Thursday, November 5, 2009

Remembering Saint Crispin

One of the best things about moving back to my home town is that my sons now attend school at my own alma mater. Because our town is small and my husband's job hours are somewhat flexible, we try to meet our boys every Friday at school to eat lunch as a family. It at first brought on a strong sense of dej√† vu to be munching potato chips in the same room where I had spent so many lunch hours as a kid. Some of my own teachers are still there, patrolling the tables, conversing with students, and drinking half-pint cartons of milk. I can only imagine how many thousands of peanut butter sandwiches my old teachers have seen devoured in that room over the years. And after a couple of decades in the classroom, those teachers must have a hard time remembering our names, let alone the blurred succession of individual events that made up our lives during those years—events that stand out clearly in our own memories as momentous, even formative.

So I was pleasantly surprised recently, on Saint Crispin's Day to be exact, when of my teachers from high school strolled up to me at the lunch table to chat about old times. He informed me that one of his current students had just come close to winning the "Hannah" award. I looked blank. He continued, "Yeah, the 'Hannah' award! For the best Saint Crispin's Day speech ever delivered in one of my classes." I raised my eyebrows. He added, "I still have my students recite that speech on this day every year, but your speech set the gold standard. This is the closest anyone's come yet to matching your presentation. All others pale in comparison."

Well, hurrah for Henry V and all that. I, being human, am not one to disbelieve high praise such as this. Deride me for my shortcomings, and I am likely to shrug, to argue, to disbelieve. But laud me for being the "gold standard," in however minute an achievement, and I am happy to believe what you say. I might be startled, at first, by the compliment. I might half-heartedly protest. But I will relish it, and I will quickly decide it must be true. Pride feeds on trifles. I do like to have others think well of my accomplishments...

...unless I did not, in fact, do the thing for which I am being congratulated.

Memory is a mystery. How judges can determine guilt or innocence, based on the testimonies of witnesses that happen to be human, is also a mystery. Where were you on the night of November 5, 2009? A year from now, a month from now, maybe even on the morning of November 6, 2009, the recollection might be hazy. It will certainly be biased. It may even be gone.

As a mother, I am asked at various times each day to be judge (or jury or prosecutor or sometimes defendant.) But discerning what happened, even when I'm the one who did it ("Did I really say you could have another piece of candy?") is not easy. When one child lies howling on the floor, one child stands pointing a finger, and one child talks incoherently at the ceiling, piecing together the truth of what took place can seem impossible. Each child recalls the incident differently; each saw the moment from a unique angle, and each has interpreted the event in the light that shines most favorably upon himself. The memories of all three are suspect. I may not be wearing a black robe, but I preside over these little court cases everyday. Maybe I should ask my kids to address me as Your Honor. "Honor thy father and thy mother" has connotations I never considered before becoming a parent. I want a gavel for Christmas.

If young children, with steel-trap memories, cannot be trusted as reliable witnesses, how can we grownups, with our multiple commitments and distractions and our longer lives, hope to get the details of our stories right? My husband read one of my blog posts from last month, and commented that I had left out some important details. But, I maintain, those details were not so important. Forgettable, really. I am sure I will forget them. And then we will wonder someday, as we recount the circumstances to one another, whether we are speaking about the same incident at all.

Of course I understand that not all memories can be so haphazardly kept; some truths must never, at the peril of body and soul, be forgotten. And some truths must not, at the peril of soul, be remembered. But all those truths and fictions in between are, as far as I can tell, a collection to cherish and bequeath, or a heap to relinquish and neglect, at will. As a parent I often wonder into which category my children will stash the events of their own lives.

My husband has carried on an agreeable disagreement with his brother for many, many years now. The question is: Whose bike was it? What happened to the bike and how is another story. But the laughable argument arises at family holidays, when each man adamantly maintains that it happened to his bike.

My brother and I also grew up in the same house. But at times, you'd never know it. I realize now that my parents had little control over what experiences we would carry with us. We lived in Warsaw for a bit when I was 13, and what stands out in memory is not what adults might expect. We visited some palaces and walked through some Polish museums. But those memories are cloudy. What I recall clearly is playing with Legos on the floor, next to the funky couch that folded out into a bed but wasn't a futon. And unfiltered coffee with grounds clogging the bottom of the cup. And the pastry we thought contained chocolate filling but turned out to be packed with a solid layer of poppyseeds. And I remember the day the Pepsi bottle smashed on the slushy train tracks, when the meat fell in the mud puddle, and Mom came home and cried. Many of my brother's childhood memories are probably the same. But I know that some are more different than I would have expected. We knew the same people. We took the same vacations. We went to the same school. I think. I was there. Or so I remember.

My teacher, I am certain, was there as well. He was an eye witness. And he remembered my Saint Crispin's Day speech to be the best ever delivered on the lunch room stage. But I do not recall it. I am certain I did not do it. I never memorized any portion of Henry V. I wish I had. Against my teacher's repeated protestations that it was me, I maintained that I had no memory of that day. I would like to be remembered well. Of course I would. But only for what I have actually done.

A few days later, my teacher found me again to inform me that he had, indeed, made a mistake. He had replaced another girl's face with mine, because he had been talking, with another of my old teachers, about a thesis paper I had written on "Bad Words." I do remember doing that. But some other girl had made the gold-standard Saint Crispin's Day speech. And she will be remembered for it. And I have a feeling that I will remember this amusing mix-up whenever I hear the Saint Crispin's Day speech in years to come. Some things are worth committing to memory.

This story shall the good man teach his son;
And Crispin Crispian shall ne'er go by,
From this day to the ending of the world,
But we in it shall be remembered—
We few, we happy few, we band of brothers.


Ali Tong said...

I was just thinking about that movie this evening, more specifically the Non Nobis song, which for some reason popped into my head while eating dinner.

Great post.

Kjerste said...


Hans and I share many memories, but with different outcomes. I always play the older sister card and tell him I'm right. Recently Erika and I decided that it doesn't really mater what the "real" story was. It's all in the telling. Truth is relative.

Drives our husbands crazy. ;)

Erika said...

Haha, I was going to say pretty much what Kjerste said, good thing I read the comments before I typed away.

And it really does drive our husbands crazy.

Bev Atwood said...

And I remember you being 12, not 13, in Warsaw (which sounds better when playing with Legos anyway).
Love, Mom

J. C. Schaap said...

That you can write doesn't surprise me in the least. I saw it years ago. jcs

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