Chaperones, memory and imagination

The past is like a chaperone. It travels beside you wherever you go. It might hide from view or stand in the shadows, but it’s always there. And like a chaperone, it keeps an eye on you, whether you want it or not. 

It’s a pity. This metaphor holds patriarchal overtones. Chaperones once accompanied young women in the absence of parents or guardians to keep an eye on them and protect them from their own or anyone else’s mischief. 

The word chaperone speaks of possession and leaves me cold. Still to think about the past in this way, as the person in charge, who’s there to make sure you don’t get up to mischief, seems a reasonable analogy. All for the sake of propriety. 

Chaperones in literature usually take the form of older women, past their prime, who have no interest themselves in getting up to no good and certainly have a vested interest in keeping their young charges pure.

They kept you from that secret night tryst with your forbidden friend, kept you away from anything of which your parents might not approve.

That’s about where the analogy ends. Therapists are not chaperones.

When people front up for therapy they have an opportunity to tell their life story to an interested listener who offers prompts and observations about the way events from your past might coincide with the present. 

When we write our story however and put the details of a life onto the page, there is no therapist other than the one in our minds to guide us along, to help us decide what bears mention and what gets left behind. 

Far more is left behind than enters the space of a memoir, as any one life could fill multiple volumes depending on the approach each writer takes in deciding what bears reflection.

It’s like plucking a rock from the ground, scraping off any surface dirt to reveal what’s hidden beneath. It might turn out to be a diamond, or a sapphire. It might be an opal or a simple lump of quartz. Fool’s gold or simply a splodge of clay. Whatever. In the writer’s hands, the story takes shape. 

And the shape of our past is coloured by the present, by the way we see our experiences today building in the opposite direction. Once we have reached the bedrock, the point of our story, the core of any memory, we begin to dress it with meaning.

We find layers of clothing with which to drape our memory so that it morphs and twists, now this way, from this angle. Now that. The story refuses to stay still. It wants to find new forms of expression. And it wants other eyes to look upon it.

The imagination of the writer kicks in, whether from their child perspective or an adolescent self, right though the various stages of adulthood into old age if the writer is lucky enough. And always the perspective alters. It refuses to sit still, and the writer, if willing and able, might then put on the shoes of another and flick their memory into that other mind, to try it out from their perspective. 

The pin oak in our garden in spring in its first dress for the season

To imagine what this memory looks like from someone other than the central character of what once was the writer’s memoir. This memory also keeps shifting.

Academics undertake reams of research into the nature of memory: how fickle it is, how much it changes shape over time, always with the addition of fresh clues. As through repeatedly examining a photograph. The way we felt when the photograph was taken, if indeed we are present in the photo. Or even if not in the photograph we can begin to imagine ourselves nearby. 

Memory and imagination overlap, close cousins of the mind. They poke and prod one another. Memory pulses with emotions from the past and stirs up hidden aspects of our histories, while imagination busies itself in filling the gaps. And imagination tends to draw on other memories from nearby to add colour to our re-shaping of the past. So that the past is no longer a chaperone. One who constrains us.

The past becomes our servant. One we take hold of. One we examine again and again, if we are fortunate enough to take an interest. And so, memory is ours to accompany as we walk through time with every instant of times past passing into the territory of what once was. The present only a fast-moving speck on the radar of our life and the future stretching ahead of us unknown and seemingly imagined in ever decreasing circles as we age. 

The past gets bigger and bigger with each passing year, and it becomes a heaviness we must carry unless we compartmentalise and divide it up in our experience and no longer give it the power of the chaperone the one who wants to contain and constrain us, but let it run free, in the contained spaces of our imaginations. We will only bring it out if it suits some calling from our need to put it into words, whether written or spoken. When it serves the purpose of adding colour and meaning to our lives. No longer a controlling chaperone but a curious companion. 

Dogs, bats and memories

Look at this dog. See how he’s aged. I got a shock the other day when he came back from the clippers with a summer coat. To see how thin he was underneath his thick winter overcoat of the past several months. 

The other day, I took both dogs out for their morning walk down the road to Fritz Holzer park, which my family prefers to call the Rose Street tip, this park of reclaimed land that forms a swamp and was once used as a tip for the cast-offs from Hawthorn and surrounds. 

Over the years, I’ve watched the park turn into a green oasis in the middle of our suburb one that now attracts visitors and dog walkers in their droves, given the constraints of life under Covid.

When my girls were young, we used to cut through this park on Friday nights on our way to dinner nearby at a Thai place and on our way home in the evening twilight we took to counting the bats that flew through the sky. 

The bats were such a novelty but soon they became a nuisance and people resented them for the way they stripped the fruit trees and buds, looking for food and they all but destroyed fern gully in our city’s Botanical Gardens. 

Our governments soon introduced policies to deter the bats and drive them off course away from the Botanical Gardens a well-manicured museum of plants, to the edges of the Yarra River where the gum trees and willows could better cope with the burgeoning colonies of bats. And as far as I know they’re still there. 

When the dog first came into our lives, I was resistant. I did not want this dog. I did not want the additional pressure of another vulnerable creature in my house, a creature whom I would undoubtedly need to take some responsibility for. I had forgotten the pleasure that animals can bring even in an over full household.

It’s taken over a decide to adjust to life with this dog and two years ago another dog to turn me around. I’m not an official dog person, one who cares about dogs, about breeds about their antics, their personalities and the struggles dogs endure with us humans as their carers. It took some work for our daughters to persuade us to take one on. I’ll try to attach a pdf to prove the point.

I’ve written before about our back garden which when our children were young became a grave yard for dead rabbits, birds, frogs, ad guinea pigs. We still have gravestone plaques dedicated to one cat, Tillie and to another cat Pickles. To the mice Frida and Alexandra. 

The naming of pets, the chance to go through a lifetime with a creature is good preparation for the fact of death. But it’s never the same when a person goes. At least not for me. 

I was going somewhere with this story when I talked of the other day, but every other day that lies behind me merges into another, even more so these days under the weight of lockdown, I wish I was able to delineate one moment from the next and create a clear storyline that goes up and down, creates that narrative arc so beloved by story tellers that has people on the edge of their seats only to come down the hill slowly at the other end through a satisfying epiphany and sense that something’s changed.

It’s not so easy when things can seem so much the same and yet they’re in constant flux.

I realised this when I turned forty and looked back on my life as if I’d only just realised I was in one. 

Now twenty years plus later, I look back and see things more clearly and yet my memory is not what it was when I first reflected on the meanderings of my childhood. Once I took to writing down my memories, they changed in shape. They lost their intensity. It’s as if a memory when first encountered shines with brilliance but then on revisiting again and again it loses its lustre and potency. And yet more and more I sense the bodily flash of the newness of things when I was small, in a smell, or a photo or a flash of colour on a walk.

And the look of the dog now. His visible rib cage, his sharp shoulder blades where his upper leg meets his hunches are a reminder of death. The skin and bones of our humanity that is lush and full at birth only to fade as we age.