Memory is notoriously unreliable. Even if you have all your wits about you, gleaning a memory’s significance may be tricky.
This is not to say memories are insignificant; regardless of distortions, a memory carries a kernel of truth and some historical credibility. I think of some memories as old, buried manuscripts.
Say, I happen upon one. Significant portions of the text are illegible. Still, I sense that the story contained in the manuscript is important. So, like archeologists do, I comb through the document –– the memory –– trying to fill in the blanks and put the memory together.
The other day an old incident appeared in my mind’s eye like the pop-ups on my computer. It crossed my mental screen while I was thinking about something else. A computer pop-up, like random memories, seek my attention and for a reason. The reason is the substance of what my recollection is all about.
I looked out onto the cove, recently; I had nothing on my mind. Suddenly I recalled being a 17-year-old, a lifeguard on a Staten Island beach. In the fleeting recollection, I see orange –– the color of our bathing trunks –– and then a tall stand where lifeguards sit. I remember going into the water to retrieve a little girl who’d ventured deeper than she realized. It seemed a perfunctory act: waves were insignificant –– she was in no real danger, but the water was up to the girl’s neck and it frightened her. She was afraid to move. I went in, put my arm around her and guided her to shallow water. She then ran up the beach to her mother who awaited her. They both walked up the beach. Neither turned around.
The pop-up recollection was fragmentary. It didn’t immediately reveal what was the most significant piece of the incident and that was the child’s mother. I realized she was what the recollection was all about, and the reason it arose at all.
Reconstructing the memory as best I could, I recalled the mother standing at the foot of my chair, looking panicky and trying to get my attention. She reached up hesitantly, tapping me on the foot. She couldn’t speak English. She kept pointing demonstrably to the water and I could see she was directing my attention to a little girl in the water. I figured out what her concern was and got the child back on land.
The seeds of past experiences lie fallow, deep in the mind. Some seeds will remain inert in the corridors of memory for the rest of my life. However, others will, in a seemingly arbitrary way, appear in my consciousness. What precipitates their appearance is typically something that is happening in the present that strikes a similar chord to something experienced in the past. Even though the experience back ‘then’ varies greatly in particulars from the ‘now,’ there’s a tissue of significance joining them.
A few days earlier I’d read about the migrants detained at the Mexican border. The article was accompanied by a photograph. In I can see a small child, a toddler; I see her from the back. She is walking down a passage in a large building between huge plastic bags filled what might be garbage or throwaways of some kind. It is not clear where she is going or what she’s looking for. The article begins: “A surge in migrant children detained at the border is straining shelters.”
Many of the children are unaccompanied by parents or any adults. They are alone with little or no advocacy. There is anguish among the adults for the welfare of their children. Children are afraid and have no way to understand what is happening. One Border Control officer was quoted as saying, “. . . one girl seemed likely enough to kill herself . . . the children cry constantly.” The migrants are strangers in a strange land, desperately needy, unable to speak the language to advocate for themselves or their children.
I wonder what it must feel like to be a migrant in a strange land; to feel alone and vulnerable; unable to communicate and desperately in need of help. That was the connective tissue between the present awareness and my emerging memory from the past.
The newspaper column went on to say how “the number of unaccompanied migrant children detained along the southern border had tripled in the last two weeks to more than 3,250.” In short, the detention policy implemented to deter migration, turned brutal for lack of care and administrative incompetence. Hospitality to the stranger is possible only if someone values its humane implications enough to want to exercise it. You “gotta have heart” to make it work.
A statue stands in New York Harbor about ten miles north from where I once sat on the beach that day in the summer of 1951. It was the day when I first saw in a stranger’s face, a mother’s face, in terrible fear. The monument is the Statue of Liberty. The presence of the Statue of Liberty declares America’s intention to offer hospitality to the stranger. In a similar way, our constitution declares its intent to govern justly by its declaration that “all men are created equal.”
In the last few years, we lost our hearts to the fear of the stranger. I’m feeling more hopeful this can be turned around. The noble visions that characterize America’s uniqueness, in order to be realized, require ‘heart,” or to say it differently, “compassion.”
As far as memory is concerned: it took me a while to reconstruct the memory fragment to discover the mother. She completed the significance of the event for me. The mother-child bond is perhaps the most intimate and tenacious in the ways of human love. When it’s violated, it produces excruciating pain.
The past recollection of the mother and was a kind of spiritual “pop-up” to alert me to be vigilant and be ready to offer hospitality to strangers. It’s a good thing. According to legend, being hospitable may even have unexpected perks: by offering hospitality to strangers, we may be entertaining angels unawares.
Columnist George Merrill is an Episcopal Church priest and pastoral psychotherapist. A writer and photographer, he’s authored two books on spirituality: Reflections: Psychological and Spiritual Images of the Heart and The Bay of the Mother of God: A Yankee Discovers the Chesapeake Bay. He is a native New Yorker, previously directing counseling services in Hartford, Connecticut, and in Baltimore. George’s essays, some award winning, have appeared in regional magazines and are broadcast twice monthly on Delmarva Public Radio.