Art as an Act of Memory

Memory fascinates me. In 2000, Random House published my memoir, The Last Childhood, about the impact our mother’s Alzheimer’s had on our family. As new discoveries have been made, I have recently added additional chapters. This updated version of my original book will be reissued this June by Second Wind Publishing.

I first wrote The Last Childhood in order to make sense of the loss of my mother’s memory and the shocking loss our family experienced when each of our own childhood memories disappeared from her life.

Memory is a human gift we have of preserving what we see and feel. It allows us to share what we experience and make connections with the world and the people around us. Memory is the thread that binds us to one another. Through memory we learn to love, to trust, to share. If soul is what makes us human, then perhaps memory is the thing that helps make us humane.

One of the things I learned from living with Alzheimer’s is that memory is a fundamental part of the everyday of our lives. We need to remember.

If we don’t remember the answers to the questions, we fail the test. If we don’t remember the way home, we can get lost. If we don’t remember to take the cake out of the over, it will get burnt. If we don’t remember the faces of the ones we love and who loves us, we become disconnected from our lives and the world around us. If we don’t or can’t remember, we have no past, no present, and no future. We are disconnected and all alone.

When I first began doing research about Alzheimer’s there were numerous wild theories flying about regarding the cause of the disease, including the possibility that the disease was caused by aluminum being leached from pots and pans or absorbed in our skin from deodorants that we use that are made with aluminum, and the possibility that our brains were being damaged by chemicals in the air we breathe and the fatty foods we eat. We still aren’t sure of the cause, and are still looking for a cure.

However, along the way of wild theories, one of the more far flung theories I have heard has been that our parents and grandparents were experiencing Alzheimer’s because they had lived through and fought in World War II and had seen so many horrible things, including the dropping of the atomic bomb, that they had developed the disease in order to forget.

With 9/11, Columbine, Terry Schiavo, the Indonesian and Japanese tsunamis, two Gulf Wars, Apartheid, AIDS, Biafra, Beslan, Somalia, terrorist acts and every other tragedy we’ve witnessed in recent years, what chance do we have of not developing Alzheimer’s? How will we have the courage to remember?

Artists and writers have always served as scribes for humanity. They put down in lines and colors, words and songs, what they see and feel. When we write a story, draw a picture, play music, sing a song, dance, or throw a pot, we are engaging in an act of memory. It can be the memory of a face we once saw, or how we felt when we saw the bright noonday sun cut through a grove of trees in a park, or the horrors we feel regarding the terrorism and war we have witnessed and never want to see repeated.

Basically, we want to remember. We need to remember. Memories make us happy. They can also make us sad. But whether happy or sad, memories connect us. That is why we tell stories when we sit at our kitchen tables, why we take pictures when we travel, why we send emails to our friends when we read something that moves us. We want to connect. We want our memories to mean something. We don’t want them to be lost because, in some very fundamental way, we understand that if our memories are lost, we are lost.

One of the most curious things about Alzheimer’s is that when Alzheimer’s victims have lost most of their memories and nearly all their language, if they hear a song that has some strong memory attached to it, whether it is the singing of the hymn Amazing Grace or The Old Rugged Cross, or even a song they once danced to with someone they loved, they can recall every word of the lyrics and can sing along. When they sing, their faces are no longer blank and flat, but filled wth memory in a way that can break your heart, for when the music is gone, the words and memories are gone, as well, and you know they have flown away like so many other memories and are forgotten once again.

Some researchers have suggested we can stem the tide of Alzheimer’s by doing crossword puzzles and reading books…keeping active mentally. It can’t hurt.

I believe we should make art. I think we should take some time every day to write a story, pinch a pot, take a picture, recite a poem, arrange a vase of flowers, bake a beautiful cake, sing a song, dance, or do anything to make a little art that says:

This is what I see. This is what I feel. This is what I want to remember about this day.

This is what I want you to remember about me.

Carrie Knowles,


Filed under writing

7 responses to “Art as an Act of Memory

  1. A lovely, lovely post. Thank you.

  2. Pingback: The Courage to Remember | Bertram's Blog

  3. Carrie, what a beautiful blog. I’m drawn to words, whether the words come from lines in a movie or book, or in your case, a blog. I’m drawn to them because they make me think or actually spark a memory of a distant feeling or thought. I loved these two lines in your blog: “If soul is what makes us human, then perhaps memory is the thing that helps make us humane” This is such a wonderful way of defining what makes us humane. “Artists and writers have always served as scribes for humanity. They put down in lines and colors, words and songs, what they see and feel.” I love this idea. I also paint and I have a favorite painting I did where I incorporated a quote by Mary Oliver called “A Box Full of Darkness.” When I read her words I realized that I’ve now given words to how I’ve always felt about my past. Thanks for your beautiful blog!

  4. Carrie, your post was so beautiful and profound, it left me in tears. I’m sorry you had to experience the pain of this dreadful ailment in such a personal way. Thank you for sharing with us and let us pray that a cure is near.

  5. What a beautiful post! It really makes you stop and think about how important our memories are, and how we should try to take advantage of what we have.

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