MARTHA SEZ: ‘I thought he didn’t notice anything family related’

So begins “The Wasteland,” by T. S. Eliot:

“April is the cruelest month, breeding/ Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing/ Memory and desire …”

I think the meaning is pretty straightforward, even without my CliffsNotes study guide. The effect of spring on a person living in a northern latitude is, as we know firsthand, very powerful. The difference is that here in the Adirondacks the cruelest month would be May, or even June, some years, if we’re taking about lilacs.

Memory can be a source of pleasure, of course, as well as regret. Memory is so complicated! Its paths will often lead us astray.

Or they do me, anyway. After reading Joshua Rothman’s New Yorker article “Becoming You,” Oct. 3, 2022, I realize that I am what he defines as a “Continuer,” rather than a “Divider.” That is, I see myself in time as the same person, from my earliest memories up to the present moment. My life, to me, is a continuous stream. A Divider, on the other hand, perceives life as a series of discrete time periods. “I am not the same person I was then,” the Divider says.

By the by, I don’t believe this for a minute. Whatever the Divider may think, I am sure that people don’t change, not fundamentally. As the Eagles used to sing, “You’re still the same old girl you used to be.” (Well, of course you used to be a lot younger, and you could get up and down out of chairs more easily. But still.) I have a birthday coming up in July, and every time I think how old I’m going to be I feel surprised all over again. I remember growing up with my brothers and sister, and our lives as young adults, and the memories are bittersweet. We somehow never thought we would get so — old. Even Jimmy, the baby brother of the family, is 70. (What!) We worry about each other. We’re all so mortal, as it turns out.

Our accounts of the past don’t always match up. While I don’t claim hyperthymesia or eidetic memory, I remember a lot. Some of my most vivid memories have been pretty much proven incorrect by my sister, Molly. I’ll probably revert back to my own, preferred, versions again before long, forgetting her corrections and amendments.

When I talk on the phone with Bill, the eldest, I’m taken aback by the fact that his accounts of our childhood are so much in sync with mine. Bill never seemed to be around the house much; he was an extrovert, out and about, his interests elsewhere. I thought he didn’t notice anything family related, but he was tuned in all the time.

Our grandmother, Rose, lived with us in Michigan, but, while she cared for us with great kindness and baked for us and basically brought us up, her heart was in Waco, Texas. Rose’s oft-repeated stories about her large family there, while wonderful, were cautionary; we learned that a fixation on a past long ago and in another country was something we wanted to avoid.

According to Dr. Ian Stevenson at the University of Virginia, there may be people who remember events or impressions from an even more distant and unrelated past — from another life, in fact. I’m not referring to Rothman’s Dividers here.

Standing in line at a crowded supermarket, I was once entertained by a National Enquirer headline: “Baby Born with Dead Father’s Tattoo.” Similarly, the Enquirer listed instances of children born with unusual birthmarks — shaped like the state of Texas, say — exactly like those of deceased individuals.

Stevenson founded the Division of Perceptual Studies (DOPS) at the University of Virginia in 1967, self-described as “devoted to the rigorous evaluation of empirical evidence” for reincarnation. Very young children who say they remember past lives are studied (“when I was big I drived a truck”) to conduct this research.

Stevenson studied 3,000 such children over a period of 40 years. And yes, DOPS case studies show babies born with congenital birth defects or birth marks corresponding with fatal wounds of their so-called previous person. Many of these children allude to a past-life violent death.

How prestigious is the University of Virginia? US News ranks the University of Virginia the same as New York University, the University of Michigan and the University of Southern California.


We’re coming into warmer, wetter days now. Soon those lilacs will be going crazy.

Have a good week.

(Martha Allen, of Keene Valley, has been writing for the News for over 20 years.)

Starting at $1.44/week.

Subscribe Today