Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Why "Memorial Day" Is Worth Your Time: Reason #5

After the most recent screening of "Memorial Day," a reporter asked me a question that threw me for a loop: "Why did you decide to give [James Cromwell's character] memory issues?" The reason that rose to the surface was this: While I was writing the screenplay, I was also conducting an oral history project with my then-94-year-old grandmother, who had dementia.

The condition wasn't too severe at the time. In fact, she was still living independently in the house in Roseville, Minnesota, that I had been visiting since I was a kid. She was in remarkable physical shape, and in her lucid moments, she was sharp as a proverbial tack. But those moments were fleeting, and I soon realized that the process of trying to mine memories from someone who is losing them as you speak is both profound and ironic. I wished I'd started sooner.

Early in the process, I realized that my grandmother's memory loss wasn't random; it was hierarchical, like a distillation process. She couldn't remember what she'd had for breakfast, but she could tell you the moments from childhood and young adulthood that mattered most, like giving birth to my mother and her twin sister when the doctors told her that she was going to have "a big boy" (a story that came up in almost every session, both because it was important and because she didn't remember telling it to me already).

Even if her stories were short on detail, I could see the pictures as my grandmother spoke. I could see her mother giving food to homeless wanderers who would knock on their front door during the Great Depression. I could see her ice skating in Cherokee Park, where it was routine for flirtatious boys to skate up from behind and slyly take girls by the arm. I could feel the "wait until your father gets home" aura of tense family dinners. I could see her walking to school over the High Bridge in St. Paul, a rigorous routine that today would cure childhood obesity. I could see my grandpa courting her by buying a used car and stitching old suit jackets over the seats. And finally, there was the story that came up so often, I decided I had to put it in the film: the moment my grandmother's Catholic faith was tested by a priest who told her to "keep walking" to her proper parish when she tried to give Confession at a church that was much closer to home.

My grandmother passed away almost a year ago, and she never got to see the movie. The artifacts of her life are now spread throughout the family, like so many footlocker souvenirs (I now re-possess a Waterford Crystal candy dish that I bought her when I lived in Ireland as a college student). I realize that she taught me much without even trying, like how to live a good life and how to be grateful for it. But mostly, she taught me that stories are the one thing that lives forever. If you tell them.

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