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January 5, 2014

“Memory Wall”

by Anne Paddock

Seven decades of stories, five decades of marriage, four decades of working…..spatulas and salad forks, novels and recipes, nightmares and daydreams, hellos and goodbyes. Could it all really be wiped away?

Where do our memories go once we’ve lost our ability to summon them?

Several weeks ago, I was talking to a friend about her recent Thanksgiving celebration which, in her words “wasn’t one of our best Thanksgivings.” With two elderly parents – a father with advanced dementia who no longer recognizes his children or grandchildren and a mother who has some short-term memory loss – my friend thought her parents would do better in a familiar environment so the whole family – adults, teens, children, and dogs – went to the grandparent’s home for the big Thanksgiving feast.  However, the activity associated with people and pets coming and going agitated them so the day didn’t go as planned which led me to think about how hard it is to reconcile our preconceived idea of the Norman Rockwell holiday celebration with reality.

memory-wallAging is difficult but one of the most defining aspects of our lives is our memories, and our ability to readily recall them. In Memory Wall, Anthony Doerr writes of a wealthy 74-year old woman named Alma who lives in Cape Town. Alma lost her husband, Harold and now lives alone although her caretaker, Pheko is with her seven days a week from dawn to dusk. Diagnosed with dementia, Alma decides to try an experimental operation in which four rubber caps are secured to her skull so that her doctor can harvest memories and put them on cartridges from which Alma can watch by inserting a cartridge from her “memory wall” into a remote memory stimulator.

Using a memory machine where the elderly choose to live less in this world and more in the “technicolor past where forgotten moments come trundling up through cables,” becomes the drug of choice for senior citizens who are slowly forgetting who they are and the memories that shaped their very being. A horrific situation in which a choice has to be made: lose yourself or try to hold on by living in the past.

When I’m 80, I want to be able to recall that beautiful crisp sunny morning in the Hotel Crillon le Brave in Provence in October, 1994 when my husband made love to me. Afterwards we sat on a terrace overlooking miles of countryside filled with purple lavender fields sipping steaming hot cups of French roasted coffee and eating big flaky croissants slathered with strawberry jam. The sunlight covered the blue sky and we marveled at the beauty of sharing something so beautiful and yet, so simple. We were young, we were happy and we couldn’t imagine life otherwise. So, if I am unable to recall that memory in 2041, would I – given the option – choose to put on a pair of headphones, close my eyes and “see” the memories that have been recalled from my brain and recorded on cartridges that I can readily access? Yes, I would.

Memory Wall is both a short story and the title of the book: a collection by the award-winning author of The Shell Collector, About Grace, and Four Seasons in Rome. An author whose stories touch on controversal parts of our culture including income inequality, medical care, eminent domain, fertility treatments, war, the role of government, and futuristic possibilities, Doerr’s writings remind me of works by George Orwell (Animal Farm, 1984) and George Saunders (Pastoralia, Civilwarland in Bad Decline), two authors who have also written about the uglier aspects of human nature and where our society is headed.

Published in 2010, Memory Wall contains six short stories:  Memory Wall, Procreate, Generate, The Demilitarized Zone, Village 113, The River Nemunas, and  Afterworld, although the 2011 edition also contains a seventh story: The Deep. Each story is unique, but three – Memory Wall, Village 113 and Afterworld are remarkable. Although Memory Wall focuses on aging and the medical field, themes of income inequality, workplace conditions, marriage, and ethics are woven into the story. In Village 113, the reader learns what happens when the government is more involved in the personal lives of its citizens than they should. And, in Afterworld, Doerr flips back and forth in time to tell a story that is both haunting and extraordinary.

In the first few pages of Afterworld, the reader is introduced to Esther Gramm whose mother died in childbirth and whose father tragically drowned four years later. Born in 1927 in Hamburg, Germany, Esther is left at the Hirschfeld Trust Girls’ Orphanage where she lives with 11 other girls, ages 3 – 16. Jewish and epileptic, Esther forms a close bond with the other young girls, the house-mother (Frau Cohen) and the doctor (Dr. Rosenbaum) who treats her. The reader is also introduced early in the story to 81-year old Esther Gramm , now living in Geneva, Ohio so her survival is known. What isn’t known is what happened in between those years. As the 56-page story unfolds, the reader is both terrified and filled with sadness as the realities of World War II intersect with the lives of 12 orphans and their caretakers.

It’s the rarest thing that gets preserved, that does not get erased, broken down, transformed.

Throughout life, we are always trying to come to terms with the past, who we are, and how little control we have over what happens to those around us. Anthony Doerr writes of these conflicts through the short story, an effective medium that allows the reader to see there are aspects of our lives we may never fully understand, although we never stop trying.

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