Tuesday, March 4, 2008

A Mind is a Terrible Thing to Lose

"A retentive memory may be a good thing,
but the ability to forget is the true token of greatness."
Elbert Hubbard *

I need to be careful what I say about losing my memory because if the Law of Attraction is real then putting all my fearful thoughts into the universe could hurt me way more than being honest about the loss of my short term memory. Still I worry; and when I worry, I write.

When I was young, I prided myself on my ability to remember things. Perhaps I couldn't always put a name with a face, but at least I remembered one or the other! Numbers were my specialty. There for awhile I could recite all my former addresses down to the zipcode; plus most of my phone numbers. I can still recite my ex's social security number even though there is absolutely no reason for this little tidbit of knowledge to be retaining space in my brain when remembering to put the ice cream in the freezer, not the vegetable drawer would serve me so much better.

One of my best memories could also be one of my worst. I was in the sixth grade, which would make me what, 11 or 12 years old? I had a tall, stringbean stature; no boobs and scarred legs from trying to shave the dark fur off them with a double edged Gillette razor and no instruction. I had a haircut that looked like something a toddler would do with a pair of pinking shears. I had no fashion sense whatsoever. 1963 was the year I failed my first eye exam and discovered a world so much easier to see when I wore glasses. Beauty was in the clear vision of the beholder, but perhaps not in the geeky, spectacle-wearing beholder herself.

But what I did have going for me was my desire to learn and my even greater desire to please. I was all about doing good in school because, being the quick study I would pride myself on for years to come, I could see that there were rewards for good behavior and good test scores. Sure, I was probably "teacher's pet" and, no doubt, a little obnoxious to my fellow classmates. The mean, however, justified the ends. I was a shy-ish, introverted, scared little girl who craved positive attention and feedback. I got that in the person on Mrs. Carden, my sixth grade teacher.

She seemed to thrive on my successes. It was hard not to want to please her. At home I had 4 other sisters to compete with; bringing home all A's was a personal challenge for me. I was too nerdy to even realize I was a nerd! Good thing I had my sister Jo around to put me in my place! And my mom who really only wanted to get on with making dinner, not singing praises on report card day. And my Dad, who's style of praise was all military in that he could point out the speck of dust missed, instead of the rest of the room cleaned.

At the end of the school year there was a contest between what I thought at the time was the students with the highest GPA (not that we even knew the term GPA in 1963). More than likely it was really a contest between teachers and teacher's pets to see who would win the coveted honor of addressing parents, teachers and students at the annual graduation exercises. The other kids were allowed to pick a poem to read in front of the judges. My mentor, however, decided I should memorize and recite, without notecards, the entire Gettysburg Address.

Oh, my God, even today my hands sweat and my stomach churns at the very idea of it. Not so much the memorization, mind you, but the recitation. I don't recall that I even had a choice about being selected for this honor; and if I did, it never would have occurred to me to tell anyone that I'd rather pass. Good girls do as they are told. Good girls keep their anxiety deep inside their gut. Good girls memorize:

"Four score and seven years ago, our forefathers brought forth on this continent, a new nation. Conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal......."

Good girls win the prize and all the glory. Well, some of the glory. When my father saw how things were going, that Mary Reynolds was being singled out as an honor student, good citizen, all-round helper and student who was "most likely to succeed," he showed no outward signs of pride or praise. I think what he saw was a daughter who's head was growing before his very eyes. So at the dinner table that night he announced that he'd attended the Mary Reynolds Ceremony. To an untrained ear this could have sounded like a father's attempt to acknowledge his middle daughter's achievemenets. But to my, skillfully atuned self-deprecating, co-dependent hearing, it was a sarcastic reminder that I had, perhaps, gotten a little too big for my britches.

That was the day I determined that even a good girl needs to get a little dirt on her so as not to stand out in a crowd. And so began my inward struggle to be who I really wanted to be but with just enough "spice" to fit in.

I remember that day as clearly as if it were yesterday. I remember other days full of confused pride and anxiety, being hopeful for recognition and sorry for the attention. But I don't remember where I put my keys or checkbook. The other day, I had one of those fleeting moments of returning to a parking lot full of cars and not having a clue as to where I parked.

I've asked my doctor about this memory loss. There's a special name for it, but for the life of me I can't remember anything about it except it has the word "cognitive" in it. In an effort to placate me, because he really doesn't believe I have early onset dementia (does he?) he gave me a simple little test. He said the words, apple, table and penny. I repeated them. Breathing a sigh of relief, and puffing myself up, kind of reminiscent of my Lincoln-reciting 12 year old persona, I moved on to the next quiz.

"Count backwords from 100 in multiples of seven," the doctor directed, tapping the clipboard he held in his lap with his pencil.

"Damn!" I thought to myself, "what did I get myself into?" When I passed my College Algebra class I gave myself permission to never again put pressure on myself in the form of addition, subtraction, multiplication or division." I can balance my checkbook (ha!) with a calculator and beyond that who needs math skills?

So I begin... "100, 93, 86." Just as one side of my brain was applauding the fact that I was on a numerical roll, the other side of my brain shut down ... went blank ... crashed. I had trouble remembering my name. I was acutely aware that the doctor was looking at me and tapping his pencil. I started shaking my foot. I felt a hot flash coming on.

I started over. "100, 93, 86 ...... 79 ...72," I stuttered.

"That's good," said the doctor, either sensing my embarrassment or having all the information he needed. "Now repeat the words."

Brief moment of panic, then like the memory pro I used to be, I looked him square in the eye and repeated, "apple, table, penny." I could hear the strains of the Rocky theme song playing in the background!

So, I proved to myself and the doctor that I have some cognitive deficiencies, but apparently I'm not ready for the old folks home yet. I don't know whether to worry or not. I can't figure if having the ability to count backwards by 7, or 8 or 6 is really important to my everyday life. But just in case I find myself doing mental aerobics by doing this particular exercise. I'll be ready for the next test.

God, I hope he doesn't ask me where I put my keys!

I leave you with this question, posed by Winnie the Pooh, who, like me, sometimes had trouble remembering the little things, but never forgot what really mattered, like who his friends were.

"Did you ever stop to think, and forget to start again?"
Merry ME

*(American editor, publisher and writer, 1856-1915)

1 comment:

Anti Jen said...

Oh my goodness, I could never count backwards by sevens. Or nines. I might be able to pull off eights. But sevens and nines have always intimidated me. Bravo, I say.

Another great post, my friend. What a fabulous vivid peak into your past, from one teacher's pet to another.