When the past is sharper than the present

My godmother passed away last week. Unfortunately, I was unable to travel to Florida for her homegoing services, but her family seems to be taking the loss well. She was less than two months away from her 93rd birthday and had been in failing health, and as so often happens, she just slipped into the next world.

My godmother and my mother, who will be 92 later this year, have been friends for over 60 years, at a time when they were both young mothers living next door to each other in Elmsford, a hamlet in Westchester County, New York. My mother was somewhat numbed by her friend's passing. I've been thinking a lot about both of them the past few days, as well as my mother's sister, herself looking at turning 94, and the subtle changes about them that I've noticed.

The major change is in their memories, which have shifted from present to past. My godmother told me how vividly she remembered the day she first laid eyes on the man whom she would eventually marry, who was 17 to her 12 and quite handsome. She always referred to him as "My Gordon," which was probably as much as an endearment as it was to distinguish him from his best friend, my father, who was also named Gordon. When looking at a picture of her two oldest daughters as children, she recalled the ruffled dresses they were wearing and how difficult they were to iron (this was before cotton blends or the steam iron had been introduced). But sometimes she had difficulty remembering much more recent events.

Similarly, my aunt can rattle off happenings dating back to her childhood, but often cannot remember things that happened five years ago.

My mother cannot remember where she was or what she was doing when word came through that President Kennedy had been assassinated back in 1963, but she can remember exactly where she was when she heard that President Roosevelt (Franklin, not Teddy...she's not that old) had died in 1945, 18 years earlier. (For the record, she was waiting tables at a Chock Full'O'Nuts restaurant in New York City, and she said how everyone cried and the restaurant promptly closed for the day. She even remembers how the other waitresses were unfriendly toward her - I think they were jealous of Mom's good looks.)

The last time Mom was visiting she was watching a classic Bette Davis film, The Little Foxes, and she remarked, "I always loved Herbert Marshall." (He was an actor, largely forgotten today, who played important, if not necessarily leading man, roles in the Thirties and Forties.) I was amazed that Mom remembered his name...I had coached her several times when friends visiting from England came to dinner on their names, and when she asked the husband to pass the butter she trailed off, unable to remember the simple name of Paul.

The next day we driving somewhere and I had one of my home-burned CDs of standards playing (you know, the type of music my parents used to listen to while we were growing up). When a duet between an icon performer and a young performer on her way to becoming an icon began to play, Mom said, "Oh, that's Judy Garland. I'd know that voice anywhere." When I asked her about who Judy was singing with, a singer still active today, she struggled to remember, snapping her fingers and saying, "Oh. Oh. Oh." Finally she said, "She's got a big nose." Yeah, it was Barbra Streisand.

I wonder, if I live that long and am fortunate enough to still be lucid, if I will remember the past more accurately than the present. I don't remember the JFK assassination at all, although most of my friends do (I was 6 when it happened). Will it come back to me? I guess I'll have to wait and see.

Have any of you noticed this in the elders you know?


Shelia G said...

I noticed that in my grandmother. She can recall things down to what the person was wearing when she recalls things of the past but sometimes forget answers to questions she's just asked you.

Phyllis Bourne said...

My dad is 87. Now that he's older, he's a talker. It's a huge change. He used to go weeks without uttering a word. If you asked him why he wasn't talking he'd reply, "Because I don't have anything to say."

So now we're getting details about his WWII experience, when he preferred not to talk about it before.

The only time he "can't remember" is when my mom asks him about money.

DonnaD said...

My grandmother, at 87, was still very lucid and could remember things both past and present. Though she always got all the girls names mixed up (daughters and granddaughters). My grandfather never really talked about his past. And the older he got (he was 97 when he died) the less he talked about anything. The only time you could get a reaction was when you talked about the Cubs or baseball. Sadly, dementia robbed him of conversation, but he still managed to give you a smile.

bettye griffin said...

Thanks for sharing your observations, ladies! That comment about your father forgetting about money is hilarious, Phyllis!