The infinity of memory

During my first year at secondary school I had two choices of direction home. Either I could walk down Vaucluse Parade through Rowena street and then cut through the factories, which had thoroughfares as wide as roads through the middle, to the Richmond Railway Station or I could leave from the other exit at the school and wander down Church Street, cross Swan at the lights, and look longingly into the window of Dadd’s cake shop where the girls whose parents gave them pocket money stopped to buy a treat, then down the ramp to the East Richmond station.

Richmond was a better bet as all the trains, including express trains, stopped there. Not every train stopped at the East Richmond station. Despite this, I preferred the lesser of the two stations. It was smaller than its big sister up the line with only two platforms that sat stolid opposite one another and was cupped in a valley underneath the bridge that flew over Church Street on its way to the Bryant and May Red Head matches factory and then onto the Yarra River.

It felt safe.

Not that I ever travelled during non-safe periods, at night or in the very early morning, when the dirty old men whom, I had often encountered in the parks around our house, prowled.

I sat one day at the platform and watched one of the old red trains rattle by on its way to Camberwell when I began to consider the notion of infinity. Sister Anthony had talked about this concept during our maths class and although most lessons in maths flew over my head, especially when we began to explore Algebra, logarithms and complex ideas beyond simple addition, subtraction, multiplication and division, the idea of infinity fell into the irresistible category of ideas that I could not leave alone.

The idea that numbers could go on and on into the distance, and that other things too might stretch into the future on and on like the universe, my mother’s Queen Anne dressing table with it’s three mirrored panels that folded in on one another.

I could stand in the middle panel and pull the other two around my body to see myself reflected again and again as each hinged panel picked up different sides of my forever-retreating form.

My body grew smaller and smaller into the distance but there was no possibility of seeing it disappear altogether.

‘What’s wrong with your gums?’ a woman, who sat on the same bench separated from me by her shopping, asked.

I kept my school bag on the ground in front of my feet. I had been peering ahead into the distance, trying to read the tiny letters on an advertisement for tomato sauce and my mouth must have slipped open long enough for her to get a look inside.

It seemed an intrusive question, one that cut across my thoughts about infinity and I did not want to answer. But I knew small people like me were obliged to be polite to grown ups so I turned to face her.

‘Let me take a look,’ she said, and leaned towards me. ‘I’m a nurse.’ She said this in such a way as to suggest great authority rested in her role and there was nothing wrong with a complete stranger asking a twelve year old girl alone on a railway station to open her mouth for inspection.

But this woman did not know me. I opened my mouth for no one.

The train pulled into the station, the stopping-all-stations, and I grabbed my bag and raced to the first carriage at the front of the train far enough away to avoid the woman joining me.

Why, of all the many memories that follow me from a childhood of rotten teeth and fear, I should remember this woman’s curiosity is beyond me now?

I link these events with my first inkling of infinity that glorious word to match an even more glorious concept, the infinity of memory, the way one memory follows another endlessly one after the other, and each piggy backs on another, each lending itself more layers of meaning in a life that would otherwise seem dead ended.

5 thoughts on “The infinity of memory”

  1. I’m often puzzled by the arbitrariness of memory. Why when I look at A or smell B do I remember C and not D? Especially when I can see no logical connection between the stimulus and the recollection. There is a poetry to it. And by that I mean a fuzziness. I remember few things with clarity, a clarity I can trust and I’m well aware that when we try to remember we’re really reimagining events and every time the truth (for want of a better word) slips further and further away. I suppose the first time I ever contemplated infinity was when my dad told me that if Adam hadn’t eaten from the tree in the middle of the garden he’d still be alive some six thousand years later, might even be living down the street and would probably never die at all. We’re finite beings and endings are very much a part of life as we know it. I’m not sure I like the idea of living forever. I’m certainly in no rush to die and I know when I do get round to it there’ll be a lot I won’t have managed to do—seventy or eighty does seem a bit on the short side—but surely after a few thousand years I might’ve had enough. Or maybe that’s where forgetting comes in. The human brain has its limits. Maybe after a few thousand years you won’t remember what life was like when you were a mere one or two hundred.

    The nature of meaning probably puzzles me even more than the fickleness of our memories. It’s one of those horrible words (and there are so many of them) that refuses to settle on a single definition. Meaning not only has a host of meanings it also defines us or at least provides signifiers on the way to a definition. I love expressions like “You mean something to me.” They’re so unhelpful. What does “something” even mean in this context? “What do you mean, ‘something’?” “Er, at lot.” And, of course, a lot of the time we use ‘meaning’ when what we’re on about are feelings.

    1. Sorry, I’m slow to reply here, Jim. I’ve had one or two of those weeks where I’ve had time only to get by and not much more time left over for the joys pf responding. In any case, what you write here reminds me of story I read to my daughters when they were little, called Tuck Everlasting by Natalie Babbitt. It tells the story of Winnie Foster from Treegap, who comes across a secret spring whose water when drunk guarantees eternal life. The Tuck family who live in secret nearby also came across this spring several years earlier and unwittingly they drank from it. Winnie does not. It takes time before the Tucks realise that nothing can make them sick. Accidents never cause injury and they do not age like the other people they encounter on their travels. Over time they grow more ashamed of their infirmity. The two Tuck boys can never marry as they do not age beyond early adulthood after drinking from the spring. They can never marry as their wives would grow old and leave them behind. The Tuck family conceal the spring to protect the world from what they consider to be a perilous fate, namely that of never aging,never dying,slipping outside of the cycle of life. It’s a thought that’s stayed with me all these years. How dreadful to be able to live forever, to never ever find eventual peace in dying. Not that I’m ready or want to die just yet.Thanks Jim

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