Recently I decided to make a list of everyone I could remember ever having met. It is not as difficult as you might think.
That’s not to say that I succeeded in remembering every classmate in every class from nursery school through graduate school, or every co-worker I’ve met along the way.
But it is amazing how many people and events you do remember when you start to think back over your life chapter by chapter. Believe me when I tell you that it is an exercise that is rich in rewards, and well worth the modicum of time and effort it requires. Here’s an example.
I am 22 and have taken a teaching position at a secondary school in England. I first remember Anthony Taylor. But he was my best friend and my roommate that year, and if I didn’t remember him I should probably be writing this from a memory care unit.
Anthony had graduated from Oxford, gotten on his bicycle, and pedaled toward London, stopping at every secondary school along the way until he found one that was looking for a history teacher.
Anthony was somewhat eccentric. He ate only apples, cheddar cheese and salt and vinegar crisps, drank only water and Guinness, and skipped 3 miles a day for exercise on the towpath that ran alongside the canal. Good fortune had brought us together at the Hartland School, and he remains on my short list of favorite people, though I haven’t seen him in nearly half a century.
A good many students I also remember — mostly the troublemakers: Fred and Rob, who would write derogatory messages about the teacher whose classroom was just below mine, and would lower the messages out the window on a rope when I wasn’t looking. Those two I will never forget.
Nor will I forget Desdemona, an attention-starved Haitian girl who sought to get my attention by throwing rocks at me and my advanced literature class as we sat beneath a tree one afternoon reading “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.” Desdemona had a rifle of an arm.
Next I enter the staff room, where first I learned to make “a proper cup of tea.” It is empty for a moment; but little by little it begins to fill up with faces, faces that now come into increasingly sharp focus. Jen, the art teacher, with her crooked teeth, freckled face and wavy red hair that hangs down past her knees. Shy Ken of the bulging eyes, a chemistry teacher. Mrs. (?), the assistant headmistress, a woman fashioned out of tweed and pearls, who speaks as if she has a pound of cherries in her mouth.
“Nurse,” the school nurse, I will always cherish, though her actual name I can’t remember despite the fact that we dated several times. It may have been Jeanne, but to me she will always be “Nurse.”
And Richard, the head of the history department. How could I have forgotten Richard, who was the first one to have invited me to a party, a party at his house, where Mrs. Richard got a bit drunk and tried to seduce me? I remember her yellow print dress, and the taste of her lip gloss. Ugh. Never liked lip gloss. Ah! Her name was Barbara.
There is more. Ever so much more. The list-making is magical. It unlocks a forgotten past.
When was the last time I had thought about that weekend when Anthony and I had driven over 700 miles to deliver a cantaloupe?
“Did you know,” said Anthony, coming into the living room after a phone conversation in the bedroom, “that it’s impossible to find a cantaloupe melon in Chillingham in winter?”
“No, I didn’t,” I answered. “What made you think of that?”
“My mum needs one.”
“Your mom a big fan of cantaloupe?”
“No, I don’t think so.”
Anthony always liked to answer questions with answers that called for additional questions. It was a conversational gift.
“Then why does she want one?”
“I didn’t say she wanted one. I said she needed one. It’s for her class.” Anthony’s mother taught art in Northumberland, in the northeast of England. “They need to draw a cantaloupe for their state exams.”
“I’m sure we could find one in London.”
“What bloody good would that do her?”
“We can bring it to her.”
“Have you any idea how far it is from here to Northumberland?”
“It’s 350 miles. Do you really want to drive 350 miles to deliver a piece of fruit?”
And so we had set out, the back seat of the car filled with apples, cheddar, Guinness and salt and vinegar crisps. We searched all over London until, in a small village on the south bank of the Thames whose name I can’t remember, we found a cantaloupe. And off we drove through the night, arriving in Chillingham at the crack of dawn.
You would have thought we had brought her the Holy Grail, so overwhelmed was the unsuspecting Mrs. Taylor as she stood turning the melon around and around, admiring it from every conceivable angle.
She then disappeared into the larder, from which she emerged bearing a huge slab of bacon, butter, bread and eggs. And although Anthony stuck to his apples and cheddar, I was treated to what my taste memory tells me was perhaps the best breakfast of my life. I can still see those eggs — eggs from Mrs. Taylor’s own hens, the yolks a deep, deep orange, unlike the color of any yolks I had ever seen before.
And the price for all of this? For my getting to rehear my students’ uncontrollable laughter as the teacher from Room 6 came storming into our room brandishing Fred and Rob’s note? For rediscovering the scent of Nurse’s perfume when we would steal the occasional kiss in her infirmary during lunch break? For retasting those eggs and that bacon?
An hour of my time, at most.
I could go on. I could philosophize about the unexamined life and its being not worth living. But I don’t want to be dogmatic or judgmental. And besides, I’m dying to get to 1973. I haven’t been to Paris in ages.
Alan Handwerger is a Stowe businessman. His collection of stories, “There’s a Plunger in My Tree,” was published by Peppertree Press. Email letters to email@example.com.