It is October. Autumn has started as the hours of darkness outnumber the hours of daylight now. The days are not as warm; the nights are cooler. We know winter is coming.
Since Momma’s passing last January, I’ve been visiting her through memory. We once had conversations, she and I, face to face conversations. We would talk about things. Every once in a while I would ask her about something and she’d act kind of sad.
“It hurts too much to remember that.”
I know what she meant. There are certain memories I have packed away that hurt. They are like sharp pieces of granite. Over the years, sand and dirt and bits of gravel have surrounded them and hidden them, and when you are digging through your memories you can come upon them and they cut you. The pain is often just as sharp in the remembering as it was in the doing.
But now memory is the only way I have to visit her, and if I am do to it, then I must risk the pain or I will lose the joy.
Memory is important to us as a species. And here I am not talking about simply me remembering my past or you remembering yours. I mean us as a people remembering ours. We remember as individuals, yes, but we also remember as families, as congregations, as churches, as nations.
Lately, I find myself remembering the recent history of my university. I’ve got a new boss in the Dean’s Office who is new to the university and to the community. There are times when I am explaining our system that I sound like I am reading from Genesis. Substitute Bob Ratzlaff in for Abraham and you get the idea.
You may be different, but when I remember, I remember in stories. I take events and I weave in causality and meaning. Sometimes it’s long after the events in question that I can understand them enough to tell the story. Those of you who are Bible scholars might want to compare the Gospel of Saint John, the last written of the gospels, to the other three to understand what I mean. Time tells us the meaning.
We benefit in our culture from those going before us who’ve done things that aid our memory. I am thinking specifically about holidays. Holidays are reminders of things to come. Octoberfest is a time of celebration, but it is a marker that the summer is over; fall is here; winter is coming. You can’t over-estimate the importance of a warning that winter is coming.
The last day of October is Halloween. It precedes All Saints Day. You can argue about which came first, but each, in its way, is a reminder that our own personal winter is coming. When you are daily reminded of your own bones by pains in your joints, seeing a skeleton dangling from someone’s front porch makes it all real.
I would be remiss if I left out religion from this picture.
Religion provides us not only with holidays, but also seasons and stories. Those in a liturgical tradition have something called a lectionary from which scripture is read on a regular basis, going through the whole Bible in a three-year cycle. It is important that we remember; it is important that we are reminded; it is important memory is reinforced.
It is good that we have seasons and time is on the circle of the year for us. This gives us occasions to remember the past and put an eye toward the future. We remember the good and the bad together.
I think of Momma’s reluctance to remember the bad and I have to wonder whether it was a symptom of her oncoming dementia or a contributor to it. I don’t know. Maybe it is a vain hope of mine that if I keep remembering the good with the bad I will avoid her fate of slipping away into mental darkness. The illusion of control is seductive.
But it’s now October. The memory of 49 Halloweens, good and bad, is coming upon me.
Bobby Winters, a native of Harden City, Oklahoma, is Assistant Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences and Professor of Mathematics at Pittsburg State University.