The Strongest Memory

on 30 October 2009

Remember that one episode of West Wing, when Toby's dad comes back? It flashes back to Brooklyn in the 50s and Toby's birth and how his dad came to be what he was. It was a lovely episode and it ended with Christmas carols and Toby's dad shaking his head and saying, "Tobias, I am having the strongest memory."

That's me lately, I am having the strongest memory.

But it's not a memory of anything really consequential, just a memory that has come back with such clear focus that I find myself day-dreaming it whilst playing with my Boy. Shall I share it with you?

Walk with me back to the fall of 2001. I was not as I am now. I was not yet the M that you all know, I was as yet, only partially formed. I was just returned from Europe, disappointed and disoriented. I had taken a room with our brave Samwise and her friend and roommate Juliet, whom I only ever called JULIET-TA (pronounced like the fantastically over-the-top nurse in Baz Lurhman's Romeo and Juliet).

I was taking a variety of classes, I'm sure French was in there somewhere, I'm sure I had a history class, though, I can't remember for the life of me which one. And nestled in among these was the THORN in my proverbial side, my 19th century literature class du jour, The Dark Side of Victorian Literature. Though I'm pretty sure the darkest thing about this class was the instructor. He was awful. But we'll get there.

(Raise your hand if this happens to you, you think about one memory and then the threads of that memory pull on the threads of other memories until you're lost in this knot of time and space and you can't pull just one memory out, you have to pull them all other words, forgive me as a ramble and here, have another madeleine...)

So I was living with Samwise and riding the bus to and fro from UW to little apartment and back again. And while riding the bus I would read because I got almost NO reading done at home--Samwise and Julietta were FAR more interesting than what I was reading.

I remember among other things we were reading Dickens' Great Expectations for the horrid 19th century class, because I was reading on the bus one day, when a woman I didn't recognize sat down in the seat next to me. This was a busy route so that wasn't unusual, what was unusual was that this woman spoke to me. (And spoke coherently, I have ridden buses that could claim Mobile Mental Institution on their tax forms, but that is another story.)

She asked how I was enjoying Dickens and I answered truthfully, "Well, I think I would enjoy it more if it weren't for my professor." Which made her smile and look quizzically at me (I have always wanted to use the adverb quizzically in a sentence and now I have!), and ask, "Why?" To which I answered that I thought my professor was fully of hooey, he kept going on and on about homosexual undercurrents and queer theory and masturbatory references in DICKENS! (I still think he's full of crap and I am very nearly his educational equal so I'm fully allowed to think he's full of crap...but that is beside the point.) This lovely woman smiled and asked what my professor had said specifically and so I told her, getting more and more agitated as I remembered my professors abuses against an author I had long admired from a distance and was pining to really sink my teeth in to and she nodded and said, "Yes, I've heard these claims before and while they are correct in assuming that these details are significant their interpretations are sadly incorrect." She went on, for the duration of my ride, to expound on the thematic significance of Great Expectations. When it was time for her to get off she introduced herself, as the Dean of the English department (and a Dickens scholar) and said that if I had further questions regarding Dickens she would be happy to speak with me at any time.

(Why yes, I was STUNNED. I still smile when I think of that, and then feel slightly disappointed that more higher education isn't like that. I was truly blessed to have had that conversation with that wonderful woman, she solidified in me, my own desire to be more like her. To use literature to nurture people and foster their own ideas and interpretations, rather than brow-beating them with my own.)

After that, I remember applying myself in that class, I read and read and read and read some more. I worked myself into a lather, falling asleep more than once in the library...I wrote an air-tight final paper on the how and why Joseph Conrad is not a racist. And I may have led a slight mutiny in class...towards the end of the semester...what? he had it coming...

Hey, Samwise! Remember how Wendel and Julietta would come home from work and Juliet would cook dinner and Wendel would sit looking hungry and forlorn at the table? And how I would sneak him tootsie rolls if he would tell me gruesome stories from the ER? You probably don't remember, you were pretty busy and you're much more focused than I am. But I did and he would. And then there was the time that Juliet put her favorite pillow in the washing machine and of course it got all unbalanced and she asked Wendel to check it out and he pulls up this sopping wet pillow and bellows, "Well, no wonder! JULIET YOU CAN'T PUT A WHOLE PILLOW IN THE WASHING MACHINE!" (Wendel's bellowing was never really angry or mean, it was FUNNY!) and I laughed until TEARS ran down my face because the image of this doctor, quiet, unassuming Wendel holding a sopping wet pillow was just so ridiculous and funny that I just couldn't help it!

I've written before about how certain books just take me clearly back to a specific time and place (and version of myself) that was then. Dickens does that for me, well, certain Dickens does that, because Bleak House will always take me back to Athens and our drafty little apartment on Prince.

This same semester I read Wilkie Collins' Woman in White, Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness (for the third time), Dickens' Great Expectations, I'm forgetting something, I can feel it...

We had those bizarre neighbors, upstairs and down, one of them was a horse woman...she lived in this poky little apartment because she spent all her money on her HORSE. Which I thought was a bit weird, she was always complaining about how LOUD our bathroom fan was and did we have to run it ALL THE TIME?! No, and we didn't and I thought she needed to get out more. And then the other one who would laugh and then say things like, "But you're all tiny little things! From where I sit it sounds like a heard of ELEPHANTS live upstairs!" And I would have to think about whether she was complimenting us or not.

I think not.

It was a strange time for me. I can't imagine why I've been thinking of it so much lately. I didn't live there long, moved back in with my folks in an attempt to save money and also get more homework actually done. Juliet and Wendel got married. Samwise moved and moved again, poor Samwise, I should have been a better friend.

And maybe I should go back and reread Great Expectations.


Annie Atkin Rasmussen said...

Loved, loved this post.

Whimsy said...


I love how you captured every little whit of your lives there in that little ngate apartment.


And so glad you also led the mutiny. Hurrah!