This past week I went to Chicago to spend time with my mother and stepfather. My mother is 80 and my stepfather is 93. About fifteen years ago they moved to a 100-unit apartment a block from the house where I grew up. They have a vibrant community of neighbors and are wholly independent.
Flying to Chicago was my first time traveling since February 2020, the last time I saw my parents. The travel part of the trip was a harrowing experience. Sitting in a packed plane for two four-hour stretches was the most exposed I've been to the world in over a year; it was a physical and emotional challenge to be around that intense infusion of humanity.
But my time in Chicago was relaxing, easy, and calm. Every morning I took a long walk around my neighborhood, a dense square mile on the south side of Chicago. Having been born and raised there, I know every square inch. I walked south and west, then north and back east to Lake Michigan before turning south again past the Museum of Science and Industry to my parents' apartment.
No matter which streets I took there was a memory. On every block, there was the apartment building where a friend had lived or the park where we used to hang out as teenagers or the bank where I got my first money order. As familiar as the neighborhood felt, it has changed too. With every recognizable sighting, there was something I hadn't seen before. The space of the bar where my friends and I hung out on our visits home from college was now a yoga studio and the bike shop where I got my first bike was an investment firm.
Every day I walked the block of the home where I grew up. Because my mother never loses contact with anyone, she is still friends with everyone on the street. Most of the people who lived on the block when I was a kid four decades ago have moved on. My mom is still in touch with those who are still alive and can tell me a little bit about what the old families are up to. Mom is also friendly with all of the new families with young kids who've moved in.
During my morning walks my memories were constant, like the Small World ride at Disneyland where you travel all over the world seeing different sights. Like watercolor brush strokes, I remembered a little bit about a lot of people, places, and experiences. Walking by my elementary school, I passed the apartment buildings of two friends. I was reminded of the days when I'd go to Jorie's basement apartment after school or to Meredith's sun-filled third-floor apartment to have lunch during fourth grade.
Every day my parents and I would eat our meals together. My stepfather Al, mostly quiet, would ask a few questions about what my mother and I were up to for the day. He savored every bite of food, eating huge quantities and commenting on how delicious it was. His body has become very small and it was a surprise each meal to witness how much he consumed. My mother, a fount of energy, would sit patiently next to Al, craning her head to listen to a comment or a question. Often Al would forget that he'd already asked the same question five minutes earlier and ask it again. Mom calmly responded as many times as he needed her to.
A few times Al tried to articulate a big idea about days past. On one occasion he tried to express his disappointment about the way research in his field of sleep research was going. When I asked him to explain more he couldn't. He didn't get frustrated but simply said, "I know what I want to say inside but I can't explain it."
My mom, still vital and filled with energy and always a collector of information sat in stark contrast to Al. During dinner, if the name of an old friend came up, Mom dashed to the counter to get her phone so she could look up where they were living now and what they were doing. She is still collecting data, feeding the machine of her mind with new input every hour. Her memories are sharp and vibrant.
During my time in Chicago one of Al's colleagues, a woman younger than my mother, died of cancer. Mom tried to refresh Al's memory about who she was, reminding him how she used to bring her baby daughter into the lab and how she arrived in Chicago from California in a light blue Camero. Al could acknowledge bits and pieces of the history but not the full vision. There were lots of moments like this-- Mom or I painting a picture of a person or experience from times past and Al participating in the memory as much as he was able.
As the days ticked by, my short visit with my parents coming to an end, I became aware of the stages of memory I was experiencing with my parents. Every day I walked the streets of this familiar neighborhood where so many of my foundational memories live and breathe. My ability to recall different people, places and experiences is still very possible. As I walked, different images, smells, and sounds and sensations were enough to bring me back to a moment in time thirty, forty, even fifty years ago. But I don't live there anymore. I haven't added memories from this place that shaped me for over thirty-five years. When I visit this beautiful place that I knew so well many, many years ago, I am transported to the past. My memories are like a vacation into my childhood.
My mother is still very much alive in this little village, an elder now, holding memories and sharing them with the new families who live there. She is like the bridge between me and Al. Mom holds so many memories of the past-- from her own life, from the lives of my sisters and me, and from Al's life. Al is at the age now where his mind only holds what it needs to hold. Like muddy water strained through a sieve, all the memories from Al's life that he doesn't need right now are filtered out. What he has now is just the clear water that gets him through each day. He holds the important memories, the deeply rooted ones. What he remembers now is how he feels, what he appreciates, who he loves.
When I left for the airport I hugged and kissed Al goodbye. As we were driving Al called my mom's cell phone and we put him on speaker. "Where are you?" he asked my mom.
"I'm taking Laura to the airport honey. Remember, you were going to take a nap," she replied.
"But I didn't get to say goodbye," Al said.
"Al," I piped in, "We did say goodbye. I gave you a hug and a kiss but maybe you forgot because you were getting ready to take a nap."
"Oh," Al replied softly in his old Bronx accent, "Well, I really enjoyed seeing you kid. I love you so much."
In my forty-plus years of knowing Al, he has never been so unabashedly effusive and open. In that moment I saw clearly how memory works. Memories come in layers. We make them as we evolve. As we age, we keep some of the memories while others fall away. In the end, we only hold onto what we need.