in an area of granite sub-strata one might find bogs, emerald green, moss-covered rocky outcrops, waterfalls and pools. Having read Macfarlane’s lucid observations the ‘memory’ of the land has stayed with me and always will.
Another of my favourite authors is WG Sebald. Sebald was a German Literature Professor at the University of East Anglia. He left Germany in the late 1950s and remained in England for the rest of his life. Sebald was interested in the impact of anti-semitism in Germany, during and after the Second World War. In his book ‘The Emigrants’ he writes about a group of people who were ‘a little bit Jewish’ and their attempts to fit into a post-Holocaust Germany. The final chapter of the book is semi-autobiographical and discusses Sebald’s own experiences in Manchester as a young graduate student in the early 1960s. Sebald has also written extensively about Norfolk, Suffolk and the Fenlands. He would embark on long rambles across the countryside, recounting tales of people and places that he encountered on his journey. It was from Sebald that I learned about Dutch involvement in the draining of the Fens in the 17th century. How collaboration between the English and our Dutch neighbours, just across the North Sea, helped to transform a low-lying and water-logged region into an area of well drained and highly productive farmland. The look of the landscape in the Fens, flat, featureless, fertile fields bounded by large drainage ditches, gives us the visual clues to understand the history of the land. The memory of the land here is easy to read, easy to comprehend. The land remembers even when we forget.
I’ve noticed recently that remembrance and commemoration are back in fashion. Both words embrace the concept of memory. To remember, to honour, to recall what has happened in the past. In 2014 the Tower of London’s spectacular poppy exhibit attracted millions of visitors. The moat and walls of the Tower were covered in ceramic red poppies, almost 900,000 in total. The poppies represented each of the British and Commonwealth soldiers who died in the First World War. The elegance of the poppies, and the poignancy of this memorial to them, struck a chord for so many British people who flocked to the Tower. I visited the poppies too – I got up at 5 o’clock in the morning to see the poppies at dawn. They were spread across the green grass of the moat like a vast crimson robe. In fact other poppy exhibits have since been staged throughout the British Isles, most recently at Caernarfon Castle, Wales.
Remember, commemorate, let us not forget. All words that encourage us to honour the past, to appreciate what we have and the sacrifices that have been made on our behalf. In the beautiful words of Maya Angelou’s poem – The Lesson:
I keep on dying again.
Veins collapse, opening like the
Small fists of sleeping
Memory of old tombs,
Rotting flesh and worms do
Not convince me against
The challenge. The years
And cold defeat live deep in
Lines along my face.
They dull my eyes, yet
I keep on dying,
Because I love to live.
Wherever we find ourselves on life’s journey it is important to appreciate and embrace every minute. As Gloria Steinem said ‘live every day as if it were your last’. So for my family, from the new baby. to my mother and with me in between we have to make every minute count. After all we might be at the beginning, in the middle or nearing the end, but we owe it to ourselves to do our best, our very best, every single day.
- The photo at the top of this article is the ‘poppy installation’ at Caernarfon Castle, Wales. It was inspired by the huge success of the Poppies at the Tower of London exhibit. What a wonderful way to ‘remember’.
- The Poppies at the Tower of London was an art installation by Paul Cummins and Tom Piper. It is estimated that more than 4 million people visited The Tower to admire the poppies.
- The red poppy is a symbol of ‘remembrance’ in the British Isles. The red poppy grows in profusion in the fields of Northern France, especially around the valley of the River Somme. The Somme was the scene of terrible trench warfare in the 1914-18 war.
- The red poppy was chosen by the British Legion to commemorate members of the armed forces who gave their lives to defend their country in the First World War.
The Lesson by Maya Angelou is a thought provoking poem on life.
I have written several other articles on ‘life’ that you might enjoy: