A friend and I were hanging out at her shop, Ruby’s Garden, the other day, lounging on the big red couch and chatting about whether it’s possible to have too many stylish bags (probably not), the pros and cons of her business being next door to a popular bakery (more pros than cons), and the possibility of refurbishing her basement into a kind of mommy speakeasy (Project Runway, chips and guacamole…mojitos?). A woman came in with her little girl to browse and joined in our chat and because I had my poodles with me, we got to talking about dogs, how poodles are awesome because they don’t shed and how she has two dogs herself, not poodles though, named Zoe and Tosca, which reminded me of the time that I saw a performance of Tosca at the London Coliseum the summer of 1991 after I graduated from college.
My mom and stepdad were living in Richmond, a borough of London. We must have taken the District Line to the Embankment station and walked to the Coliseum from there. I remember the steamy city air on the way to the theater, a cavernous space that boasts 2,359 seats and the widest proscenium arch in London at 55 feet wide and 34 feet high. The three of us got there a little early so we drank some beer and when it was time for the performance to start we found our seats and struggled through the melodrama that is Tosca. In Italian, with English subtitles on these huge Jumbotron screens hanging everywhere.
I hadn’t thought about that particular experience in years and here it was, sparked by a short conversation about that woman’s dog. It pleased me to remember this, seeing Tosca in London in 1991, because the memory was so random and exotic and concrete. And I had forgotten it.
Think about how packed each of us is with memories of everything we’ve ever seen or heard or felt. Seven billion individuals on the planet, each with a kaleidoscope of experiences. It boggles the mind – the unrecorded beauty and pain, all these “story slices” (as writer and teacher Laurie Wagner calls them) that remain untold. Because not only do I forget my own memories, but I also will never hear more than a fraction of those my family and friends carry around, much less all the strangers.
My mother told me recently about a friend she had when she was about nine. The friend had polio and used leg braces; walking long distances was painful for her. One rainy afternoon after school the two of them had trekked to the friend’s house only to discover that no one was home and my mother’s friend didn’t have the key. So they walked to my mother’s house, her friend getting increasingly tired and uncomfortable, my mother getting more and more worried that it was not the right thing to do and that her own mother would not approve of her bringing a friend home. But when they arrived my grandmother opened the door, helped both girls get dry and gave them a snack. “You did the right thing,” she told my mother later.
It was a story slice. I could feel how it opened a new understanding of my mother and her mother and what it was like to be nine in 1951, in Southern California, and I was grateful.
I guess what I’m really talking about is the mysterious opacity of human history. There’s a real loss in not knowing what the people of Pompeii were doing the day the volcano erupted, or who made the sagebrush bark sandals archeologists found in Oregon in 1938, buried below a layer of Mazama Ash deposited by the explosion that formed Crater Lake. What did Celtic warriors think about when they stained their faces with woad before battle? What actually happened in the 16th century to the “Lost Colony” at Roanoke? And what motivated John Wilkes Booth to assassinate Lincoln? Big events like these and small, daily ones — it’s all so much collective life experience, unnamed. Unless we’re lucky and a memory like hearing Tosca in London flares up, kindled by a chance conversation.