Robert Wallace: Music is the deepest memory

03/25/2014 12:00 AM

02/15/2015 10:44 AM

I’m a nostalgic man. I love to ruminate. Sometimes I wonder if I think too much about the past, isolating certain events or frightening discoveries so that they obtain more heft or become larger than they really are, rather than a part of a more forgiving whole. The closer I get to 60 the more I think literally and figuratively.

It is 1979. Fall. My future wife, Roberta, and I pull into Durham, taking the exit to Duke Hospital, then only a southern campus. I was driving a two-toned green Maverick, a car purchased in 1975, new at the time. It only had an AM radio. I kept the dial set at WLS, a station out of Chicago, which played the songs of my youth. I can still hear “Wildfire,” by Michael Murphy, in my head. I was dating the mayor’s daughter at the time, and this was “our song,” until it wasn’t, and that’s when I knew I was also no longer the one for Debbie Story.

Robert Miller, my future father-in-law, was in the hospital. It was my first time meeting him. I was 22 years old. When we walked in – Roberta and I – he was sitting on the edge of the bed, a fancy green robe gathered about him. From the beginning I liked this man. He wore wire-rimmed glasses, and he was mostly bald, and had a twinkle in his eye. Once, years later, while he sat at the dinner table, he took a windup toy, a pair of red lips, and wound it up and let it go, and we watched the lips rapidly go up and down. “I swear this thing has a soul,” he said, and I laughed. When he did things like that I could see the mischievous boy in him.

After Roberta and I married, my father-in-law used to take me down in the basement of his house and play real movies about his days in WWII. He never talked about it much, but I could tell the war had affected him greatly. I used to listen to his stories, and I think he took great comfort in that fact. The movies were often silent films, and sometimes he would play a record, mostly Frank Sinatra songs, on the record player, and the juxtaposition of watching the devastation and listening to Sinatra’s crooning voice, I found immensely plaintive. This, of course, was the music that my father-in-law held to his heart, so for him it brought back deeply held memories.

In these pages I began my exploration of memory three years ago, not as a search for personal meaning, but as a way to connect through stories. Marcel Proust, in his essay “Return to the Present” connected talent in writing to music and memory. He considered music to be the deepest memory. And so did E. M. Forster, who claimed: “music is the deepest of the arts and deep within the arts.” Music is often used as a metaphor for memory. Proust, for example, made the solicitation of his memories his life’s work. He believed, too, that we each have a story to tell, and that to not write it down, would be like never knowing “the tune that beset you with its intangible delightful rhythm.”

I was born on Christmas day. When I was a boy, before I began living with my grandparents, all the family would gather at my grandparents’ house for Christmas. I had a much older cousin, a beautiful young woman, who, on the anniversary of my birth, would always come into my grandparents’ house, and, usually while I was sitting on the sofa, bend over and plant a sweet-smelling kiss upon my cheek. I remember these kisses fondly. I also remember one time she came in singing “Blame It on the Bossa Nova,” by Eydie Gorme`. To this day I think of Lucille as a woman firmly planted in 1963.

There is a movement afoot. It is called Music in my Mind (MIMM). It is based upon the concept brought forth by Dan Cohen, MSW, who surmised that older adults suffering from Alzheimer’s disease or other cognitive disorders could connect with memories through personalized-music. Advisory partners working in the field with older adults, throughout Durham, have the audacious goal of bringing personalized-music via a digital device to all Durham residents suffering from cognitive challenges. A film about the movement, “Alive Inside,” will be shown at the Chapel Hill library April 2 at 2 p.m.

Memory is something that we all share. As individual as it may be, collectively it pulls at each of us, ostensibly, like music, in tangible ways to connect us.

For more information about Music in my Mind, or about this article, contact Robert Wallace at

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