The Business of Memory: The Art of Remembering in an Age of Forgetting

The Business of Memory: The Art of Remembering in an Age of Forgetting

by Charles Baxter (Editor)


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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781555972875
Publisher: Graywolf Press
Publication date: 04/28/1999
Series: Graywolf Forum Series , #3
Pages: 180
Product dimensions: 5.96(w) x 9.22(h) x 0.56(d)

About the Author

Charles Baxter is the author of several books, including Burning Down the House and Believers. He has been honored with an Academy Award in Literature from the American Academy of Arts and Letters. Baxter lives in Ann Arbor and teaches at the University of Michigan.


Minneapolis, Minnesota

Date of Birth:

May 13, 1947

Place of Birth:

Minneapolis, Minnesota


B. A., Macalester College, 1969; Ph.D., State University of New York at Buffalo, 1974

Read an Excerpt

Chapter One

So Long Ago

* * *

by Richard Bausch

Indulge me, a moment.

    I have often said glibly that the thing which separates the young from the old is the knowledge of what Time really is; not just how fast, but how illusive and arbitrary and mutable it is. When you are twenty, the idea of twenty years is only barely conceivable, and since that amount of time makes up one's whole life, it seems an enormous thing—a vast, roomy expanse, going on into indefiniteness. One arrives at forty with a sense of the error in this way of seeing, and maturity, um, can be said to have set in.

    And the truest element of this aspect of the way we experience time, of course, is the sense of the nearness of time past.

    I have a memory of being bathed by my father on my seventh birthday. Morning, rainy light at a window. The swish and wash of lukewarm water. My own body, soft-feeling and small under the solid strong hands, lathered with soap. I said, "Well, I guess I'm a big boy now."

    He said, "No, not quite."

    I remember feeling a bit surprised, perhaps even downcast, that he didn't simply agree with me, as most of the adults in our large family usually did. He ran the towel over me, ruffled my hair with it, drying me off. I went across the hall into my room, and dressed for the April day. Baseball season was starting.

    Let me go back there for a little while, to that bath, my seventh birthday. At the time, I wasn't old enough to understand thedifference between the humoring of children, which is a large part of any talk with them, and truth telling, which is what my father did. I loved his rough hands on me, and the smell of him—aftershave, and cigarettes, and sometimes the redolence of my mother's Chanel.

    He hated lies, and lying. He was a storyteller, and he must have learned early how to exaggerate and heighten things, to make the telling go better, to entertain and enthrall. He was so good at it. He could spin it out and do all the voices and set the scene and take you to the laughs, and there simply had to have been elements that he fabricated. And yet he hated lies. Any trouble you ever got into in our house always had to do with that: you learned very early that even if you had done something wrong, something for which you wanted some kind of an excuse, or explanation, it had better not involve telling a lie.

    I was often in some kind of mischief at school—my twin, Robert, and I had a talent for making other kids laugh, and for imitating our teachers' gestures and voice mannerisms. Well, we were the sons of a storyteller. Neither of us liked school very much; and the teachers, the nuns of Saint Bernadette's, knew it. They kept tabs on us. They were at some pains to discipline us. And whenever we got into a scrape at school, we lived in dread that our father would ask us, that evening, how things had gone at school. I remember sitting at the dinner table as he and my mother told stories, or commented happily on the various people—friends and family—who inhabited our lives then. Bobby and I would sit there in awful anticipation of the question: "How was school today?" You couldn't gloss over anything—you couldn't use a cover-all word like fine. You had to be specific, and you had to tell it all, the truth. You were compelled to do so by what you knew of the value he set upon the truth. And never mind philosophical truth, or the truth of experience, really; he wanted to know what happened in the day, what was said and done, and how it went—that kind of truth.

    I have no memory—not even a glimmer—of how and when we learned that this was what he expected from us, and that the surest way to earn his displeasure was by lying to him. I don't have much of a memory of him telling us this; I recall him talking about how it was a thing his father expected, but by then I was in my teens, and I understood it then as an echo of a kind, a source.

    All right.

    I remember being surprised that in my father's truthful opinion I was not a big boy yet. I remember that we had two boys our age living next door to us, and that this took place on Kenross Avenue in Montgomery County, Maryland. I know intellectually that the year was 1952, and that Truman was still president. I could not have said who Truman was then, and I recall that a few months later, in the summer, when the Republican Convention was on our little General Electric black-and-white television, I saw all those people in the arena, with Eisenhower standing there on the podium, and I guessed the number to be everyone in the world. "No," my father said, "It's not even a small fraction of the number." I didn't know the word fraction and yet I understood what he meant.

    Sometime around then I saw film of the war that had just ended, and I was told by my mother that another war was going on, in Korea. A summer evening—we were driving past an army post, and I had seen the anti-aircraft guns, the olive drab barrels aimed at the sky. I wondered aloud why we couldn't hear the guns.

    "It's on the other side of the world, honey. Thousands of miles away."

    In 1952, my mother was thirty-four years old. Now, I'm almost twenty years older than that, and this is the math I'm always doing—have been doing, like a kind of mental nerve-tic, since I was twenty-seven years old, and a father for the first time myself.

When my son Wes was fourteen months old, we moved to Iowa, where I attended the Writers' Workshop. I spent a lot of time with him that year, and as he grew slightly older I decided to conduct a sort of experiment: I'd see if I could manage to keep in his memory the times we had at Iowa—the swing set and sandbox outside the Hawkeye Court Apartments, the little amusement park by the river in Iowa City, with its Ferris wheel and its kiddie train. I'd ask him about it, almost daily: "Do you remember the swing set? The sandbox? Do you remember how I used to push you on the swings, and you didn't want to go in the house? Remember the summer nights when it would be getting dark, and we'd go to that park and ride in the kiddie train?" Yes, he remembered. He was three, and then four, and then five, and he remembered. He offered elements of that time, so he wasn't merely remembering my memory: yes, the swing set and the sandbox—but did I remember the red wagon that got stuck there, and then buried there by the other children? I did. Yes, the kiddie train, but remember the buffalo? Yes, there had been a small enclosure with Bison standing in it; the big Ferris wheel, yes, but did I remember riding it and being stopped at the very top?

    Oh, yes.

    I had begun to think I might be able to help my son carry that part of his life with him into his own adulthood—earliest memories that have chronological shape. It became important that he have it all to keep. And then one winter evening, as we were riding in the car on the way to a movie, I asked him about Iowa again, and he recalled nothing—it was all simply gone. I asked him about the swing set, the sandbox, the park, the train, the Ferris wheel, even the buffalo. To each one he said, "No." Innocently, simply, without the slightest trace of perplexity or anything of what I was feeling, which was sorrow. You could see him striving to get something of it back, but it was like a game, and there was nothing. No, he had no recollection of any of it. I don't think it had been more than a week or two since we had gone through this little litany of memory, and even so it had all disappeared from his mind, and my description of it was only a story, now.

* * *

When I was fifteen, my great-grandmother, Minnie Roddy, died. Minnie had for the most part raised my mother, because Minnie's daughter had had to go to work for the government when my mother was still a baby. They all lived with my aunt Daisy, Minnie's sister, in a big sprawling Victorian house with a wide porch that had blue-gray painted boards and white trim. When Minnie began to fail, my mother went over there, and we later learned, through the talk of the adults in the rooms of the two houses, that she was holding the old woman in her arms in the last moments. Minnie used to tell me stories, sitting in the breakfast nook, by the windows where younger children ran. Summer evenings, the cousins and aunts and uncles out on the lawn, throwing horseshoes. The bell-like clang of the metal on metal when someone hit one of the posts, or scored a ringer or a leaner. Fireflies rising in the shallow pools of shade in the spaces between the houses, in the cloud-shaped willow tree—you couldn't see its trunk for the drooping filamental mass of its branches—at the edge of the property. Minnie talking, telling me about coming from Ireland on a ship; about her husband—who had come to America after killing a man in a fight one afternoon in a pub in Dublin. Her voice would trail off, and the louder voices out the window would distract me. I'd nod and pretend to listen. I was always reading books, as Bobbie was, but it showed more on me, and I was the one, after all, who believed that I had a vocation. I was planning for the priesthood. Minnie Roddy would say, "You'll grow up and tell these stories. You'll grow up and be a writer."

    And she would go on talking, unscrolling her memory of earlier days, of my mother as a young girl; of Ireland, and a childhood spent, for the most part, in the latter part of the nineteenth century. I didn't hear most of it. I nodded and pretended to listen, while this woman—this tiny slip of a lady with her wire-framed glasses and her clear large blue eyes—tried to give me treasure, something to store up, for the arrival of a season I was not and am not ready for.

    When she died, it was decided that Bobby and I were old enough to attend the funeral. I felt a strange detached curiosity about the whole thing: I was actually going to see a dead person. I told one of the other boys in my class, speaking it out with a sort of quiet, fake-brave shrug. "I'm going to see a dead person today."


    "My great-grandmother."

    "Jesus, no kidding?"

    I was, I suppose, even a little proud of the fact. Minnie had lived to great age, and her going seemed natural enough, and so far away from my own life and world that I could only think of it in a sort of abstract haze. I was still young enough and egocentric enough to be unable quite to imagine my own demise.

The day of the funeral was bright and chilly. I don't recall whether it was spring or fall. It wasn't summer, because I was in school. I think it was fall. We rode with our parents to the funeral home, and I was like a secret traveler in the backseat, planning my exploration of this curiosity, death, this unreal element of the life I was in so permanently. I was wildly curious; I understood, according to the tenets of the faith I had been raised in that Minnie Roddy would not be there, but only her body, the empty vessel she had vacated. She was in that blue elsewhere that I associated with the sky, and we could now pray to her.

    Blue is the important color, here.

    Standing over the box where she lay, looking like a bad likeness of herself, I saw the forking, colorless veins in her bony hands, the fingers of which were wound with a black rosary; and I saw the blue place at her earlobe, where blue did not belong. I marked it, and knew that I would never forget it.

    This sounds as though I were marking things with the flaccid, nervous sensitivity of one of those pretentious people who like to think of themselves as a romantic central figure in their own drama: the incipient artist, observing everything with the intention of later recording it. I do not mean it this way at all, and it was not like that at all. I was a child, still. I knew next to nothing about anything, especially about myself. And I don't know that I have learned much since then, either.

    I suppose I have to admit that it might just be impossible to have it both ways: to claim that I was not that hypersensitive romantic figure, the artist-as-a-young-man, and still report the impressions of a moment like that one, standing over the body of a woman who had lived a life so separate from mine, and nothing like mine, and whose reality could not have anticipated that she would be a figure in my speech, a character in a story I would tell, even as she told me about all the living she had seen and done, and I pretended to listen. In any case, I do not mean this the way it will sound. I mean to express the quality of a memory, in order to say something about this life we live, so much of which is fugitive, so much of which is lost in the living of it.

    The room we were in was banked with flowers, and there were chairs in rows, as though someone might give a lecture, or a homily. Minnie's coffin looked to have been where it was long enough for this prodigious wall of flowers to grow up on three sides of it. There was a dim light, a candle burning at one end. The light was brightest where she lay, with her eyes shut in a way that made you understand they would not open again. The skin looked oddly transparent, like the synthetic skin of a doll. And there was the blue place at the ear, the place, I knew, where the cosmetics of the mortician hadn't quite taken. I stood there and looked with a kind of detached, though respectful silence at this, aware of it not as death, quite, but death's signature. I was conscious of the difference. I spent my minute there, head bowed, and then walked back to my seat at the rear of the room, with the other young people, all in their early teens, like me. I saw my mother and my aunt Florence come from where I had just been, and my mother had a handkerchief that she held to her nose. She sobbed, once. Earlier, when we had arrived, Florence had come up to my mother and said, "You scared the bejesus out of me." I don't know—or I don't remember—what this was about; I think it had something to do with what had gone on last night, at the viewing. Perhaps my mother had gotten woozy, or swooned. It was the first time I had ever heard the word bejesus.

    Florence and my mother sat down, and a priest led us in the rosary. If he said anything about the woman who lay behind him in the long box, I don't recall it. We were in the room for a time, and then people began to file out. I remained in my seat, and I have no idea why. Others crossed in front of me, and maybe I was saying my own prayers—it seems to me now that I must have felt some pang of guilt for my oddly remote observation of everything, and was trying to say the words of a prayer, repeating them inwardly in an attempt to say them not out of automatic memory but actually to enter into the meaning of them:

Hail Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with thee. Blessed art thou among women and blessed is the fruit of thy womb, Jesus. Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us sinners, now and at the hour of our death, Amen.

The others were all filing quietly out of the long room, and I saw the mortician step to the side of the casket, where we had each stood only moments before. With a practical sureness, the nearly offhand familiarity of experience, he reached into the white satin that ringed Minnie Roddy's head, and pushed downward on it, a tucking motion, and Minnie slipped from her sleeping pose. Her head dropped down into that box like a stone.

    Something must have shown in my face; and the mortician's wife—let us call them the Hallorans, because I no longer recall the name—saw the change in my features. Later, as I was getting into the back of my father's car, Aunt Florence leaned in and said, "Honey, Mrs. Halloran wanted me to tell you that Mr. Halloran was only making it so Minnie could rest better."

    I nodded. I don't believe I said anything. It was almost as if I had stumbled upon someone in a privy act; I felt the same kind of embarrassment. But there was something else in it, too, a kind of species-thrill: this was the human end, a reality I was not expecting. I am trying to express this as exactly as I can, and it is finally inexpressible. I know that all my fascination was gone, and I sat there in the back of the car, looking out at the sunny streets of Washington, D.C., and felt numb, far down.

    That memory is as present to me as the moment, almost a decade earlier, when I said to my father that I was a big boy, and he told me the truth, that I was not a big boy. Not yet. And those memories are as near as the memory of asking, in the first line of this story, for your indulgence.

    Of course, this is not an original perception; yet one arrives at it in life—doesn't one?—with the sense of having had a revelation: one's personal past is a place, and everything that resides there does so in contemporaneous time. What then, of the collective past? The collective memory? That is where chronology really is. We come from the chaos of ourselves to the world, and we yearn to know what happened to all the others who came before us. So we impose Time on the flow of events, and call it history. For me, Memory is always story. True memory is nothing like the organized surface of a story, yet that is all we have to tell it, and know it, and experience it again: but if we are doomed to put our remembered life into stories, we are blessed by it, too.

    I never spoke to my mother and father, or even to my brothers and sisters, about what I had seen at the funeral home. I don't know why, now. I can't recall why. Perhaps it was too private, finally; and perhaps I did not want to have it in memory, didn't want to fix it there in the telling. But it has never left me. It is with all the others, large and small, important and meaningless, all waiting in the same timeless dark, to drift toward the surface when I write, or daydream, or sleep.

Table of Contents

Charles Baxter IntroductionVII
Richard Bausch So Long Ago3
Sylvia Watanabe A Book of Names11
Margot Livesey The Third Servant20
Victoria Morrow Don't Look33
Karen Brennan Dream, Memory, Story, and the Recovery of
James A. McPherson "El Camino Real"62
Alvin Greenberg The Dog of Memory79
Lydia Davis "Remember the Van Wagenens"87
Bernard Cooper Marketing Memory106
Patricia Hampl Other People's Secrets116
Michael Ryan Tell Me a Story132
Charles Baxter Shame and Forgetting in the Information Age141
Steve Erickson American Nomad158

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