Sunday, February 25, 2007

Waves of Memory

The souls of the people we love rush toward us like waves during their life-time.

They touch our lives with magic for a brief moment, embracing us with their love, then retreat into an ocean of time.

In their wake, they leave memories.

And the memories, like waves, return again and again to wash over us, reminding us of the days that we spent together.

My aunt--Sylvia B. Kessler--would have been 99 years old this week (on Tuesday, the 27th of February). Her funeral was held almost two months ago, a small ceremony attended by a handful of close relatives only a few miles from the King Street Elementary School where she taught for more than thirty years.

Each year she welcomed new students to her first- and second-grade classroom. And by the time she retired, she'd spent years helping hundreds of children take joy in learning and pride in their accomplishments. She taught so many children that, at times, it seemed as if everyone in Port Chester, NY, the town where she grew up and lived her life, had passed through her classroom.

On errands into town, she always made it a point to stop and chat with former students. The woman selling stamps at the post office. The checkout clerk at the supermarket. The mechanic at the local garage. The judge eating a sandwich at the coffee shop. The waitress serving lunch. Even the owner of the restaurant.

She touched so many lives in her classroom, and her students never forgot her. They may have moved on to the next grade and into the world of adulthood, but they remained in touch with her year after year, sending birth announcements, wedding notices, New Year's and Valentine's Day greetings, photos of themselves as parents with their own children.

Aware of the memories that she had helped create, and treasuring the memories that each card stirred in her, she saved every note, displaying them on the bookshelves in her living room, and on her desk, and even on the nightstand in her bedroom. And she took great pleasure in regaling visitors with stories of her students as if they were still in her class and she was still their teacher.

Never having had children of her own, she treated each of her students with the same kind of tenderness and love that a mother might bestow on her own children. And she shared with them--and with my brother and me, her only nephews--her passion for words and stories and the magic of the imagination.

Her passion for words and stories was evident the moment that you stepped into her house. Newspapers, magazines, and books were strewn everywhere. Shelves in her bedroom, and the desk in her guest room, were crammed with paperback novels. The ledge over the bathroom radiator was piled with old magazines. Chairs around the table where she ate her meals were piled with newspapers and books, too. She was always reading.

Deep in my memory--buried so far away that I can't really remember if it's true--is an image of Aunt Sylvia reading to me as a child as I sit next to her on a bed or sofa. A picture book is splayed open in her lap, and she's letting me turn the pages, and her voice is casting a spell, luring me into the world of imagination.

Somehow--through some mysterious alchemy of words and sounds--she transmitted her love of reading and stories--and writing--to those she loved. I still remember feeling that love of words and stories so strongly in her presence... not only as I learned to read... but, later, as I made my first stumbling attempts at writing a novel on her back porch one summer before graduating from high school.

Even now, I can recall the remarkable feeling of words flooding my throat for the first time that summer, vowels and consonants pushing their way through my fingertips onto the typewriter's keys... and appearing on the blank sheet of paper out of nowhere... accompanied by a kind of music that I can still hear today.

In a way that I didn't understand then, Aunt Sylvia served as one of my first writing teachers. Like later teachers, she nurtured my love of stories, and she taught me how to play with words in the same way that she might have taught a child to play with blocks or toys, or sand on a beach, just to see what happens.

It is one of life's bizarre ironies that this woman, who treasured memories of family and students above all else, ended her life without memories. After a decade or more, she lost her memory to Alzheimer's. Yet, amazingly, Alzheimer's couldn't steal her essential nature or her love of words and stories.

Whenever I visited her at the nursing home, I'd inevitably find her with a book or newspaper in her hands. She no longer knew who I was. She had no memory of our life together. But she knew in the deepest part of her what she wanted: to hold onto words and stories, even if she could no longer make sense of the letters in front of her.

Watching her memories vanish over the years, I learned a valuable lesson about memory. How essential it is for giving our life meaning. With memory, we can probe our lives for emotional depth; we can imbue our stories with emotional richness. Without it, life becomes a blank canvas, our lives, lacking a past, reduced to a one-dimensional surface.

A little less than two months ago, I held my memories of Aunt Sylvia in my heart as I stood at the foot of her grave and watched the workmen lower her casket into the earth.

A cold rain fell, and the wind blew in gusts, and, gazing up at the dark sky, I remembered the woman who had helped teach me (and so many others) to take joy in words and stories... and memories.

At that moment, as the first shovelfuls of earth began to fall, I imagined her setting sail across a sea of time and stepping ashore in a distant land where children would welcome her just as they used to greet her each morning in her classroom at the King Street School.

In that distant land, I pictured Aunt Sylvia telling stories again, and the children gathered around her, sitting cross-legged on the floor, listening to her voice as it cast its spell, touched by the magic of her words.

Memory and magic and stories... these were my aunt's legacy to me.

Long ago, without realizing how or why, I absorbed these things from her... and found my way onto the writer's path. And that path--stormy and unsettled as it is at times--has led to a sea of words and stories that I'd never have discovered without her.

Who are the people who have helped you find your way into words, whose lives have led you to your own writing path, your own sea of stories?

Take a moment this morning to let the waves of memory carry you back to the people who, thanks to memory, remain part of your life.

What did they share with you? What makes their memory so important?

When the time is right, put your pen down and pause to remember, then give thanks for the blessings--the memories--that you received from them.


The People History said...

Our memories of family and friends are what make us who we are .

A memory shared is a memory remembered for each future generation

Jude said...

What a lovely tribute to your aunt. Your image of her "setting sail across a sea of time and stepping ashore in a distant land" reminded me of a poem sent to me on the death of my mother last year.
"I am standing upon the seashore. A ship at my side spreads her white sails to the morning breeze and starts for the blue ocean. She is an object of beauty and strength. I stand and watch her until at length she hangs like a speck of white cloud just where the sea and sky come to mingle with each other.
Then someone at my side says, "There, she is gone!"
"Gone where?"
Gone from my sight. That is all. She is just as large in mast and hull and spar as she was when she left my side and she is just as able to bear her load of living freight to her destined port.
Her diminshed size is in me, not in her. And just at the moment when someone at my side says: "There she is gone!" There are other eyes watching her coming, and other voices ready to take up the glad shout: "Here she comes!"
And that is dying." Anonymous.

Bruce said...


Such an image... that ship hanging like a white cloud on the horizon... and then, suddenly, gone!

So much of my aunt's success as a teacher, I think, came from her ability to change her perspective each day and see the world anew as her first- and second-grade students saw it.

I'm sure she'd have loved the poem that you shared for the way it encourages a shift in perspective ... to understand something in a new way.

Tomorrow, as I pause in my work to remember her, I'll think of the poem ... with gratitude to you for sharing it (and the memory of your mom).

Thanks for writing.

Jack said...

Bruce, that's beautiful writing, a wonderful blend of imagery and emotion. Jude's poem was a fine complement to it, too.

I wondered what kind of response your Aunt had to the words on the pages she held in the nursing home, if she understood them, as you wondered also. Perhaps for a brief time, moment to moment, they lived for her, as they always had before.

Barbara W. Klaser said...

Bruce, what a beautiful tribute. Your aunt led a full life and must have affected many people's lives along the way. What I think even some teachers don't realize is how much influence one teacher can have. One who's bored or just doesn't care quite as much or doesn't think things through can cause more harm than he realizes, and the good teacher can spread that goodness like wildflower seeds on the wind.

Your aunt's love of books will live on behind her.

Bruce said...

Thanks, Barbara... for that image of goodness "spreading... like wildflower seeds on the wind." You're right... sometimes we don't know the influence that our words or actions have on others, do we?

And Jack, like you, I've wondered if the words that my aunt held in her hands could have had a meaning that I couldn't perceive. Maybe just holding a book or newspaper was enough?

Thanks for your notes.

TadMack said...

How beautifully, beautifully put.
Thank you for sharing this.

carrie jones said...


This is so beautiful and lovely. Your aunt would be very proud of the words you just wrote. And of you.


Douglas Finer said...

Sylvia Kessler was my teacher for the second grade around 1960. I will always remember her!!! i visited her at her house. I have been wondering about her for decades now. Did not have any contact info that was current. Aunt Sylvia, as I called her, affected my life in the deepest way.
I just love who she is.

Bruce Black said...

Her birthday was a month ago, and I still miss her. Thanks for your note.