Thursday, December 1, 2011

Is it Real or is it _____________?

Most people who watched any television at all in the past thirty years will remember a commercial for a product in which a glass is shattered by a soprano hitting a high note. The ad then cut to “Is it real or is it ______ (Memorex).” We also remember the little lady who confronted the fast food clerk with “Where’s the ____ (beef)”… an ad so memorable that there is discussion of reviving that commercial some twenty or thirty years later.

A walk down memory lane for those over a certain age can be a delightful exercise for most of us as we flip through old annuals and can call the names of most of our classmates, although we might not recognize them today. Even looking at kindergarten pictures, our friends faces and names are linked in a way that no present day friends and acquaintances are. These memories, even painful ones, can prove to be a comfort and a delight as we age, allowing us to burnish the unpleasant ones with a glow that comes from having survived even the hardest times. We’re still here.

But memory can be a tricky thing.

We mostly laugh when we go into a room and wonder what in the world we wanted there. We grasp for a word or especially a name that is right below the surface. We’ve discovered that if we quit chasing it, it usually surfaces with a pop. Then we might blurt out whatever it was to whoever happens to be around, delighted with the retrieval, but confounding our conversation partners with the suddenness and randomness of discovery.

I find it hard to return to once familiar places and find that they have changed so much that I don’t recognize them, sometimes in what seems like a blink of the eye. A store that always had ____ is no longer in business and large houses have replaced the bungalos that populated our old neighborhoods. It’s comforting to find something that’s still the same after a long period of time. A recent trip back to our childhood lake house was so reassuring to me, because so little had changed.

The confusion change brings may even be pronounced even in a city you’ve never left because of all the “clone neighborhoods” that have appeared nationwide. Each one sports the same mix of shopping choices… Walgreens, CVS, or Rite Aid, a big grocery store, a nail parlor probably staffed with Asian ladies anxious to make you “look like lady” and a unisex hair salon. There’ll probably be a dry cleaner, perhaps a sub shop, but basically all these strip malls look the same. The houses around them don’t differ much in these new areas either. The roofs are all a tasteful shade of greige; there are identical mailboxes, generic plantings which are sometimes prescribed by the Homeowners Association, and not much differs from block to block. There’s not much to hook a memory to in these neighborhoods.

I always hope the folks inside them exercise a bit of originality and have some customs of their own that will provide something memorable for the inhabitants.

Memories differ among me and my siblings, even though we grew up literally side by side, three to a room, for the first eleven years of my life. We all remember the crazy trip to California with my mother and an aging sorority sister and her daughter for a national convention, but Jack remembers the events from a nine year old’s seat between the two ladies in the front seat, Kitty from her perch beside Helen in the middle seat, and I from my mostly lone lounge in the “way back” of the station wagon reading about Al Capone.

We all remember there was no AC in the car, and that our goal was to find a suitable motel at each stop that had air conditioning and a swimming pool for less than ten dollars a night. I remember a golden week at the Huntington Sheraton where I lounged around the pool and delighted the life guard by reading out loud in my southern accent. The details differ, but the memories are there. Who knows if they’re real. It doesn’t really matter, they’re ours and we will always treasure them.

I’m making more of an effort to make memories with my grandchildren, and so far it feels successful. I’d love to hear their account of the trip to the Native American ruins on the Friday after Thanksgiving about thirty years from now.



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