One of the questions I’ve been asked many times over the years is how I remembered the things I wrote about in A Daughter’s Gift. Part of the answer is context related –– as my father increasingly forgot things, I became more and more determined to remember them. It was my way of preserving and protecting what he was losing. For both of us.
Part of the answer is detail related, because one vivid detail is often all you need to unlock an entire sequence of memory and make it come alive. You start with something specific –– a vivid image, feeling, occasion or experience –– and allow the memories, and words, to form around it.
Since yesterday was both Mother’s Day and International Nurse’s Day –– the latter is celebrated annually on the anniversary of Florence Nightingale’s birth –– I think it’s entirely appropriate to draw on an example from Mary Louise Barron, my mother.
One of the vivid images I most associate with my mom is that of a white nurse’s cap with its black band. The black band signified that she was a registered nurse, and was a source of great pride for her.
Thoughts of that cap lead with no effort at all to a much fuller picture –– of my mother on duty at St. Clare’s Mercy Hospital, the hospital where she trained and then worked for many years. She’s in her white uniform, white stockings, and white nurse’s cap with the black band. Her ash blonde hair, which she generally wears at shoulder length, is pinned up and her white leather shoes are spotless. There is an air of confidence and authority that isn’t at all in conflict with the kindness and gentleness she displayed in equal measure.
Thoughts of that cap lead also to memories of knocks on the door on a Saturday afternoon or weekday summer evening. I answer, am greeted by a frantic neighbor who has come to fetch Mrs. Barron, our neighborhood’s personal nurse. Rarely does a week go by when my mother isn’t required to make at least one house call. She cleans and bandages cuts, helps get a child’s fever under control, and when needed, ensures the patient gets to the hospital. I often go with her on her house calls, in case she needs me to run back to our home to get something. I do not exaggerate when I say that she makes everyone feel better just by walking in the door.
Thoughts of that cap remind me of the story she once told me about one of the hardest things she’d ever had to deal with as a nurse. She is in the later years of her career working as an Associate Director of the Janeway Children’s Hospital in St. John’s. It is a weekend, so she is in charge of the entire hospital… and a young boy of about 10 has committed suicide. When she shares this story many months later she says the only thing she can’t remember is who they had gotten to take him to the morgue. But you did that yourself, a friend who was visiting at the time points out. She had, but it had been so traumatic for her, she cannot bear the memory of it.
Thoughts of that cap remind me of her wake and funeral. She wants the cap with her, not on her head, but she is wearing it when we arrived an hour before the visitation starts. It reminds me of the decision to gently remove it and place it next to her where she was lying, then carefully fix her hair. It reminds me of the honor guard of nurses that escort her casket down the aisle of the church, and later, of each of them parading by the front row of the church where I kneel after Holy Communion, and pausing to touch my outreached hand.
A white nurse’s cap with a black band is the only vivid detail I need to recall my mother, the nurse. And the examples above are only the tip of the iceberg. It would take many more words and dozens of pages to convey the memories that are filling my mind and heart right now. But hopefully this is enough to demonstrate the power of a single image.
I encourage you to try it –– recall a detail tied to someone from your childhood –– and see what it unlocks for you.
I should warn you, though. If you happen to do what I just did, and unlock images of a mother and nurse who was deeply loved and is still missed by so many, don’t be too surprised if you feel the memories with every fiber of your being.
Such is the power of the image. And the memories.