House of Memory

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By NINA BERGBAUER
Assistant Literary Editor
Published: December 10, 2014

About a year ago, just after my grandmother was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease, I remember listening to the doctor’s explanation of the disease and what lies ahead. He compared the patient’s mind to a cluttered closet whose door won’t stay shut – each time the door flies open, more and more objects fall out of the closet, never to be recovered, hence my grandmother’s inability to recover countless memories that were once safely stored in her mind, now nowhere to be found. While Alzheimer medications can slow the rate at which memories escape the mind, they’re unable to fix the broken door, to stop the mind from letting these memories exit.

I find the use of a closet metaphor when describing a memory disease interesting, given the closet’s location within the home – that universal symbol of stability – where our memories are safely stored away, even after we leave. Growing up, I never feared leaving my house or even my state the way my friends did. I wasn’t leaving any memories behind, because my house would preserve them, would remember them, for me. Whenever I returned, my house would be there to remind me of them.  

But when I visited home for Thanksgiving, I was forced to learn otherwise. With their children all moved out, my parents recently decided to sell their house. Little did I know when I arrived, I was returning not to a home but to a house newly on the market – freshly painted and redecorated, its memory wiped clean. Gone were the family photographs (prospective buyers don’t want to see your family in the house but want to envision their own there), and in their place hung unfamiliar abstract paintings that could tell me nothing about my brother’s haircut at his high school graduation or the dress I wore on picture day in second grade. My house itself had Alzheimer’s, and as we know, there is no cure.

 I realized that’s the trouble of allowing physical objects to do the work of remembering for you. We can let a house or a closet symbolize a space for memory-storage, but ultimately we are responsible for keeping those memories alive in our minds. Like my grandmother, one day I too might lose the ability to hold these memories within me, to keep my mind’s closet door shut tight. But in the meantime I want to cherish it. The day my own closet door flies open, I want my closet to be full.