After the memory bank is closed

Russell Wangersky
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Where do those things go, these things that I remember, when I’m gone? Do they just wink out, like stars behind a steadily advancing berm of fog, or do they end up in some vast storehouse with no clear key to unlock them, the only possible key the straight line of my now-disconnected, now-decomposed memory?

Perhaps it’s a dour topic for a May weekend, the kind of thing that is more likely to occupy the mind of a cranky old man in need of a veranda with a view.

And how I’d like a veranda. There was one on the house I grew up knowing in Halifax, a long grey board-topped rectangle that probably only sits in the memories of my two brothers now. I’d like to sit and stare and gather things greedily into my memory — the lupines in the front yard, the strangely rounded gravel of Roman Nahrebecky’s driveway next door, the arches of maple branches over South and Henry streets — however wasteful that process sometimes seems.

But there it is again: disordered but particularly sharp-edged dots, made sense of only by the remembered order of experiencing them. My particular order.



Forgive me if I wander. That’s what you do when you’re travelling a path by memory — or, better, a path of memory.

We all have it, we all save it, we all feel it — you will eventually feel it, if you haven’t yet. That poignant flash, right in the middle of remembering something that happened, that poignant flash where you realize that everyone you experienced that moment with is no longer here. That moment when you become its sole custodian, and should you choose to ignore that moment, there will be no one left to say for certain that it even happened.

It is a jarring realization, one that comes at you when you least expect it: perhaps tasting lobster, for the one time you might get to do that in a springtime, remembering other lobster on a Maine beach, cooked in steaming seaweed over the coals of a fire and intermingled with the suddenly gaping shells of white clams. A place called Dan-Dan’s Beach, surrounded by scores of barely known cousins, uncles and aunts.

The aunts and uncles have all fallen like candlepins in a bowling alley now, and the cousins are so dispersed, so distant, that meeting them is like unearthing someone else’s sweater in your own closet.

But I can remember the long, rocky, angled sweep of the beach, the black knobs of greasy volcanic stone I sometimes found there, and once, in a sharp flash, two big attacking dogs that almost reached my brothers, my mother and I, before hurling themselves vicious against the windows of our old Volkswagen van, streamers of their angry, frothy spittle left clinging to the high side windows.

There are two left — though my brother George was only a toddler — who might remember that.

But what of the other times? What about the look of the side of a mackerel that will always take me back to fishing with my father at an old whaling station in St. Margaret’s Bay — back so long ago that there were a few times we were there when there were whales pulled up on the concrete slip, the water of the harbour red with blood and the steam winch sounding its ungentle steady grunt.

What about that first May warm rain, the one that leaves behind  that special warm metal smell that wraps around you like a sleeve on an arm, and conjures up a dozen or more places where the rain was departing the asphalt as quickly as it fell, moisture of a mere moment?

What happens to those?



There are those who view all experience as sharply defined as if it were history, and us, in our fixed places in it, as immutable.

Others have overarching theories that seek to have all things neither created nor destroyed, but steps in an ordered continuum.

I’m not sure that works for me. Perhaps I am too pessimistic.

It’s not enough to think of everything as the sparks and flashes of Nietzsche’s eternal energy, flashing out of us but travelling on into the universe, invincible.

Nor does religion seem to hold the anchors I need: religion almost certainly requires a purpose for the universe, and what is the purpose of gathering and distilling the world into something like insight, only to have that insight locked in some other-worldly place, out of the reach of the places it might do someone some good, precisely when they need it?

Perhaps this is not the springtime talk of May, though May is when I feel it most. And something else as well: it’s when I realize that this is new to me, but would be old hat to my parents and many others for whom the years have shown this already.

We learn so much and can share so little. So where do all those things go?


Russell Wangersky is The Telegram’s

editorial page editor. He can be reached by email at

Organizations: Volkswagen

Geographic location: Halifax, Maine

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Recent comments

  • Ron Tizzard
    May 28, 2012 - 14:12

    Russell, your column this week is intriguing; off the average chart, different, catching many people likely by surprise, as we don’t frequently (broadly) philosophize about our personal cognitive retentions, evidenced by the lack of participative feedback to this point…though I think you’ll see more in the next few days. You may get some feedback from a few contemplative monks, I hope so…they have computers these days.My sense of your metaphysical query is that we never really possess our thoughts; that our thoughts, or cognitive sensory experiences in life are but periods of happenstance we enjoy, develop phobias about, or simple insecurities perhaps; and sometimes, just sometimes, take mystical possession of, as they serve some temporal purpose for us, subjectively occasioned. Then, to your question…at some point we (might) hypothesize, with some degree of phobic trepidation, that our subconscious refuse centre, perhaps on automatic, cleans house. We are rational beings, different from many other known species of beings or forms, having ‘variable’ abilities, or reasons to retain information about the recent present or past. Of course, one’s sense of ‘reality’ for each of us is also variable, predicated on our personalized, rationalized life-experiences. Generally, our personal intuits are drawn from previously experienced life-exposure opportunities for ‘personalized’ interpretations of experiences and events; the emphasis on the ‘personalized’. We have limited abilities to retain any information on a day to day basis, let alone through years of congested, personalized real-life experiences...not always good. To your point, I believe each of us has personally stylized (inherited) cognitive filters; with experientially related, pre-determined settings for cognitive retention purposes i.e. emotive-determining filters. Take, for example, your recent column on the Mount Cashel boys; trauma, and/or the absence of ‘quiet emotional occasion’ for many of these boys to cognitively digest, retain, or emotively desire to recall personal details of their trials through the years, is an example of case in point. My recall is that none of them rushed to a microphone to tell their stories, as there was no perceived utility in it for them, per their emotional lens. The question you pose, from my perspective, is a very personal one, specific to each one of us, not that you suggested otherwise. We spend most of our lives in a very utilitarian environment, where every thought, desire, feeling, touch has a purpose, realized or not. There is nothing…that just simply ‘is’. ‘Where do those things go, these things that I remember, when I am gone, you asked; I would suggest, Russell, that they cease to exist…for/with you… as you cease to exist, they cease to have purpose.