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May 16, 2004

Memory erased

Last night as I put Dora to bed--she kept saying "I'm so tired. I'm so tired"--she used a Polish proverb: "Old age is no picnic," adding, of course, that it is better than the alternative. Two days ago when we were talking Yiddish and I tried telling stories, I told her about the stories she used to tell me, the parables her mother told her and the proverbs. Did she remember them? I prompted her. She remembered the odd proverb. And, with help, the one about the man who lived with his wife in a little room with their ten children. His wife complained about the crowding so the man went to the rebe for advice. "Bring in the chickens," the rebe advised. Baffled, the man followed his advice. Returning the next day, he complained that the chickens made things worse. "Bring in the goats," the rebe instructed. The man went home and did as he was told. This continued until the cows, ducks, geese, and every other animal was in the house. Exasperated, the man returned to the rebe, who now told him to take all the animals out. The man did as he was told. He and his wife sighed a sigh of relief. How spacious their home now seemed!
But, the most poignant moment, the moment that made me deeply sad, that conveyed the depth of what Dora's memory loss means--at the very least to me--is that she did not remember the parable about the man who did not wash his hands before eating. I explained to her that this was the story I wrote about that got me my first tenure-track job in 1970. I presented "A Parable in Context" at the American Folklore Society Meetings and was literally offered the position at the University of Texas on the spot. I later published the article and it has become a classic in the field. I tried to explain to her how much her stories and proverbs meant to me and how much I knew they had meant to her.
She did not remember the story. She did not remember the context in which she had told it. I was crushed. Like a tape that has been erased. Blank. The archive empty. Where once there were resonant memories of her mother, her wisdom, her parables, a white slate, clear water, pure light....

A man went to rabbi to ask forgiveness for not washing his hands.
"Why," the rabbi asked, "did you not wash your hands?"
"Because I did not say the blessing on the food," the man replied.
The rabbi asked, "And why did you not say the blessing?"
The man responded, "Because I was not eating kosher food."
"Why were you not eating kosher food?", the rabbi queried.
"Because it was Yom Kippur and no Jewish restaurants were open," the man explained.

It is up to us to remember.

Posted by BKG at May 16, 2004 11:19 AM

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