Memory’s Encouragement, by Tony Gorry, the Friedkin Professor Emeritus of Management at Rice University, was published by Paul Dry Books, Inc. 2017.
Among My Souvenirs
I was running errands and, needing directions, I called up my car’s navigator. “Turn left at the next intersection,” she guided me; “proceed one-half mile.” After shopping, I pressed the icon for my home. As my digital companion chimed in, I said, “Wait, I don’t need your help to find my way back.” Talking to a machine is something I do often these days. I closed the display. “Certainly I can remember where I’ve been.” True in this case, but would I always find my way back home?
This talk with my machine made me think of another trip, one almost eight years ago: a return to my hometown to attend my fiftieth high-school reunion. My sixty-eighth birthday had been approaching, and the tug of nostalgia drew me back for the first time since that graduation. In anticipation, I rummaged through the contents of an old shoebox that had languished in the back of a closet for years. It held a motley collection of photographs, yellowed newspaper clippings, school programs, awards, and an old Bulova watch my father bought for me after he returned from the war.
The shoebox was a welcoming gateway to another country rich in presence. I felt immediately reconnected to places I’d lived and left long ago. My past emerged to prepare me for my homecoming.
I was struck by the way in which memory transformed time and space. I was there at my desk in 2008, but I was also in the world of my youth, many miles and decades away. I held a photograph taken at my grandmother’s house, where I had lived while my father was fighting in Europe. It was probably 1944, and there I stood, almost four years old, with my wagon on the front porch. Though the picture was black and white, I knew that the wagon was red; my coat, blue; its six buttons, shiny brass. I could nearly smell the cool air of that spring day when sun-dappled snow still covered much of the ground.
In moments like this, I imagine myself a wanderer, one who has hurried along earlier pathways and now nears the end of his journey. I move more slowly, I take more breaks to ponder where I’ve been, to reflect on beautiful vistas of the past as well as rocky stretches, slippery crossings, and my wanderings off course— and the people I have met along the way. Remembrance pushes the present aside.
In a bookcase by my desk I have a copy of Homer’s Odyssey, the story of another homecoming. With its nymphs, goddesses, and monsters, the epic is a catalog of delights and wonders. It is also an account of a harrowing voyage through danger, terror, and gloom. Odysseus has plundered the stronghold on the proud heights of Troy, and now Poseidon, enraged most recently by Odysseus blinding Polyphemus, the cyclops, resists the hero’s return to Ithaca, where his wife and son have awaited his homecoming for twenty years.
Though my homecoming little resembled Odysseus’s heroic journey, one of his encounters reminds me of our life in the digital age. During the penultimate leg of his journey, when Odysseus is adrift at sea, Poseidon blasts his raft. Clinging to wood from the wreckage and barely escaping drowning, Odysseus washes up on shore, naked and exhausted. After a night’s sleep, he awakes in confusion. What place is this? Who lives here? How will they receive him?
His questions are answered when he meets Nausicaa, the daughter of the king in this land of Scheria. It is, she says, a place distant from other lands. Its inhabitants, the Phaeacians, are dear to the immortal gods. Indeed, the Phaeacians often encounter Olympians strolling in their midst.
Concerned that she might be seen unchaperoned with a naked stranger, Nausicaa sends Odysseus on alone to her father’s palace. There Homer reveals an otherworldly stamp on Phaeacian buildings and crafts. The palace is a marvel, airy and luminous, with the luster of the sun and moon. Bronze-paneled walls with azure moldings of lapis lazuli lead to the reception hall where the post and lintel are silver on silver and where gold handles curve on the doors. The entrance is flanked by hounds sculpted from silver and gold. Odysseus learns that Poseidon has made the Phaeacian ships as “swift as a wing or a thought.” They need neither pilot nor rudder to travel miraculous distances and still return in a single day.
A large garden fronts the Phaeacian palace. There the interpenetration of the heavenly and the mundane is striking. Apples, pears, figs, olives, and grapes grow profusely, giving their bounty regardless of season. As he scans this wondrous garden, Odysseus sees clusters of green grapes, others still ripening on the vine, some drying in the sun, and still others being crushed for wine. While currants dry in one part of the garden, vintners tromp purple grapes in another, and in yet another the new grapes are just losing their blossoms. It is not only the materiality of Scheria that has been touched by the gods. Time, too, has been transformed. In this garden the past, present, and future commingle. Yet despite these marvels, nostalgia retains its grip on Odysseus. He yearns for Ithaca, his wife and son.
The Scherian garden may be just poetic fancy, but my garden of the past is unworldly in its own way. There I cultivate remembrances and shape what I know about the past. In reverie I construct personal edifices, some gleaming, others shadowed. In memory, what was long ago can suddenly be close at hand; what was far, now near. A strange garden, with its own strange physics, but one I lately tend with care, for its produce enriches and encourages me.