“Old friends”

I wake up on this morning each year thinking of my childhood friend, also named Lisa, remembering that it’s her birthday. Even though I haven’t seen her since 1988, I wake up thinking of her simply because when I was 8 years old I tried really hard to remember this–to attach this date to her. And it worked: I remember, even though we’ve grown up, lost touch, and it doesn’t really matter anymore.

I’m intrigued by these remembered things–there are so many of them in a life, ephemeral facts lodged in long term memory, for some previously important reason. When I last saw my childhood friend Lisa, I was 8 years old. It was shortly after my dad died, and my mom had decided to move closer to her family, to leave the place that had been our home. I believed in the permanence of those friendships I was leaving, the perpetual significance of what I then knew, what I wanted to remember. I memorized what I thought I would need—it was the only way I had to carry information. Two and a half decades later, I still remember my friend’s birthdate, even her mailing address–the P.O. Box, the postal code. And, I remember things I never intended to store, too–the way the soft skin of her cheeks looked beneath her glasses, the way it felt to run naked with her from the bath in the cold air of her farmhouse up the stairs to her room.

I remember less these days. Partly because I’m older. Partly because, as Anne Lamott says in Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life, “When a child comes out of your body, it arrives with about a fifth of your brain clutched in its little hand.” But maybe it’s also, partly, because I’ve learned that much of what I think today will matter tomorrow won’t–can’t–last. That not only the thing but the importance of the thing can’t last. And that what I’ll really want to know one day, what I’ll really wish I could remember, will inevitably be something I’m now looking past, looking through, as if it doesn’t matter.

My sister’s been singing a lot of Simon & Garfunkel with my daughter, J., these days. Last night, sitting here with a cup of tea while my partner got our daughter into her pajamas, I heard J’s little voice singing “Old friends” in her bedroom down the hall. It’s so rare for me to sit still in the house by myself doing nothing, these days, even for a few minutes. I sat across from the dark window, a corner of it covered in paper snowflakes, and listened—tried to memorize the perfect little voice, its warbles, its sweet mistakes.

As it turns out, I didn’t have to memorize what I heard. Because, listen: J. singing “Old friends”.

I wonder, though, which is better—this little recording or my own imperfect memory of her voice in the far room, fading in the distance. That sense that if I do not remember this, I will forget.

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