Common Wisdom: Memories Are Made of This

Our house at the Rabbit Hash, Kentucky, farm is not yet built. We have not even broken ground, and we will not for a while. But just as a baby lives in his mother’s womb long before he makes his public debut, this house exists before any of us will see it. Conceived in the minds of my husband and me and especially in the mind of our architect, Henry Keene, the house is presently taking shape on the drawing board. It has received the imprint of its genetic code; now its plan has only to fill out in detail before we all say go ahead and lay stones on these patterns.

I am glad this house is going through a long gestation. Anticipation of the fulfillment, as expectant mothers know, is a period of grace precious in its own way. It is a time for falling in love with a reality known but not yet seen, a reality such as a baby or a house, and a long gestation allows that much more time to fall in love before the reality fully reveals itself at the birth.

In the case of our house, falling in love has not been just with a dwelling but with a place, with the land on which it will stand. My ever-deepening affection for this place, which we bought only two years ago, has set me pondering what it is that makes people fall in love with the people and places they do. Why, I wonder, would I fall in love particularly with this place, this farm, this spot high on its ridge above the Ohio River? Why, I wonder, when during the years we might have built a house on several locations around Cincinnati, have my husband and I never been tempted to do so, and why, quite suddenly, have we come upon this river place and pronounced, simultaneously, this is it? Why did no place draw us for so many years and this place then appear as the place we could not do without?

Imagination is surely responsible. Yet in that appeal to imagination, memory plays a large role. However we fall in love, the imagination must in some measure catch fire through some mysterious stirring of memory. When we gaze upon a person or place and begin to fall in love with that reality, it may be that we are drawn back in memory to something we knew at some time in our lives as beautiful and good, to something we took as a reflection of the divine. We do not love randomly, else we might love everybody and everyplace. Such, we know, is not the case. It is human to prefer certain people and places over others. In the Lord’s mercy and regard for the preservation of the race, who and what attracts one person does not charm another. Though we can like and enjoy many people, we seldom meet more than one or two whom we would seriously think of marrying. Though we can delight in beautiful places all over the world, we seldom seriously regard more than one or two as places where we would like to live.

In our individualized attraction to place, we love what reminds us of home, whether it be all the best elements of home that we have loved wherever we have lived, or whether it be the home that we envision ought to be the best sort of home. In whichever way we think of home, and perhaps we think of it in both ways, we rely upon our memory to picture it for us. It is memory, too, that assures us that our image of home is a reflection of God’s beauty and loveliness. If a place does not remind us of divine reality beyond ourselves, we will never feel at home there.

Falling in love with the Rabbit Hash farm has been for me a saturation in memory. This windy bluff high above the Ohio River, in view of the river’s curls and bends, in sight and earshot of towboats humming heavily up and downstream with their cargoes of coal and chemicals, is a return of the heart to our early married years on the Ohio River in Newburgh, Indiana. If it is true that we never quite go home again, the farm proves to me that what we discover in maturity may be richer and lovelier than what we knew in youth. The scene here is wider than the one my husband and I knew years ago; the elevation of this ridge lends a wide-angled sweep to the river view that we could not know in our bank-side location at Newburgh. Cumulus clouds float across a bigger sky up here, casting momentary circular shadows on the river and the bottom land on the Indiana side, then drifting away in a wash of blue. Wind sighs up here most of the time, on blustery days stirring the still-bare maple forest along the ridgeline into a swaying, singing chorus line, and on gentle days whishing a silken shimmer through the pines near the barn and along the lane. Elijah, I recollect, found the Lord not in tornado, fire, or earthquake but in the soft rustle of breeze. So do I, up here.

All my life, ever since my father gave me when I was about seven my first bird identification book and a little pair of field glasses, I have looked for birds. The farm, it turns out, is something of an aviary, for there is habitat for many varieties. Bluebirds, to our surprise, stay year-round here. They thrive in the brushy fencerows and open pasture that runs from the barnyard down the hill to the pond. Woodpeckers like the old trees along the ridge. Warblers and vireos, tiny treasures of deep woods, dwell in the thick forest that covers most of these hills to the front of the property. And on Easter Sunday we saw one of the special sights of a lifetime—a view at close range, in full midday sunlight, of two pairs of wild turkeys in elaborate courtship dance, with the two males strutting and fanning their tail feathers for a good ten minutes before the hens agreed to follow them into the woods for a rendezvous.

Every spring since I can remember I have looked for wildflowers: violets and spring beauties when I was a little girl; Virginia bluebells, trout lilies, and trillium in Newburgh; bluebells, trillium, wild ginger, Dutchman’s breeches, and Jacob’s ladder at our house in Cincinnati. It is the same at the farm. On a chilly, windy Lenten day I stepped into the woods above the river, and there, scattered all down the vertical ridge, were the flat white flowers and heart-shaped leaves of bloodroot. A week later, the bloodroot had disappeared, but in its place was a hillside of nodding pink toothwort and the tiny white pantaloons of Dutchman’s breeches hung on miniature clotheslines.

The thrill of spotting a bluebird winging out of a fencerow or the first wildflowers brightening the forest floor is a memory so old I cannot remember when it first impressed me. I know, however, that were it not for some tapping of memory of my early experience as a child and as a young woman, the farm would be just another pretty place rather than the homeplace where I belong.

Memory, as Saint Ignatius specified in my favorite prayer, is, along with the intellect and will, one of the three faculties of the soul. So important must Ignatius have considered memory to the free donation of self to the Lord that in his prayer he listed it first: “Take, O Lord, all my liberty. Take in their entirety my memory, my intellect, and my will….” Ignatius, the spiritual master, realized that disciplining the self in order that one may give oneself completely to the Lord requires taking charge of past memories, not only the good but the bad, not only treasuring and revering memories but also cleansing and purifying them. Ignatius realized that memory is so much a part of us that even though what has happened to us may be long past, it lives on in memory and becomes part of us. If it is a bad memory that still has a lethal hold on us, we are slave to that memory; yet if it is a memory of how God graced us and healed us, then it can be a means of our growth in virtue. Just one good memory, Dostoevsky claimed, carries enough grace to make worthwhile a lifetime.

The full meaning of memory is encompassed in the mystery of the Mass, when at the moment of consecration Christ says through the words of the priest, “Do this in memory of me.” All of our memories lock into this supreme gesture of Christ to make us one with Him. Joined with the Church’s memory of Christ giving Himself to us at the Last Supper, our own memories are healed and purified. All of our memories then become recollections of God’s grace and thus inspire us to prayers of gratitude.

When I consider the grace that has been revealed to me in the farm, and when I recall my early experiences of grace that prompted me to fall in love with the farm in the first place, the words of Moses (Deuteronomy 4:6) come to mind: “Take care and be earnestly on your guard not to forget the things which your own eyes have seen, nor let them slip from your memory as long as you live, but teach them to your children and your children’s children.”

What my eye has seen and my memory treasured I will teach, I hope, to my children’s children.

  • Anne Husted Burleigh

    Mrs. Anne Husted Burleigh is a free-lance writer, mother, and grandmother who lives on a farm overlooking the Ohio River in Rabbit Hash, Kentucky, near Cincinnati. She has written two books: John Adams, a Biography, and Journey up the River: a Midwesterner’s Spiritual Pilgrimage. She has contributed to many publications, including Crisis and Catholic Dossier, and now writes for Magnificat.

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