November 22, 2013
Memory is a broken parachute. Full of holes.
— Amy Brill, American fiction writer
from “ReMem,” short story in One Story, September 30, 2013
I was in 11th grade, Bshop McDevitt High School in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, chemistry class, Room 53A, or 53B (memory falters here), on the ground floor of St. John’s Hall (the classrooms you entered from the narrow underpass on the driveway that led back to the football field), four seats back in the last row of what would be the teacher’s (Sr. Maria Josita’s) left, although now I am asking myself, is that where we had chemistry? There and not in the lab, upstairs? That is definitely the room, and I could walk in there today and take the precise seat (I have done that, on visits back), had I access, which, for reasons too complicated to go into here, I do not.
It was probably after 1:30, and I heard the loudspeaker come on with a click, but not the bell that heralded an announcement, just something that sounded like static. I knew we were going to an assembly, the glee club from the University of Scranton, but it was too early for that. A classmate and I have had a disagreement about exactly when and how were were told of President Kennedy’s death. I say we learned it there, in our last class period of the day. He says we were told by our principal after we were all seated in the gymnasium/auditorium.
A Facebook friend, who was a faculty member there that day, confirms that my classmate and I are both right. We were initially told that the President had been shot and that his condition was quite serious. Our principal announced the death after we were all seated in the auditorium, and I could walk to that spot today as well — juniors and seniors sat in folding chairs on the gym floor when the space was turned into an auditorium. The chairs faced the west wall (opposite the entrance doors). I was on the north side, below the permanent bleachers, opposite the stage. I had already been there once that day, for our regular Friday Mass, although I had sat with the Schola Cantorum (girls’ small ensemble that sang for Mass) near the dais that served as an altar.
At Bread Loaf in 2004, or maybe 2005, Carol Anshaw led a class in generating fiction by writing what you don’t remember. Take something that happened to you when you were between seven and fifteen years old, and list the things you don’t remember. I was sixteen that Friday afternoon fifty years ago. I don’t remember what I was wearing. I don’t remember how I got home (this was the year before I rode with a girlfriend who had a 1960 green Ford Anglia), I don’t remember how I passed the evening.
“ReMem,” Amy Brill’s story from which I have taken the epigraph for this piece, is set in the future, although not very far: 2045. In that world, people don’t have to remember anything. Everything they do is recorded digitally and uploaded to a cloud that they can access at will, giving everyone a virtual eidetic memory. An individual can relive pleasant memories, alter or delete others, access the look and the feel, even the fragrance, of loved ones who are no longer present.
I think I’d like to have that capacity, at least for a while. Yesterday, trying to remember what class I was in that afternoon in 1963, in Room 53A (or maybe 53B), if not chemistry class, I made a list of all my eleventh grade classes: Latin III, Sr. Euphemia; Religion, Sr. Myra; U.S. History, Mrs. Parks; Chemistry, Sr. Maria Josita; English, Sr. Mary Georgina; Algebra II — and here I have to look in the yearbook. Was it Mr. Losik, whom we referred to as “Bob the Body” (although not to his face)? Mr. Kostelac? Sr. Mary Raphael (whom we called “Ralph,” again, not to her face). I do not remember. that and other things about that day, that time in my life. And I would like to.