Gigabytes can't capture Mom

Have the hard drive and the cellular phone replaced the scrapbook and the photo album? Computer companies and telecom enterprises extol their storage capabilities: They tell us how much can be stored and preserved in a machine's memory. Well, yes, images and messages can indeed be saved and stored in desktop, laptop, and mobile photo-phone memories - and they can be retrieved, transmitted electronically, copied onto CDs, re-recorded, and transferred again.

Amazing. Still, there are memories that might be worth holding onto - the old-fashioned way.

I look at mother's slanted script in a letter to me when I was at college. She was telling me to do my best but not to worry if I wasn't at the top, or anywhere near the top. Years later, there's another letter sent soon after I'd started a new job in a new city. She hoped that I'd be happy and said that I shouldn't worry if things didn't work out as well as I was hoping they would. There was a letter after a romance (or perhaps an infatuation) had ended - a gentle buck-up that assured me that I just hadn't met the right girl yet.

These messages were delivered in her hand; some on serrated bond, and, in later years, on halved pages salvaged from some fancy mailing, the blank side of an invitation. She was an early recycler; she was frugal. But never spare in kindness.

Her handwriting became less fluid and a bit jagged and then halting. Still, it was her message in her hand. And those notes embody her continuing goodwill, as well as her physical decline. I wish I had responded to her in writing. I'm sure I phoned to thank her, and I seem to recall sending my parents newspaper and magazine clippings that would provide conversation when we would speak by phone - typically late Thursday evenings and on Sundays, when long-distance rates were more comfortable.

I wish I had written to her, so that I would have actual evidence of what was going through my mind then - what was then "saved" in the central processing unit housed in my noggin. She would have saved those letters.

After a number of moves down and up and down the Northeast coast, much had been lost, misplaced, and discarded. But it was only after my most recent move that I finally parted with a volume that I associated with her care and concern. Folios of sewed pages had separated from the browned white boards that covered her Settlement Cookbook. I can recall seeing that book opened on a kitchen counter; I can see her in an apron that did not match her dress; I can see the flour on her hands.

I don't have any photos of her in her kitchen, let alone any videos. Yet, I do have those mental pictures of her. They can't be downloaded, printed out, or transferred to a file and burned on a disk. But I have them in the slide carousel of my mind, triggered by her smudged-pencil handwriting on 3-by-5 recipe cards. They are yellowed and disintegrating. I suppose I could photocopy them or place them between Mylar sheets. I'll probably pick a few and slip them into a no-PVC pocket page.

The recipes are of no consequence. The handwriting is evocative. Hold onto a few scraps of your mother's handwriting. Those exemplars can bring back memories that can't be captured in gigabytes or be erased in error. There is no time like the present to begin saving the connections to a past - a personal Intranet.

Joseph H. Cooper's plays were performed at the International Festival of Arts & Ideas, in New Haven, in 2002 and 2003.

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