Perhaps you’ve had the experience of trying to remember something just beyond reach — an obscure word, the title of a painting, the name of a character in an old novel. You try hard to bring it up but it’s not a thing that yields to effort; indeed, the effort may drive it farther down.
I had an distressing instance of this just a few days ago. I happened to look at a scroll depicting songbirds on a branch with ripe persimmons — a scroll acquired forty-some years ago in Seoul. Like most calligraphic paintings, it has just above the artist’s name a short title in Chinese: Autumn Day, Fragrant Fruit. Looking at this, I stopped at the Chinese character signifying autumn. Of course I knew the meaning, and I knew the pure Korean word, ka’ul, but I could not remember the Sino-Korean monosyllable for the character. Absurdly, I even remembered the Japanese word for this character, aki, but the simple syllable in Sino-Korean would not come to me, even though I certainly learned it years before I knew any Japanese. How could this be?
After staring at it for a minute, waiting for it to come to the surface and waiting in vain, I turned to the bookshelf and took down the okp’yŏn, the one I bought fifty years ago at the bookstore by the Peace Corps office in Seoul, near Kwanghwamun. Using the method I learned so long ago, the method that came without thinking, I counted the strokes in the radical and then the strokes after it, and quickly found the page with the autumn character and saw the pronunciation written in the Korean phonemic alphabet, 추, and said aloud, ch’u. Of course!
How could I have forgotten this? It’s baffling. I thought of all the surrounding elements I did remember: the wonderfully simple and consistent Korean alphabet; the method of looking up a Chinese character in an okp’yŏn; that the radical for the autumn character is itself a character, one of several meaning rice, in this case rice still unharvested; that the four strokes after the radical also made a distinct character, the one meaning fire, how I first learned this decades ago and that it stayed in memory because the idea of rice unharvested together with fire was a conjunction of ideas creating an easily comprehensible pictogram for autumn. I remembered all these things — but the sound of the syllable ch’u had somehow fled. This did not seem possible. Ch’u appears in common vocabulary contexts: in the holiday Ch’usok, the Korean analog for our Thanksgiving; in ipch’u, the word for the autumn equinox; in the elegantly polite way to ask an older person’s age: Grandfather, how many springs and autumns have you passed? Well, somehow I had lost ch’u, but now I had it back, and looking again at the scroll, I could now read aloud the title, 추일향과, Ch’u Il Hyang Kwa, with a sense of life not quite so disordered.
But then I thought, what else do I not recall, what else has dropped down the memory hole? Of course the answer to this question is intrinsically unknowable, so I turned the question around: what do I remember? What far-off event or circumstance is still clear in my memory, however distant in the past? My childhood and teens do not invite close scrutiny, for they were never a source of happy thoughts, but could I remember anything altogether positive; or alternatively, was there a negative memory whose impression stays vivid?
Two such corresponding memories — one bad, one good — have always been with me, both of them from the earliest time I can recall with anything like detail. I was five years old and just about to begin my formal education in the first grade at Saint Stephen’s, a Catholic school in Canada. One memory of that time was freighted with bitterness. My first grade class was crowded — I believe around forty children or more — and all of us under the harsh eye of a diminutive nun, a woman whose ill temper more than made up for her short stature. She wore the severe habit usual in those times, the deep black of her serge tunic and veil scarcely relieved by the white of her coif and guimpe, and from her cincture hung her rosary and a stout leather strap. The strap had near daily use. In her considered judgement, one child’s misstep could be imputed to all the others, and punishment earned by one might be given to every child with salutary effect. I have a vivid memory of one such instance. Our daily work included memorizing questions and responses in the Catholic Catechism, and on this particular day, one of the boys could not answer correctly, so we were all punished with a lash across our palms from her leather strap. I still recall the sharp sting on my little hand. A teacher should deserve our respect, but clearly this teacher preferred our fear.
Is it the nature of memory that negative experience has more impact and thus lasts longer and with more detail? Does a corresponding positive memory have any chance? Yes, it seems that it does. Because the other experience from that time was something that happened the day before my first day at school. In this vivid memory, my older brother taught me how to tie my shoes. There was no Velcro then, and only well-tied laces could keep shoes on a boy’s feet. Sean sat with me on the bottom bunk bed and showed me how to do it, then made me keep doing it until I had it right. It was understood that no one at school would help me if my laces came undone, that I was on my own and entering a somewhat hostile environment. Sean was a year older than I and already a scarred and hardened veteran of the first grade at Saint Stephen’s. His help in this moment has always stayed with me, and this memory still evokes a strong sense of affection for him, that feeling which the old Greeks called philia.
Well, despite the dark episodes of my early childhood and the decade and more that followed, I came through it all with a sense of humor, for there was nothing to gain from bitterness, and tears got you nothing but scorn. And anyway, it was always more fun to laugh. I try never to think of the nun, and I always recall with a warm feeling the essential life skill I learned from my brother, together with the undeniable moral precept that we are each responsible for keeping our shoes on our feet.
And something else I may keep in mind — the pronunciation of certain Chinese characters may temporarily slip away now and then, but I’ve never forgotten how to tie my shoes.
October 23, 2020