The other day the phone rang. It was my friend Mary. "Did you know," she asked "that Gigi died?"
No, I didn't. We began to talk about him, and I said, "I'll never forget that Thanksgiving Day both he and i spent with Charlie Chaplin way back in 1942."
"You never told me that," she said in disbelief. It then occured to me that not only had I lost a good friend, but in losing Gigi I lost by best witness, someone who remembered things as well as I someone who could substaniate my stories.
Since I have a reputation for slight exaggeration, or as my school-teacher sister would say, "She is given to hyperbole," I always valued Gigi. He had an honest face and people believed him. "Yes," he'd say, "That really happened."
So many of the experiences we shared together were now left with me, and I have become the last repository of remembrances.
Now this isn't a feeling that comes only with the aging process, when we begin to lose friends who remembered, or lose friends who are losing their memories.
The feeling of being the only one to remember comes in childhood as well. Any kid who moves into a new neighborhood has pretty much the same problem. You are a champion rope jumper, and no one on the block can do double-dutch as long and as well as you. But no one knows that.
Nor is there anyone to laugh with you abuot the time you had to sit under the teacher's desk for talking too much.
Family therapists praise the benefits of looking up one's relatives or friends ("significant others," as they are called). Dr. Murray Bowen of Georgetown University's Family Center stresses the "richness and fulfillment" derived from reestablishing oneself in the family network. After the showing of "Roots" on television, thousands of people went on a search for relatives as linkages to their past.
Feeling a need for continuity and some nostalgic nourishment, I decided to look up some cousins in the Miswest. I wanted to learn more about myself and find out how others perceived me and the rest of my family years ago.
I visited a cousin I had not seen since I as 17. I sat in her kitchen as she peeled potatoes. "Jane," I asked, "Do you remember how your father used to tease us?"
"Oh, he didn't tease us so much," she said. I remembered that he did.
"What ever happened," I asked, "to Rose who lived across the street from you? I used to play with her."
"Oh, I don't know," replied Jane in exasperation. "For God's sake, don't live in the past. You're bringing up all kinds of stuff that doesn't matter anymore. I've forgotten about all those people. But let me tell you about my daughter's fiance . . . "
And of course wasn't interested, and felt like a intruder suddenly breaking into the lives of people who didn't choose to remember. They were strangers. I knew them as children, children who had long disappeared into the past, only to live in my stubborn memory.
But then my childhood friend Mildred insisted that we go back to the old neighborhood. We parked the car, and carefully made our way through urban-renewal rubble to the only building left standing, the William Cullen Bryant Elementary School.
We middle-aged women sat on the lonely swings just looking, hardly talking. When the suden rain came, we ran toward the car. Pleased with my speed, I called out, "Hey, do you remember when I was the fastest runner in 8th grade?"
"You were?" said Mildred between gasps. "I don't remember that."
"Well, my kids remember," I said. "They should. I've told them enough times."
Before leaving the Midwest I looked up an old friend of my mother's. Jessie, age 85, lives in a housing project for senior citizens and is unhappy with the illness and poverty surrounding her. She remembers everything .
The now has little to offer her, and she is happy to talk of the past. She recalled vignette after vignette, all lvoingly restored with a patina of old photographs.
"Oh kiddo," she said sadly as I kissed her goodbye, "It's tough getting old. But I still have a good memory."
And it's great," I answer.
I go home, and get a call from a neighbor: "Say, when you went with us to buy our refrigerator, exactly what did the man say about the warranty?"
"I wasn't listening. I don't know Ask Pete. He was there."
I could hear her asking Pete and his reply, "How should I know what he said. I can't be bothered with all that stuff. Doesn't she remember?"
Then it hit me. Not only do I remember what others have forgotten, but they expect me to remember. So I sat down and wrote: My friends tell me I can remember all things they have long forgotten . . . My mind-bank stored with piles of clutter they have deposited within me for safe keeping while they have gone on to more improtant living . . . leaving me, faithful dog burdened with old rusty skate keys , torn keys, eyeless dolls and quotations from John Greenleaf Whittier . An endless assortment of rememberances of long past sunny days fat and rount I've become With memories that I hoard to entertain my friends who come for nourishment . . . But some day when they come and ask , "What date was it when . . . ? or Do you remember what Annie said that rainy afternoon . . . ? I shall smile I shall smile and say to them . . . I have forgotten !