Buried but not gone

September 23, 2009

It’s 6:30 a.m. in the Piemonte. The air is cool. I can see only a hint below the horizon of the sunny day to come; not even a peek, just a tiny leak. The countryside is quiet; even the ubiquitous yellowjackets are asleep, conserving energy so they can buzz about all day in the hot sun.

I’m thinking about the mind, the brain. How the things we learn and experience in our life are all stored in our mind, the center of our intellect, like data on a hard drive. Like that data, we can’t always retrieve it. Sections get damaged over time and no longer read.

For a few hours, yesterday, for example, I couldn’t retrieve the first name of the owner of the kennel we use. Then, it came back.

But other times, things come up out of nowhere, a memory we haven’t accessed for decades, a word, a thought, an image.

I was buying prosciutto in the supermercato in Acqui Terme yesterday. The metric system is still a mystery to me, so I wasn’t sure how to order the small amount we wanted. I didn’t look it up either. Instead, out of some memory bank, came the following.

“Per favore, tagliare…siete fette.” Please cut six slices.

I wasn’t conscious of it. It just came up.

At dinner, the waiter was struggling to understand that our dinner companion wanted only a glass of wine, not a bottle. Out of nowhere, I clarified:

“Un bicchiere.” A glass.

Ah, un bicchiere!” responded the waiter.

M. was ordering veal liver, but the waiter repeated it as ravioli. (Don’t ask.) M. nodded his assent, thinking the order was clear.

I intervened. “Vitello.”

English was my parents’ second language, although they spoke it without accent. My grandmother lived with us, and spoke no English. So our home was filled with the rise and fall of their Sicilian dialect, a form of Italian. Spoken loudly, like a crashing symphony.

I heard it every day growing up. So when I take Italian, it comes back quickly. What surprises me is that I hadn’t refreshed my Italian at all, but I can limp along still, it seems, with a few vocabulary words that appear out of nowhere, as needed. Even in mid-life. The power of the mind.

That same memory bank is at work in my relationship with M. The things we experienced in our relationship the first time pop up out of nowhere. All kinds of things.

There’s a white board in my classroom at UT, the same new classroom in which I’ve taught writing for two years. This semester, the white board wouldn’t clean. No matter how hard we erased dry markings, the remains of each professor’s writing remained for the next. Even if we used the spray-on cleaner.

It was getting in the way of my teaching, so I called it to the department’s attention. Perhaps I was the only professor to do so. I have learned over the years that if something is getting in my way, I have to make it known to whomever can fix it. Because you can’t fix something you don’t know about.

M and I are like that whiteboard. We wrote our relationship on it for years. And although we erased it, the remains of our experience together haven’t completely disappeared.

There are wonderful memories and there are painful ones. Buried, but not gone. They come up from time to time.

Last week, UT maintenance workers removed the old whiteboard in my classroom and installed a fresh, new one.

I haven’t had a chance to use the new board, because I left for Italy before they finished installing it. But it’s there, awaiting my return.

The sun is up, but I can’t see it through the fog. The day awaits. A cup of hot coffee and milk. A delicious breakfast. My husband’s arms warm around me.

We can write this chapter of our story any way we want.

Life is an amazing gift.

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