THE MEMORY JAR
Adena Graham’s heart-rending short story drops us into the lives of a devoted couple who grow increasingly dependent on their collection of memory jars.
Most days they would add an event, however small, to the memory jar. At first, at the start of the year, the slips of paper – torn from napkins, Post-It notes, newspaper edges, feint-ruled notebooks, or whatever else they had to hand – would flutter down like promises, settling on the bottom. But by the end of the year, they would have to push the paper in, layering new memories thickly on top of old ones.
There was no real system for determining what got added to the jar, simply that it had to mean something to both of them. Sometimes, it was a small memory, something that anyone else might regard as inconsequential: sitting on a bench enjoying an ice cream, or finding a stretch of beach with nobody else on it.
Often, the note would make little sense to an outsider, such as Archie’s cryptic ‘Hash browns all round!!’ or Didi’s ‘Page 98 mastered!’ – which referred to her finally nailing the recipe for Archie’s favourite short crust pastry. Other events were huge. A ‘welcome to the world Hannah, 7lbs 2oz’ type huge. The only rule they had for the jar was that they weren’t allowed to look at their notes until it had been filled with a year’s worth of memories. Then on the anniversary of the first jar-filling – August 30th, some forty years before – they would sit down and unfold the notes from the previous year.
As the pieces of paper unfurled, their hearts and minds would follow suit. Things they hadn’t thought about for twelve months – small events they might otherwise have forgotten – were relived, and their languorous meanderings down memory lane would draw them even closer together.
Visitors to their home always commented on the glass jars scattered about the place. Didi had never really gone in for ornaments, and those old cookie jars and jam jars were her own peculiar way of breathing life into the house. She often commented that they were more colourful than anything she could hang on the walls or place on a shelf anyway – because, inside, nestled a myriad of technicolour memories.
Although they weren’t permitted to open their current jar before the year was out, Didi and Archie did allow themselves to sort through old jars. Some nights they would turn off the television and select a jar at random, dipping their hands excitedly into the wispy mess before extracting a sliver of paper yellowed with age. Then they would walk down paths that had been lost in the chaos of time, re-treading routes that made them feel young again and full of possibilities.
Archie had entirely forgotten about a brief yet fun-filled weekend in the New Forest when they were in their early thirties – and when he saw Didi’s delicate handwriting proclaiming, ‘My Archie and I are in pony-heaven. If I died today, here in the New Forest, I would die happy’, a tear rolled down his cheek. Because, now, Didi really was dying. Not her body though. In fact, Archie might have been able to tolerate that better; a disassembling of her physical self, thwarted by something ‘knowable’ such as cancer or kidney disease. No, it was her mind that was dying. Slowly, day by day, little by little. Some mornings he would wake to find her staring at him blankly, her brain struggling to catch up with the reality that, beside her, lay her husband of fifty years. Then, gradually, her eyes would lighten with the remembrance of familiarity and she would smile at him and grasp his hand beneath the tangle of their bed sheets.
Of course, his main worry was that one day she would wake and wouldn’t remember him at all. Not even as the minutes and hours ticked by. Indeed, it seemed he was losing her more and more lately, and those blank morning-eyes of hers were becoming common during waking hours too. It scared him, because if she lost him, then he would lose her also. After all, what was Didi without Archie, and what was Archie without Didi?
On one occasion, he had walked into the kitchen and Didi had spun round, startled, as though unaware that there had ever been another presence in the house. She stood silently, dangling a teaspoon over one cup of tea (having forgotten there was a second cup to be made, for another person) and, although she showed no alarm at his existence (indicating, on some level, that she realised he ought, rightfully, to be there), her countenance was one devoid of any love or memories.
So Archie did the only thing he knew how – he began filling the memory jar more. As Didi’s brain emptied out its latest recollections and tossed them aside, he replaced them, one by one. He gathered together all that was left of her and distilled it into a large glass receptacle. For when Didi was there – present and herself – she was, as she had always been, truly there. His Didi lived in the moment. She laughed readily and, even on aging legs, danced whenever she could. He would whisk her around the room, muttering into her hair, ‘Remember. Remember, my love’. And there, in those moments, he felt he adored her more than ever. For as her recollections faded, his became sharper and came quicker – he was remembering for both of them.
Soon, the jar became too full – the first time that had ever happened – so he started another. Now, those elements of their life together which had seemed so mundane became relevant. Precious even. A breakfast spent nibbling on toast, slathered with Didi’s homemade apple jam, was a veritable feast. Something worth noting and popping into the jar. Remember how that toast crumbled, Didi, sending a trickle of butter down my chin that made you laugh out loud? Remember the sight this morning of that first crocus bud poking through and how you patted its small head like you would a child’s? And do you remember how William, our grandson, threw a toy at the cat which sent her sulking under the bed for two hours? Do you remember? Do you remember? Do you remember?
Do you remember. It became like a prayer to Archie, a refrain that he would repeat, both to himself, and to Didi. And she would remember. Sometimes, just as he felt he was losing her, he would take her hand and sit her down, opening the jar and reading those memories out loud. Then, her eyes would become clear and she would nod, eagerly, basking in that ability which had come so naturally before – to journey through one’s own history.
Eventually, despite his best efforts, Didi succumbed entirely to the foggy tendrils which clawed at her brain, and as though defeated, her body followed suit. She grew frail and her breathing laboured. When he sensed the end was near, Archie loaded the car with all their jars and set off with Didi in the passenger seat, staring blankly ahead.
The New Forest opened up like a verdant oasis and, on seeing it, Didi’s eyes brightened. Whether it was with the memory of it, or the sheer joy of a fresh experience, Archie couldn’t tell. They had a final three months together there, in a rented cottage, and each day, however hopeless he felt, Archie made sure he added something new to the jar – for nothing could be more precious than the memory of something he sensed he was about to lose.
On the day Didi finally died, it was surrounded by an array of glassware, inside of which, was the story of their life together. It had, he hoped, been good enough for her.
A few hours after she had taken her final breath, Archie wrote one last note – the only note he’d ever written alone. ‘Goodbye my love, and thank you’. Folding it tightly, he added it to the jar. Their journey together was over, there were no more memories to be made.
As the sun slipped lower in the sky, turning the glass a deep orange, Archie’s hand reached for the first jar they had made, when they were young and breathless with excitement at where their lives would take them: two adventurers starting out on life’s big journey.
It was time, now, to retrace those steps.
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