Posted by: Harold Knight | 03/17/2011

“. . . to help one relive positive memories more vividly.”

Today I begin a process most of us have to complete at some point in our lives. I begin sorting boxes of my father’s papers.

I have in my possession most of the paper and memorabilia trail of two lives and bits and pieces of others’ archives and keepsakes. My ex-wife left a condo full of personal and family memorabilia of which I, as executor of her estate, had to dispose. My late partner left me much of the accoutrement of his life when he died. His brother has their family’s keepsakes.

Most of the stuff-‘n-things I have in storage are place-holders, that is they hold the place of memories I can’t let go of but don’t know how to process or keep vibrant. Some stuff I keep out of a sense that I’m honoring the person it represents—my ex-wife’s sixty years of journals, for example. Those books represent an entire private life. They are useless. I should throw them out. But I cannot simply put into a landfill the private self-revelatory writing of her life—her life inextricably intertwined with mine.

There is more. My grandmother’s sewing machine. Her father’s chair. Samples of my mother’s crocheting. Her parents’ wedding photo.  More.

When my partner died, he had reel-to-reel tape recordings of years of the Metropolitan Opera Saturday broadcasts. They were an important part of the life of his inner world, and they were a tangible sign of one inner reality that brought us together—the love of opera. A singer friend took the whole lot, tapes, cabinet, and reel-to-reel player. She still uses them to study performance practices of the greatest singers. She never knew my partner. The tapes are not important. Memories of operas we heard together are.

Now my family must remove my father’s papers from storage. This is not a postmortem for him. He is with us yet. But he has moved into nursing care, and we must dispose of his possessions. The bulk of his papers are most likely useless. However, to me some of them are priceless—but not the paper itself. I will dispose of the paper. It’s the ideas I’m after because

mental imagery seems to help one relive positive memories more vividly[than memorabilia], and these vividly rekindled positive feelings appear to ‘‘rub off’’ on the individual over time (1).

The ideas, in this case, are my father’s sermons. That they are on paper is truly remarkable. My father preached regularly for over fifty years. Figuring 52 Sunday sermons per year and incidental sermons on special occasions, it’s likely he preached more than 3,000 times (far more) in his career. At about the time I was born he began saving the written material for each sermon, usually the entire sermon.

I plan to cull several sermons he preached and later revised to use again (sometimes as many as five or six times) and record changes in his scholarship and thought. I hope to discover the changes and growth of his spiritual life over the decades.

I’m not sure if my purpose is for him—to record his life’s work and keep his memory alive for those who have known him—or for me—to discover in a new way to remember the man I know so well, yet—because I am only his son—do not know at all. I want to keep a record of the life of his mind and spirit, not the words on thousands of pieces of paper because

. . . externally based aids to reminiscence tend to restrict one solely to details of the past event that are represented by the particular external object. . . making one less likely to recall other details, such as thoughts and feelings, that are not represented externally (2).

I own many of Dad’s books. I own his desk chair. I have copies of his books of the history of our family. I want a way to keep him, the man, my father, alive in my memory. I hope to do that through “cognitive imagery” because it

When the words are gone

When the words are gone

. . .  may allow [me] more freedom to actively embellish memory and to recall a wider range of details about the past event[s] through free-association or active fantasy. . . [because] relying on memorabilia to reminisce requires one to have the physical object at hand, unlike relying on cognitive imagery, which is always present (3).

As every 66-year-old will acknowledge, recall and reminiscence become over the years an (almost inordinately) important part of what one does (is). In the past eight years my ex-wife, my partner, one of my closest friends of thirty years, my mother, my brother-in-law, and a special friend—my intellectual soul-mate—have died. Remembering them and reminiscing about the ways in which they are a part of me becomes more important, not less, as time passes. Memory incorporates itself more fully as part of me because loss

. . .  poses a fundamental challenge to [my] identity, goals, plans, and dreams. . .  Individuals experiencing complicated grief have particular difficulties reclaiming hope in this mental state. . . research has shifted away from the opinion that it is healthy to break bonds with a loved one toward a view that healthy grief involves continuing bonds with deceased loved ones through conversation and memory (4).

My father’s achievement is singular. He is not possessed of the kind of genius, flashes of which overwhelm and inspire others in his preaching.  He is possessed of a dogged determination to understand, a sense of a calling to know and explain truths. He has used his intellectual powers more fully than anyone else I know. He would have been the kind of student I most cared about—not one for whom study is easy, but one whose dedication and discipline achieve wonders. His life is words, disciplined words. I hope to capture his use of words in order to

facilitate the positive affective consequences of reminiscence more than merely reflecting on external objects associated with these memories. . . cognitive imagery produce[s] more vivid recall, but [does] not increase the amount of recalled detail. . .and vividness predict[s] increases in happiness, whereas an amount of recalled detail [does] not. Thus. . . mental imagery [seems] to help one relive positive memories more vividly [than recalled details] (5).

I am not, in some ways, the person to try to help anyone relive vivid memories of my father. I am too close. And I no longer believe most of what he preached. I will be less sympathetic to the content of his sermons than to the mind and spirit of the man they reveal. I want to know and remember—and perhaps to share—the story of this man who is my . . . [I don’t know which of the thousand endings of this sentence to write].

In trying my hand at this process, I assume “people are wired to respond more to the logic of stories than to the syllogisms of formal logic,” and that “telling [another’s] life story may become “a mechanism for highlighting the meaning and purpose of [his] life” (6).

My father said recently, struggling to recount some event in his life, “When the words are gone, I am done.” Perhaps.
(1) Bryant, Fred B., Colette M. Smart, and Scott P. King. “Using the Past to Enhance the Present: Boosting Happiness through Positive Reminiscence.” Journal of Happiness Studies 6.3 (2005): 227-260.
(2) Ibid.
(3) Ibid.
(4) Gershman, Nancy, and Jenna Baddeley. “Prescriptive Photomontage: A process and product for meaning-seekers with complicated grief.” Annals of the American Psychotherapy Association 13.3 (2010): 28-81.
(5) Bryant et al, Ibid.
(6) Schenck, David, and Lori Roscoe. “In Search of a Good Death.” Journal of Medical Humanities 30.1 (2009): 61-72.


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