“What did we do last 4th of July?”
My husband shook his head and shrugged. Clearly, he didn’t remember either. “I’m sure we did something,” he said.
Yeah, something. We did something. Let’s think about this. A year ago, our area was still recovering from a storm that resulted in wide-spread power-outages, but by some miracle, our power had already been restored. My mother-in-law was home from the hospital and staying with my sister-in-law. My father-in-law was in the hospital—he would die two days later. My sister-in-law’s daughter—our niece—was ill, but not in the hospital. My brother-in-law who lives in Norway was in the States and staying with my sister-in-law, but his wife and son were not here yet. So, what did we all do last 4th of July?
“Did we go to your sister’s?” I asked because that made sense. Why wouldn’t we go to her house? I mean, that would have been home-base to the highest concentration of family members, and her home is almost always where we go on holidays. So, yes, that is probably what we did last year.
My husband shrugged again and said, “I really don’t remember.”
I’d like to blame our extraordinarily busy lives for this hole in our memories, but I suspect that everyone has these experiences throughout their lives. We remember some events vividly. Others, we don’t.
Often, the most vivid memories are sparked by tragedy.
I know exactly where I was when the Challenger exploded. I was working a day-long shift at Winthrop College’s Foreign Language Lab. Because no one came in that day, I was alone, and I used that time to study. I had no idea that anything big had happened until I was walking across campus and overheard a group of students talking. When I got to my dormitory, a group was gathered around a TV in the RA’s office. When I watched a replay of the explosion, I decided not to go to supper. I went directly to my room and wrote in my journal.
I was in church when I learned that Princess Diana had died. The pastor said, “In our prayers this morning, we remember the British royal family and all the people of Great Britain as they mourn the death of their beloved Princess Diana.” I was wearing a bright pink sheath dress and espadrilles. I was sitting on the second pew from the very back. I stood up and walked out. I didn’t cry until later. I was too shocked to cry. I kept thinking, “No, no, no. We are supposed to be praying for her recovery. She’s in the hospital, but she’ll be okay.”
(So, as you read those last two paragraphs, did your mind go to where you were, who you were with, what you were wearing, what you were doing, and how you reacted? I’m sure it did.)
And on a more personal level, I remember July 6, 2013. I had dropped my children at the babysitter’s house with the intention of running a few errands before heading to the hospital where my father-in-law would be recovering from surgery. My husband was already there. He had spent the night at his parents’ house so that he would be close to the hospital and able to visit with his dad before the surgery. That morning, I had wanted to look cute and so I wore a pink blouse and a denim mini-shirt with sandals—not dressy and yet, a step up from my usual errand-running mom-wear.
Then, my husband called. He told me to forget the errands and come directly to the hospital NOW. I did. As I drove, I prayed. I also followed overly complicated GPS directions that took me through the heart of the city costing me time. When I wasn’t praying, I was cursing the GPS, but I was so unsure of where I was going that I didn’t stray from its pre-programmed route.
When I arrived, I went directly to the recovery room in the heart surgery unit. I told the nurse at the reception desk that I was there to see my father-in-law. When I told her his name, her face fell a little and in a soft, yet strong voice she instructed me to wait in the hallway. “Someone will be out to talk with you.” In that moment, I knew.
Of course, I remember the happy times, too. I remember everything about how my husband proposed. I can tell you what we talked about while I was in labor with our daughter and how we choose our son’s name just minutes before he was born. (That name, of course, wasn’t going to be used because I just knew I was carrying a girl.)
And memory being so highly personal, I know my husband may remember all of those events very differently than I do. I’ve seen arguments break out because two people remembered the same event differently and neither was willing to accept that perspective matters. No one’s memories need to be right or wrong—unless testifying in a court of law.
It’s been years since I’ve read or seen a production of Thornton Wilder’s Our Town so forgive me if I get some of the details wrong, but in it, the recently departed Emily is given the opportunity to visit one day in her mortal life, and against the advice of others, she chooses a special day—a birthday. Of course, it’s just too painful of an experience because her memories which she treasured aren’t the same as the reality she revisits and she realizes that during her lifetime, she took so much for granted and that the people she loves still do.
I don’t know that Emily’s revelation is all that profound. I know I take a lot for granted. I pay too much attention to some details of life and not enough to others. Some very sweet specialness is found in the most ordinary moments.
Today is a holiday, but it is also a very ordinary day. Unless our plans change radically, we are staying close to home. I’ll grill steaks. Kids will play in the sprinkler. We will make strawberry ice cream. We may find a place to watch fireworks tonight. I don’t yet know.
Maybe it’s not so important that we don’t remember last year’s Independence Day, but we just treasure this one.