I can think of no more fitting title for today’s post than to reference Marcel Proust’s novel, A La Recherche du Temps Perdu, popularly translated as In Search of Lost Time or, Remembrance of Things Past.
His novel explores the notion of involuntary memory, with the famous ‘madeleine and tea’ episode, which brought to Proust, poignant memories of his childhood. Alas, I have read few of the almost 1.5 million words of the novel which remains, I believe, one of the longest in world literature.
My ‘madeleine moment’ has been inspired by a recent journey home, to the high-ways and by-ways of my childhood. In this ever busy life, moments for reflection seem rare and chances to wallow in the mellow moments of our younger days rarer still. Yet this last journey home brought forth such a myriad memories of the people and places who populated my past, that I have felt a compulsion to write.
My past and my formative years were spent living and working within the small collection of villages known as the Haywoods, in Staffordshire. A move across the county borders to Warwickshire in 1993 has meant that for the past 18 years, I have travelled the same homeward route to visit family and friends each month for almost two decades.
On this journey home several insignificant incidents stirred a great mass of confused, conflicting emotion, that is that poignant yearning for the innocence and freedom of youth, and the marker for time passing. R L Stevenson once wrote, speaking rather soberly of marriage –
Times are changed with him who marries: there are no more bypath meadows where you may innocently linger, but the road lies long and straight and dusty to the grave.
Marriage aside, I have pondered a good deal those bypath meadows, and how long and straight and dusty lies the road ahead.
The past holds us in its thrall, so much so that we struggle sometimes when memories flood our mind, as vibrant and fresh as the moment they first formed, but with the bitter-sweet agony that this is a past lost to us forever.
A walk in the village took me past a solitary horse, grazing in pasture land that runs beside the railway line. The horse raised her head in observation and in an instant, that single insignificant action brought forth with great clarity, a series of memories. I recalled the Summer of my eighteenth year when I searched to find temporary grazing for my beloved horse. I was offered a field before the railway line, then a long stretch of infrequently grazed land that ran some length beside the high boundary of the railway track. My horse preferred the grazing at the far end of that interminable stretch of land, testing my patience and time on a daily basis. Now, the land is neatly divided into grazing strips, a land management practice I fail to appreciate and lament. The horse I observed could wander no further than the eye could see, but in that Summer of my eighteenth year, my horse wandered freely in land that stretched far from sight, oblivious to my call.
On my return I met a man whose face was familiar but whose name eluded me. We stopped and chatted, and as we spoke, the context and occasion of our acquaintaince made themselves clear. We had both been employed by the same boat-hire company each Saturday during the boating season, almost three decades before. In my teen years, I worked out of school to earn the keep for my horse. It was never part of the equation that my parents would pay for my horse’s keep – it was my responsibility and I carried that out to the best of my ability. The task of finding grazing had been one that troubled me considerably. Perhaps that is why the sight of the horse, lifting her head as I passed by, brought back so many memories, or perhaps I was simply more reflective and open to the echoes of the footsteps of my past.
Many similar incidents, on this journey home, so inconsequential they barely register, seemed to me filled with sudden and great significance. How much of my life and my memories of my early life is entwined in these villages. The past is waiting in us all, for that moment when it shall be unlocked, when it shall be released.
Finally, I will close with a visit to my Great Aunt Edna, 90 years old and recently moved to a nursing home in a rural setting. My Great Aunt has desended into dementia, although I am ever saddened that not much more than a year ago she lived relatively independently with daily support, but still cooking her own meals and maintaining her home. It has been distressing to see this sudden decline. The nursing home will be her final resting place, I have no doubt.
My Great Aunt, anxious not to appear rude, was apologetic that she had forgotten my name. She wanted to reassure me that she knew me still, but she couldn’t keep names in her head. It was unbearably moving when she said –
‘I seem to have been dreaming about all the family lately, about your children, everyone. I can’t remember their names, but I do know them. You won’t forget me, will you?’
What do we have left, when the words escape our mind, and our thoughts refuse to be gathered? It is our memories that remain; they sing to us as distant birds on the wing, or haunt our dreams with stories of our past.