Memory lane

Memories are tied to places and locations in ways that I don’t think we fully understand. There is something about creating a memory in a place that binds it to the place in which it was created, and every subsequent sighting of that place evokes the memory as though no time had been placed between then and now. This is a beautiful thing, and a boon to memories that are all too human and may well forget the importance of the past without this aid.

Think, for example, of how an entire city can come to symbolize a memory even after all remaining details of that city’s past have been lost in the sands of time. Who can think of Pompeii without remembering the tragedy with which that city was buried by a volcanic eruption? We know so little of that place beyond this historical fact, but through the generations the memory of that place has been one of destruction and despair. It seems to be the case that the more a city or country has been buried by the past, the more we remember it for a single fact—the fall of Troy, the signing of the Magna Carta at Runnymede, the hanging gardens of Babylon, the bombing of Pearl Harbor. If memories in general are capable of clinging to a place, the strongest memory holds on the longest.

Much more locally, historical facts can be tied to something as nondescript as a tree. Near where I live, you can stand in the shade of the great elm tree under which George Washington assumed control of the Continental Army in the spring of 1775. It’s not a commemorative tree planted there years after the fact in memory of that great event; it’s the actual tree that “witnessed” this historical moment nearly 250 years ago. Standing under the tree with your eyes closed on a summer day, the rustle of the wind in the leaves can almost transport you back to that pivotal day.

Across the street from the tree is a church, where Washington prayed on the morning of the ceremony in which he was given command of the military. You can sit in the pew where he sat, and approach the altar where he knelt for blessing. You can walk in his footsteps because they are physically contained in that space.  You get the feeling that even if the church were to disappear, some monument to the place would remain, and visitors would stream there still.

If the memory of a place is mysterious, the place itself will be, as well. Consider the pyramids of Egypt (how were they really built?) or Stonehenge (what was it really for?) or anyplace else whose significance has been lost to us today. Even after generations of us have forgotten the exact details of a site’s construction or intended use, the memory of that place as significant remains.

But perhaps the most intensely personal memory-places of all are those that are tied to memories of our own. George Washington’s commission ceremony or the Druids’ sacrificial rituals may be historically interesting, but they are, at the end of the day, only tied to the memories of others who resemble us and have gone before. We may be able to discern some tie to them, but the collective memory through which we recall their experiences will never make these experiences our own.

Our places, on the other hand, hold our memories, and thus they will always be our own. Who can forget where they were when they heard the news of September 11, 2001, or when they had their car stolen, or when they took their first kiss, or when they saw a solar eclipse? So many of our memories are tied to places that this is even the way we begin our stories: “I remember when I was in…” or “I recall when I was at…” Even if we are no longer there ourselves, the memories we have left in a place remain there long after our departure.

Living in one place for a long time will make the experience of these memories especially intense, probably because they are so concentrated in space (though perhaps not in time). A university campus is a perfect example of this truth. Most students remain there for at least four years, if not more, and the smaller the campus, the greater the possibility for accumulation of memories. Walking through Harvard Yard, for example, I can recall all of the following: my first-year dormitory (fourth floor, fourth window), an early girlfriend’s window (across the yard; each of us could see when the other had turned out the light), a final farewell to a dear friend, a truly fascinating snow sculpture, and (most recently) the long commencement day walk. This place may be rich with the history of others, but it is also replete with my own.

Indeed, it is difficult to imagine a world in which memories would not bind places in this way. It seems so perfectly natural that the place where something happened would retain the memory of that happening for at least as long as the one who remembers it—if not longer. Some memories are so embedded in a place that I suspect they may remain there even after all of us are gone.

And perhaps the strangest effect of all is the layering of memories in a particular place after enough time has passed for such layering to occur. The place where something was lost becomes the place where something was found; the place of misery becomes the place of triumph; the place where you said goodbye to someone old becomes the place where you say hello to someone new. But the transformation is never absolutely complete; memories with their staying power lurk below the cover of whichever is more recent, but ruffling the pages of time a bit will reveal all that lies beneath.

Yes, the strongest memories are also the most persistent—and they should be. They are what make a place worth remembering. They are what make a house a home, and a home a castle. They are what make places worth preserving; they are the soul of a place where the buildings and structures and scenery and trees are the body. These places take us back while at the same time allowing us to remain right here, where we’ve always been—and where, in a certain sense, we’ve never been before.

Who ever said that Memory Lane had to be a street?

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