It feels like it was a cool fall morning, but considering that it was Southern California, it may have been any time of year. Dad and I drove out to the edge of East County, where suburbia gives way to rolling brown hillsides of chaparral. Just off the freeway, in a community of widely spaced houses and unnecessarily gridded streets, we met some of his friends from college and some of their sons at a grassless baseball field. We were there to dig out the pitcher’s mound. I had, and still have, no idea why.
And then, like now, I didn’t care why we were digging out a pitcher’s mound nearly an hour from our house. I was going to spend the day with my dad – that was what mattered. That is what I remember.
I think of that day often for some reason. Removing a hard packed pile of dirt from a field on which I, nor anyone else I know, ever played anything doesn’t seem like something that would really stick with me, but that day has.
I find it interesting the memories that hold on and the ones that fade away and I wonder what the mechanism is driving all of that. I’m sure there is some neurological explanation that would answer a lot but amount to little. Deeper than electrical pulses and sulci, though, I think some memories, like that day with Dad, hang around because they represent more than what is on the surface. Memories are the artwork of our lives, broad murals perhaps, where the painter chooses otherwise mundane moments with deeper meaning to illustrate emotion and connection hidden behind the details.
The details of that day seem clear nearly thirty years later. We drove out in Dad’s rust-colored ’54 Chevy pick-up with a 3-speed H-shifter on the column, bouncing down the freeway much slower than everyone else. It was overcast. Dad worked hard, as he always did – and does – doing more than his share of the digging. I only knew one of the other men, Mr. Damschen, an old football teammate of Dad’s from college. He was an imposing man and I kept looking at the stretch marks on his chest that extended up from his armpits and wondering just how much bigger he must have been at one time to have scars like that. I liked Mr. Damschen – he always treated me with kindness and respect, like all of Dad’s friends did because that’s how Dad treated me. I liked how dirty we got and I liked how the men talked like there weren’t any kids around. We stopped by 7-11 on the way home and got Big Gulps.
Memory is a funny thing, though. As much as I attribute each of those details to that day, I won’t be surprised to hear from Dad that my recollections aren’t entirely accurate. I’m sure Mr. Damschen was there, outside of that it’s possible I’m stringing together any number of other similar experiences. All of those things did happen, but when I think carefully about it I’m not sure if they all happened that day.
Whether those memories are accurate to that day or not really doesn’t matter. What matters is that those things are part of the grand, beautiful mural that is my life with my dad. That is who he is, who we are, and what we’ve done. Riding in his truck. Working hard and getting dirty. Talking as equals. Sharing simple moments and Big Gulps. And all of it draped in love and kindness and respect.
If I had the opportunity to go back to that day to see exactly what did happen, to correct any errors in my memory, I wouldn’t think it necessary. Whether or not my memory of digging up a pitcher’s mound with my father is photographically accurate makes no difference to me. It is truthful and real in that those things happened at some point or another, maybe on a day that isn’t so vividly painted into my brain. So, why would I want to edit it? What value would changing any of it hold?
Lately I have been feeling a strong pull towards minimizing stuff – possessions, things, shit accumulated over nearly forty years of living. I’ve been putting a lot of thought and energy into this and I’m finding it valuable to do. I want to shed myself of the physical, to allow my energy to be uncluttered. To be clear, I am not trying to rid myself of the past, rather I am embracing where the past has brought me and focusing on now.
Lots of the things I have been sorting through went away without a thought, like speakers that haven’t produced sound in a decade. Some took a little more reflection on the goal of downsizing material possessions, like books I’ve already read but deeply loved. Most recently on this path I was faced with a much more emotional challenge, though – sorting through thousands of old photographs.
Initially, I wasn’t sure how many I would be able to part with. Isn’t it pictures that you are supposed to grab right after the kids if there is a fire? Aren’t pictures supposed to be forever or something? It didn’t seem right somehow to even consider throwing any away.
Sifting through years and years of pictures was fun, too, which would seem almost a reason in itself to save this bit of life from the great purge going on around here. Those were pictures of a lot of really good times. Laughing faces in ridiculous clothes doing ridiculous things. As I made my way through the piles, though, I found that I already have with me all that I need. All of those people who laughed with me through all of that ridiculousness are all with me, just like Dad and that pitcher’s mound. Pictures or not, the people – and their part of the mural – are all there.
I will qualify that the pictures I have from my childhood were already pretty minimal and were largely spared (plus, Mom and Dad have a ton of them). Similarly, the pictures – thousands of them – of my life with my wife and the lives of my own kids’ are digital and weren’t part of this exercise as they don’t take up any physical space. The pictures of which I am speaking come from what can be called the Epoch of Grand Irresponsibility, comprising my late teens to my late twenties. It was a wonderful moment in time, to be sure, but not one that needed to be photographically recorded to the extent in which it was. After all, you never know who might decide to run for office someday (though, certainly not me).
Don’t misunderstand, those people with whom I caravanned through this glorious and silly time are infinitely important to my life. They, like my family, are my life. But, pictures of those moments don’t make that any more or less true. Another shot of us arm in arm does not make their presence in my very being any more significant and the absence of that same picture doesn’t make their presence any less so.
I am who I am because of an infinite number of moments with the remarkable people with whom I have been lucky enough to surround myself. During most of those moments no one had a camera.
After going through thousands of pictures, I kept maybe a handful and, yes, it was an emotional experience to throw the rest away. Looking through them brought smiles to my face and a feeling of connection to the picture itself. The picture, though, is not the memory, is not the connection. My memory of the moment may be imperfect in detail, but will always be rich in connection. And the impact on my life of the people in some of those pictures will never fade.
In the end, as connected as we may feel to pictures, they are just things. What we are truly connected to are the moments that those things represent. They may make it easier to see those moments and the people that make those moments special, but the picture isn’t the memory.
When I am old and grey(er), I will think of digging up a pitcher’s mound for what may seem like no good reason and I will think of my dad and he will be right there with me. He will be there in ways that may not be accurate to that day or as clearly defined as a photograph, but he will be there in a much deeper way than any picture could portray.
And I will think of all of those people who have touched my life and shaped who I am, people I now have fewer pictures of, and I will feel the part of me that they are, too. I have put more faith into the mural of my life now that I have so many fewer pictures of the moments that make up little parts of that mural. On the surface, that may seem difficult – memories fade and maybe, too, the people in them. What I have found, though, is that the mural isn’t dependent on the perfection of the memory, nor the existence of a picture. It is the connection and the emotion that lies underneath it all that ultimately paints the mural and those are forever because those are the things that, not just the mural, but our lives themselves are made of.