Memory Loss, by Elizabeth Kay
Some of you may have noticed I forgot to do my last two blog posts, so I decided I had better start writing this before I forgot the topic altogether. I have reached the grand old age of seventy-three, and my short-term memory is now rubbish. I have a lot of friends of a similar age, and they are finding exactly the same thing. The decline seems to start around seventy. I flagged this up to a doctor a few years back, and his response was “People of high cognitive ability notice small changes earlier than others. Stop worrying.” A nice compliment, but not much help really. I frequently find myself in a room, wondering why on earth I went in there in the first place. Most distressing is not being able to remember what word I want – and yet, once in the front of the computer, I seem to have no trouble at all. It’s speech, I think. If I need to remember something I say it out loud, and I remember the sound of the word. Writing it down helps too, because it could be that I remember the tactile action of writing. Remembering where I’ve put the note is another matter altogether. It’s the abstract stuff that’s hard. I need a picture, a tune, a smell, a taste, a sensation. I went to Namibia in the summer and had one of the most memorable experiences of my life.
We were staying in a wonderful place called The White Lady Lodge. It had a beautiful garden, and there was a big rocky outcrop behind it. A colony of meerkats had made their home there, and by day they foraged very successfully in the garden for pests and had become very tame. Then two of them discovered the cat bed indoors, so the management decided to buy them one of their own – the cat cave design. At sunset every evening the two of them would come belting across the veranda, through the bar, and put themselves to bed. It was winter there at the time, and the mornings were very cold. There was nothing the two of them liked better than being picked up and cuddled by a nice warm human, preferably inside your coat.
I can remember exactly what it felt like to stroke one of them, as
it nestled against me. I want to stress that these were completely wild
meerkats who chose to do this. They were not bribed by food in any way, and still
interacted with the rest of their group. But the sensation of that warm little
body nestling in my arms will stay with me for as long as forever turns out to
I always know
immediately when I hear a bird call I have never heard before, and it was the
twittering of a score of smallish birds in the horse chestnut next door that
alerted me to my one and only sighting of waxwings. Even though it was twelve
years ago, I would recognise that sound again instantly. Unfortunately I didn’t
have a very good camera in those days, so the pictures weren’t very good. But
when I’m out on the common, it’s the call of a buzzard high on a thermal that
identifies it to me. Music brings back memories in a very powerful way. When I
was an art student in Nottingham Mary Hopkin had a big hit with “Those were the
days”. It was clear at the time that these were intended to be the best days of
my life. They weren’t, but the song always brings back that feeling that I
ought to have enjoyed myself more than I did.
The smell of woodsmoke immediately makes me think of Zakopane, in Poland. I was sixteen, and it was the first time I had been abroad. I was with my dad, going back for the first time in twenty-five years, and everything was so very different from home. It was the middle of the Cold War, and Christmas, the snow was over a metre deep and there was no central heating – just these wonderful ceramic stoves, taller than a man, that burned wood and kept the whole place really warm. Just the smell of that makes the trip come back to me in a series of pictures, ski-ing along gentle forest paths, eating stuffed carp, home-made doughnuts, being allowed a tiny shot of vodka before I was allowed out in the cold. Conversely, the scent of Rive Gauche reminds me of when I was pregnant with my first child, and instantly makes me feel sick!
The taste of
Marmite toast and Ribena makes me want to head for bed with a hot water bottle.
This, and Heinz tomato soup, are the tastes of childhood illnesses, and are
surprisingly comforting. On the other hand I couldn’t stand Lucozade, which I
was forced to drink, and I have detested that shade of orange ever since.
My mother used to
have a motto: a place for everything, and everything in its place. I’m
beginning to realise how useful this is, as the time I spend looking for things
that are no longer in the place they’ve been in for years is considerable. I am
trying to impress this on my husband, he of meerkat cuddling fame. The top of
the bread bin for mobile phones. A bowl on the dresser for stamps. The top
righthand drawer of the chest of drawers for odd socks. The cupboard under the
stairs for… for... er…