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  • Writer's pictureIndia Wittmershaus

Memories

When you get old, you start to forget things. It starts almost unnoticeably. Where were the car keys again? I can’t find the book I am reading. Where are my glasses? Little things in everyday life get a little mixed up. Then, the memories start to blur. People ask you about things from your past and the dates become indistinct. Names get lost. Whole days, weeks, and even months disappear in the maelstrom of your life.

This is where I currently find myself. I know who I am. I have a past, a history. But some things slip my mind. I need someone to take me back to the memories so that I can grasp them again. It’s an oppressive feeling. Frightening. But I’ve had a long life full of memories. Surprisingly, my childhood, my youth, is what is most present to me. 

I still remember the names of my teachers. My mother’s favorite songs still haunt my mind sometimes, like phantom music playing for me when I go for a walk. I can see my mother on Sundays in her good clothes, playing records on the record player with the greatest care. I can see how she starts to beam when the first notes of her favorite pieces are heard. I remember the old gentleman who lived in the flat below my family and who always gave me a little something to get him the newspaper. He always wanted two different ones. And when I asked which one he wanted today, he always replied, “Surprise me.” And I did.

Every Saturday morning, I went to the bakery two streets away to get fresh pastries for my family. On the way, I stopped at the newspaper stand and picked out two newspapers for my neighbor. I always tried to find something new, or I chose absurd combinations. A political paper and a gossip magazine. The Modern Art newspaper and a knitting magazine. The shop assistant knew me and was happy when I came in on Saturdays. He advised me and helped me with my choices. He explained the individual newspapers to me and the respective areas of interest, he told me which ones were serious and where you could read funny things, which ones had good authors, and where interesting photographs could be seen. 

With the two newspapers tucked under my arm and the biscuits for my family in my hands, I walked back home. The old man was already waiting for me. I handed him my haul and he inspected my choice. Mostly he smiled or laughed his dry laugh. Then, he gave me a few coins and one or sometimes several cuttings from the newspapers I had brought him the previous week. As I did for him, he always chose different things for me. Sometimes I got clippings from funny comics, sometimes articles about what was happening in our town, and sometimes instructions for a crocheted scarf. He gave me the neatly cut-out pieces of paper and said a word or two about them and then I said goodbye. I put the newspaper cuttings in the top drawer of my desk and ate Saturday breakfast with my family. I then read the newspaper cuttings over the weekend. I kept the ones I liked in a flat white lacquered wooden box. 

The older I got, the more serious the extracts became, even if there were always funny and absurd stories in between. Later, I was given a book every now and then. At first, they were short stories, but when the old man realized that I was reading everything he gave me, they became thicker and more complex. He recognized what I liked, and what bored me, and adapted his book gifts so that I was enthusiastic about almost everything he gave me. At one point, I asked him how he knew what I liked, and he laughed his dry laugh and explained: “If you normally read a book for a fortnight and then suddenly need twice as long, even though your everyday life is the same, then the topic can’t have really captivated you.” 

I can’t remember exactly when I started going to see him after Saturday breakfast, but at some point, it became the norm. After breakfast, I went down to his flat and we had tea in his reading room. The room was covered in books. We talked about the newspaper cuttings he gave me, about books and literature. About politics, history, art, and music. He could tell me something about every subject and I enjoyed listening to him. Sometimes I stayed with him for hours, other days only for a short time. But it didn’t matter, he was always happy to see me and wanted to know what I thought about the things he gave me to read.

When I moved out and went to study in another city, I asked my mum to keep bringing him newspapers. I also bought two newspapers every Saturday and read them during the week. I sent him letters and enclosed newspaper cuttings that I found interesting. He replied to me in the same way. This continued throughout my studies. Sometimes when my mother sent me a parcel, she would enclose a book from the old man for me and if I discovered a particularly good one, I would send it to him. We stayed in touch for a long time. 

Over time, his writing became shakier, but he continued to write to me until shortly before his death. My mum nursed him towards the end. She wrote to me about his death, and I traveled home in the middle of my last semester at university to attend his funeral. It was a small ceremony. His gravestone read: “Reading strengthens the soul” — Voltaire. He left me his books and a long letter with thoughts and notes on many books.

All my life, I have bought two different newspapers every Saturday. When my children were growing up, I gave them newspaper cuttings. And I also encouraged them to give me things to read that interested them, excited them, or ones they simply found funny. Today, I am older than the old man was back then. Even though back then I thought nobody could ever be older than him. I may forget a lot of things. I may also be slower, and my eyes no longer want to do what I do. But I still read the two newspapers today and every now and then my children and grandchildren give me newspaper cuttings, short stories, and books to read.


Written by India Wittmershaus.

Cover photo by Des Byrne


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