Wednesday, February 15, 2017

Why You Can't Pin Memory on a Timeline

Memory baffles me.  The process of it.  As I get older, approaching fifty-six, I look back with anything but clarity.  I've tried to hold onto the timeline of it all, but, I gotta admit there are months I am not really sure about.  Did I work for that drunken Algerian French dude before I worked in fine dining with that pretty, crazy girl at the Hilton?  When did I live in that apartment with the deck and a pretty little sun room where I painted horrible paintings and was happy?  A rich girl and a guest house in toney Michigan with a Chris Craft and a sinking pontoon boat?  Was it when I was twenty?  Was I ever that young?

It's overwhelming really.  I sometimes feel like I'm not up to it, remembering causes avalanches of images and faces and places and, well... feelings.

It is easy to get caught up in the factual details of memory.  You hear folks do it all the time, "Was it Tuesday or Wednesday?" or, "Where were we going on that trip?"  Honestly though, I'm not sure a brain is capable of keeping all those details at the ready.  If you're trying to tell a story about seeing a child, say, hit a home run or get thrown out at first, I don't need to know the model of the car you took to the game.  But, and here's the thing, the trick of memory, the car may be revealed because it rode along with the story because both were discussed in the back seat of a late model Ford F-150, red.

Stories reveal emotion, it is their divine business, and they can be persistent.  Just as I am writing this, in the back of my mind, I am going through the story of those two restaurants.

The owner was named Jacques, it was a four-star place with a menu full of rich, classic French food.  I liked working there and he was pretty good to me.  I waited tables on weekends and bartended a couple of weeknights and... here we go.  

The moment I stopped trying to figure where this all fit in the time frame of my life, all the emotions flooded down on me.  A wide, white bowl of Veal Navarin, with turnips and haricot verts with couscous, the aroma of fresh thyme and rich demi-glace coming up off of it as I set it on a white linen tablecloth.  Crusty creme brulee, fresh orange juice mimosas.  God, I loved that food.  I loved working there.  It was called "Voulez-Vous" - and that's the trick of memory I spoke of.

He fired me one night for neglecting to put a few entrees on a check, I'd served four Charcuteries and only charged for one.  He was drunk and so was I.  We shouted.  It was an accident but for some reason he thought I'd done it on purpose, to get him.  He was as red as the beets vinaigrette we'd served that night and as mad as only a French-Algerian can get.  I walked out with my apron still on.  I remember crying as I walked down Third Avenue.  Crying in anger I'm sure, but crying at the loss as well.  He'd taught me so much about service and elegance and grace, about cuisine and wine and technique.

From there I went to work at the Hilton - "Nicole's" was the name - and met the crazy, pretty girl.  Just to prove my point, I'm now recalling how all that went down.  A girl who'd worked for Jacques worked there and they hired me as a back waiter sight unseen.  I don't think I'd have gotten the job without the experience I had there at "Voulez Vous."  Her name was Cathy and she was an actress.  We went out for a few months and she left for California and shortly thereafter I left for home, Ohio.  Yes, there is more to that story, but it's best kept for another time.

Man, I'll tell you what, once you start thinking back like this, the waves just keep coming.  Just before I left town, I went to see Jacques.  I wanted, ostensibly, to ask him for a reference, but I also wanted to make amends and say goodbye.  I went early afternoon and the place was dark and empty.  He sat where he always sat at the bar, back to the hostess stand.  He'd heard the door or noticed the light had changed and simply shouted that they were closed and would open at five.  I didn't know what to do, in fact, I nearly just slunk out.

I hesitated and he turned.  "Bill, Bill," he said, pronouncing it as he always had, like "eel" with a 'b' in front of it, "You've come back to us!"  He was short and balding and a little tubby and I can still see him waddling across that dining room in all its elegance and shaking my hand.  It's funny, he apologized over and over.  He confessed to what trouble he'd gotten into with his wife.  He told me I was one of the best young servers he'd ever had and offered my job back to me right there.

I explained why I was there.  I told him, as I told everyone, that New York City had won, had beaten me, and I was heading home.

"To Hioho," he always mispronounced Ohio, probably to irritate me, "Merde, you are better than that.  Stay, work for me again and you will run this place someday."  It's important to note that he had an almost comically outrageous french accent.

I told him it was all arranged, lease let go, job quit, U-Haul ordered.  (God, I'd forgotten all this, which is patently false it would seem because here I am recounting it to you right now.)  He invited me to the bar and opened a bottle of wine, a Sancerre if memory serves - and it does.  We gossiped about old employees and regulars.  He winced as he told me how many of my regulars complained when his wife told them he'd fired me, she was the hostess and part owner, Julia.

I'd only planned to stop by quickly.  But the wine was good and the staff came in, many of whom I still knew.  I ate dinner with them, the chef made me serve. The rush started and I hung out for several hours, Jacques making drinks for me and introducing me to patrons, calling over regulars and making me feel important.  Julia was happy to see me and continuously chided the poor man for firing me.  It was an unforgettable night, though, apparently, I almost did, forget it that is. 

You know, for years he gave me a glowing reference and, in all seriousness, he made me the professional waiter I became. But, what I remember most is him walking me out the side door onto the sidewalk of Seventy-sixth Street.  He handed me a hundred dollars mumbling something about buying some good wine with it, and hugged me, tears running down his again beet red face.

I can't speak for you, but, the emotional back door to my room of memory is the best way for me to get in.

Over the years, I've let this digital diary act as a depository of memory, an archive of sorts, for both me and the boys.  But, as I illustrated above, memory is not as easy as just taking a picture or jotting down a story, putting the date on it, and filing it away.

The other day Nick was looking for something to do - yes, we let our boys get bored.  He was in the corner of the closet rifling through the bins of forgotten toys and projects and books they've made when he found his writing journal from second grade.  He brought it out and went through it, laughing at his misspellings - as I have been for years - and the confused little stories, non-sequiturs, inexplicable drawings and stickmen. 

Soon Zack was looking over his shoulder and Nick told him his journal was in the bin as well and went to get it for him.  Z began looking at his and realized because the assignment had been a daily writing prompt, they probably had the same or similar entries.  Starting at the beginning, they laughed their way through, day by day - "Wacky Wednesday" or "Tell a Story Tuesday."

And "If I Had Three Wishes."

Zack's third wish was "3 more wishes," classic, and Nick wants a "germen sheperd named roney."

Here's a couple more, "Field Day" and "10 Things My Teacher Taught Me."  (Nick went with "feald" and "tot.")

Here's the page with both from Zack:

And this is Nick's:

They've been teasing each other back and forth this whole time.  Nick tells Zack he just wrote the "same flipping thing, over and over" for the 10 Things one.

"Well, who spells field, f-e-a-l-d?"  Zack says back through a laugh, it's all good-natured fun.

"Well, you're over there bragging about hitting home runs."

"Yeah, well what part of 10 things don't you get, you only wrote down three."

"Yeah..." Nick replies back.  And then he says  "oh..." long and drawn out, the oh-I-get-it sigh.

"That was my first day back after I broke my arm."

We all go silent for a moment or two, the memories, Marci's, Zack's, poor Nick's and mine, settling in around us, so quickly, so effortlessly.

And that's why you can't pin a memory on a timeline.  They twist and wrap around each other, one carries another, two, three, several seemingly unrelated bits lace together and tell another memory, a different story.  

You know what?  Go back and look at that last image.  You can click it and it gets bigger.  Just those two entries, side by side.  His third and final thing is "helping." Man, that's a great story.

I can even overcomplicate it more.  When the boys perhaps see this in forty or fifty years, what ghosts of memory will they see?  Will it be their second-grade classroom or Mrs. G?  Will they remember all the "Feald Days" of those early elementary days as one event?  Will they remember sitting on a couch remembering and laughing at their silly journals?  Will they remember how jarring and emotional the quick memory of Nick's broken arm was?  Will they be more interested in the stories I tell of restaurants past and dreams set aside?  Will they get to choose?

I think not, I never get to...

There's one last - that's a lie there's never a last thing.  A long time ago, in the opening paragraph, I mentioned an apartment with a porch and a sunroom.  I painted garish abstracts on big canvases with acrylics.  I was happy.  I had a large work table I'd made from two-by-fours and a sheet of plywood covered in a muslin dropcloth.  On it, off to the corner nearest the porch, was a cactus, a "Christmas Cactus" to be precise.  I'm sure you've seen them.

Here's a picture of the one that is blooming here in the dining room.

I wonder if seeing that bloom didn't put me in mind of that table which made me ask myself when that was and then all the memories who weren't sure where they belonged piled back on me.  But memory is not kismet.  It is poignant, playful, powerful but there always comes with it a deliberateness.  As though we knew we needed to remember something.

I've kept you too long, thanks for sticking with me.

From Marci's "... things you don't expect to hear from the backseat... "

"He's pirouetting like a mad man."

I saw that ballet in college...

Peace, and all that.