Gramps Anthony's system of mnemonics enabled him to remember
"As a youngster, don't you know (the word youngster, a tinkly
dinner bell in lean and hungry times, caused a few of them to sit
up straighter, caused others to realize for the first time that
someone was speaking to them), "as a youngster, trying to remember
the names and dates of all those presidents and kings, why I'd
just, don't you know, make up one thing to remind me of another.
If it were a war we were studying, and the war had four
theaters, say, Barbaropa, Obramanie, Akeldama, and Tetrazinni, I'd
just remember the word, the word, ah, boat. Yes, yes, that's it! Boat!"
His listeners were slower to think of it than he was—if they
thought about it at all. The old man's use of the antique names,
while a clear sign of his learning, set their little rivers of
nostalgia to flowing and, as happened so often, the time they
should have spent thinking on the problem they spent wrestling with
intractable dams and sluices.
"Yes, boat," Gramps Anthony said triumphantly, rolling the
word across his lips as if it were a special word, a magical word,
a word so full of associations he hated to give it up.
On his right, someone coughed: a guttural noise that sounded
like rocks being caught in a lawn mower. The embarrassed cougher
cleared his throat, gargled moistly, and spit into a tissue.
Ignoring the disturbance, Gramps Anthony went on.
"Now, if I had to remember a date, or series of dates, don't
you know, why I'd just make them into patterns, arrangements, and
multiples of one another. The sixteenth century was the easiest. The house I grew up in was numbered 1549, so I matched
earlier dates with houses on the left, and later dates with houses
on the right. After that I could picture the century sweeping in
under the railroad trestle over the Post Road, flowing behind the
dried-up creek bed beside the woods, coursing down the middle of
our street, and trailing off behind the Vanity Place Shopping
Center. Mrs. Miggins, our neighbor Mrs. Miggins picking up the
morning paper in her bright red robe—Mrs. Miggins represented for
me the Edict of Nantes. The Saint Bartholomew's Day Massacre, let's
see, that would have been 1572, 1572, I think it was, was where
Tommy and Joey Kindling lived. And across the street on those
beautiful, crystal-clear days in late fall, Mr. Driscoll raked leaves
in front of the Battle of Lepanto."
A deeply peaceful snoring from the back of the room was caught
up short in mid-breath. There was a surprised cough, a moment of
silence, then the resumption of snoring.
Was any of this getting through to them? Could he detect
anything in their expressions to suggest that the barest hint of
sunlight was radiating out over the soggy tidal pools of remembrance?
Fearful of losing what little beachhead he had established, Gramps
Anthony summoned up his energy, and pushed on.
"Do you see how logical it was? In my mind, Queen Elizabeth
passed her final days in the junkyard behind the Two Guys Auto
Repair Shop down—where my parents never liked me to go—on the
other side of Havenold Avenue."
On his right, the footplate of a wheelchair fell down, and
with an angry squeak was kicked back up. And fell down again.
"It was just a matter of making a correspondence, don't you
see, a correspondence between one thing and another. Here's another
example. I had to remember the date 1807, once. Well, there was an
old tumbledown picket fence surrounding our property, and in the
rear of the back yard, behind the willow tree, there was a place
where one of the slats had broken off. Next to it there was a slat
that was intact, then a space where a slat was missing, and finally
a slat almost as tall as the second. It was a kind of figure for
'1807,' don't you see. That section of the fence had that kind of
feeling. And I had only to think of the fence, or of the yard, or
all the fun us kids used to have playing there, to be reminded of
it. But since fun is something everyone remembers, why, I didn't have to think of anything. The date was just there in my mind like
any pleasant thought."
Fun. Pleasant thought. The words punctuated the dozy silence
like rifle shots in a marshy swamp. Leave it to Gramps Anthony to
bring cheer to a drab, cloudy afternoon, leave it to Gramps Anthony
to brighten a day as endless as this one. At least that was the
meaning of the glance that Miss McCreary shot Miss Murdock, both
of whom were quite dried out now, and alert.
"When I went on to my studies in ancient history, and to
the various, ah, books I wrote, I naturally needed mnemonic devices
of greater scope and versatility. It was about this time that I
devised a system of notations using colored pencils—let's see, I
think there were, ah, fifteen colors in all—that could reduce the
movements of whole armies, the migrations of whole races, to a few
curves and curlicues. A little hash mark in brown, don't you know,
would indicate the fortifications of Rameses the Second—that's
roughly 1300 to 1225 B.C.—and some wavy green lines the advance
of the violent and marauding Hittites. An orange or red triangle
might indicate the pyramid of a Cheops or Cephren, and broken blue
lines the advance of those fierce Sea Peoples. All of these
scattered about in a diagram, don't you know, so as to reduce the
history of the period to an abstract picture."
On the left, there was a new spate of coughing. As a wad of
tissue was handed down the row, someone dropped a metal knitting
needle, making an ear-splitting clinnng. As folks bent over to
retrieve it, their metal folding chairs squeaked on the linoleum
But at least some of them were paying attention, he was sure
of it. When the commotion had subsided, he once again pressed on.
"Now so much was happening during those years, oh dear, so
very much, that I soon had a quite large and unruly collection of
diagrams, and got confused trying to follow my little chicken
tracks from one to the other. It was not enough to lay the pictures
side by side, don't you know. What I really wanted to do was to see through them.
I wanted to lay the dynasties and successions one on top of another
like sheets of mica, or layers of phylo dough, I wanted to build
up, and peel back, the layers of civilization as though they were
layers of pastry. And didn't I have a sweet tooth, in those days, didn't I though!"
Startled by his recollection, the old man stared off into
space for a moment, his mind apparently wandering off to a time
when he was sitting under a willow tree by a white picket fence,
eating pastry. When he eventually remembered where he was and what what he was doing, he returned to his subject.
"Now where was I? Oh yes, I remember. Well, I always say:
where there's something to be remembered, there's a mnemonic device
to help you remember it. Do any of you remember how, way back when,
textbooks and encyclopedias would use overlapping, transparent
pages to illustrate human anatomy? There would be a page for the
skeleton, a page for the circulatory system, a page for the musculature,
another for the reproductive system—this, unfortunately,
always strategically amputated—and when you turned the page it
would fit right over, and mesh with the one beneath it. Well,
that's what I did with my studies in Egyptology and Sumerology,
and the like. I drew my maps on celluloid pages, then I could
lay the Nineteenth Dynasty, say, on top of the Eighteenth, and
the Twentieth on top of the Nineteenth, I could read my little
hieroglyphs like schools of fish in clear water. I could excavate
my notebook, don't you see, the way they excavated Troy."
From the rear of the room, the sublimely self-contented
snoring droned on. A nurse appeared in a doorway, then, as though
this were not the room or these were not the people she were
looking for, darted back out. Gramps Anthony clutched the armrests
of the bumpy vinyl chair in which he was sitting—in which he had
all but sunk, like a tiny child on a throne—and rocked forward and
back until he had succeeded in raising himself out of it. As he
surveyed the gnarled and wrinkled faces before him, it seemed to him that the solarium was where he had always done his best thinking,
where he had always been at his most keen and insightful. He contemplated the
spectral presences with the kindliness of a minister getting set
to perform a baptism, and went on.
"You can remember anything, if you really want to, he said.
"You need only relate it to something you know, something that
sticks in your mind. Make a jingle, perhaps—do anything. And he
began to sing in his thin, mellifluous voice, as if from a great
distance over snow: "This is. . .the sympho-nee. . .that Schubert wrote
and never finnn-ished. . .!"
As the point seemed lost on them, he cast about for another
"The song. . .you heard. . .was Bee-thoven's Third. . . ."
This time there were several wan smiles of recognition.
Then someone sneezed, which briefly, but only briefly, startled
the person behind him who was snoring.
"The mind's harmony is the world's harmony," the old man
intoned, his voice rising with excitement. "And you can tune into
it as easily as anyone. You need only relate one thing to another.
Say it's the names of the planets you're trying to remember. It's
easy! Proceeding outward from the sun, you have Mercury, Venus,
Earth, Mars, Saturn, ah, Uranus, ahhhh, Neptune. There. You see?
'Saturn, Uranus, Neptune.' 'Sun'! Then there's Jupiter and. . .oh
what's that last one? Ah, Pluto. Yes, that's it! Pluto!"
He paused briefly and reflected on his close call.
"But you see?" he resumed. "You have only to remember the
word 'sun,' and the rest of them will fall naturally into line! Oh,
memory is a precious thing, and if you don't want to lose it, that
is, ah, lose more of it, that is what you must do: make one thing
remind you of another. Give things around you personal and
emotional significance, create a store of memories just in the way
things feel and smell. Why, I can walk down a little lane—I used
to be able to walk down a little lane, don't you know—beneath
towering elm trees or past a house bordered by a picket fence, or
a yard full of newly mown grass, and be reminded of whole areas of
learning and whole periods of my life! The house would remind me of
one thing, and that, of another. In no time at all, my thoughts
would wander off to the smell of the sea, the sound of seagulls on
windswept beaches, the tapping of heels on sidewalks on quiet summer
evenings. And at moments like this, the world would positively
sparkle. The world itself, you see, is luminous with a memory. The
world itself—taken in its entirety—is just a sign, a signal, a
beautiful mnemonic device. And it serves to remind me of, that is,
it points the way to, ahh, the world in its totality is just a
beautiful metaphor for, that is, I should say, represents...."
For the first time since he had gotten warmed up, Gramps
Anthony faltered. What did it remind him of? The world had always
been about something. What was it? Taken in its entirety it had
long called up thoughts of—what? He was certain he had known, but
it escaped him just now, he could no longer put his finger on it.
What the world—as a single, beautiful, mnemonic device—pointed
to, or reminded him of, was. . . .
His right hand, which had been poking the air for emphasis,
now moved closer to home and began sweeping imaginary crumbs from
the top of the bumpy vinyl chair, then floated aimlessly as if to
dust the air.
"oh dear," he said. "Oh dear me."
The train he was on had come to a halt, he sensed that. But
he could neither recognize the station, nor remember just why or
where he had gotten on.
"Oh dear," he repeated, to no one in particular.
Sensing a shift of mood in the room, some who had not been
paying attention looked up, and trained their eyes on him.
Yes, it had always been about something. What was it?
He cast about for an ending to his speech, formed words on
his lips, began sentences for which he could find no suitable
"Oh dear me," he whispered.
In their rows and rows of metal folding chairs, they stared
at him and waited patiently. With trembling faces and shaking
hands, scrawny fingers that clutched canes and crutches and the
armrests of wheelchairs, they stared and waited.
Suddenly, as though carried on a gentle breeze—smiling weakly
and whimpering to himself, "oh dear, oh dear me"—Gramps Anthony
ambled off, wafted through the double doors at the end of the
solarium, and like a wisp of smoke evaporated down the hall.
From the very last row, the sound of sublimely contented
snoring droned on.