Grandpa used to tell me “Ish fargessen,” a Yiddish expression that means something like “I’ve forgotten” or maybe it’s “I’m forgetful.” I may be translating this as poorly as I’ve spelled it. Anyway, here’s the idea: As we get older, our brains are so packed with information that some of the facts we used to call up in an instant have been crowded out. Maybe they’re there, just buried under all the other, usually meaningless ideas, expressions, memories that have been stacked on the shelves, stuffed in the drawers, maybe hung on the hooks in my brain over the years.
Becoming forgetful as we age. That was an uncomfortable thought to me at a time when I could instantly recall the batting averages of nearly every Chicago White Sox player, the names and release dates of every movie in which Joey Heatherton had ever appeared, the year, make and model of nearly every car I saw on the street, and the, um…I’ve forgotten the kinds of other inconsequential facts that could be summoned in an instant.
What may be even more troubling than what might be my declining ability to access facts—needed or not—is that rusted treasures buried somewhere in my mind (example: the address of the laundry I patronized in the mid-seventies, the name and phone number of the redhead in high school who made it a practice to ignore me) might suddenly show up in my consciousness, demanding attention.
I know the data is still in there; that the neural pathways I need to get to it may be rusted from lack of use, that the occasional decline in energy effecting my arms and legs may also be at work in my topmost muscle. Still, it seems my brain is messing with me. It refuses to do what I want it to. Wonder if it’s one of the growing number of parts in my body that have passed their “use by” dates.
Just yesterday, I needed a word to complete a thought and finish a sentence and I couldn’t find it. I know how to find, or at least try to find my reading glasses, my phone, my keys, and the other stuff that goes missing with increasing regularity. I know to look in the likely places. And if it doesn’t turn up, I’ll have to do without until I put on the jacket I wore yesterday and find it in the pocket. Or I sit on the couch and see it peaking out, half buried under a cushion. Or it might suddenly appear, when I least expect it, in an unlikely locale. (What’s my wallet doing in the refrigerator? )
But I know of no procedure for finding a lost word. I know generally where it is, but I can’t get to it. Not until I shift the focus of my anxiety to some other matter, like wondering where I’ll get my teeth cleaned if my dentist retires. Suddenly, with my mind in some other place, the word for which I’d been searching comes out of hiding and announces itself. It’s too late by then. I used some part of my vocabulary that lives in the same neighborhood as the word I sought, but is not exactly the word that belonged in the sentence. Or I’ll just rewrite that sentence in a way that relies on other words that, for now, are available to me.
Or I’ll just stop trying to express the thought. The world can go on without an extra sentence from me. It wasn’t important anyway. It was insignificant. That was the word I searched for! The word I thought so critical to my argument. Insignificant.