My teen son and I were visiting my grandmother. She has Alzheimer’s and requires special care. It was a precious time to share our memories with her. When you have a loved one whose memory is fading, you somewhat become an external repository for their past and for your mutual relationship.
I brought in my phone and planned to read some Scripture passages aloud. Unfortunately, I couldn’t get internet connection on my phone to access my BibleGateway app. Emotions were already running high, and I felt my mind go blank.
Then I took a deep breath and began, “The Lord is my Shepherd. I shall not want.” That was all I could seem to remember in that moment, but it was enough.
Later on, my son and I began singing hymns from memory.
And that is when a wonderful thing happened: my grandmother began joining in.
She didn’t remember my son’s name. She actually said it was the first time she had met him, even though she’s one of the first few people to have held him in his early weeks of life.
But she could sing “Amazing Grace” and “Joy to the World.”
When you’ve forgotten everything else, what will you remember?
That experience with my grandmother was not my first encounter with the memories that remain when all else fades.
When I was a girl, we would go visit my Great-Grandma Estelle (I called her GG Estelle for short).
She usually didn’t know who we were.
My dad, mom, brother, and I would sit in her room carrying on quiet conversation, talking to GG and including her in our conversations even though she didn’t always seem to understand what was going on and didn’t communicate much more than nodding her head or squeezing our hand.
When Daddy would begin reading Psalm 23 or other familiar passages, though? Eyes closed, voice surprisingly strong, GG would begin speaking remembered words and phrases right alongside him.
All those old Gospel hymns? We’d sing in harmony with gusto and, sure enough, GG’s voice would tremulously join in with us on familiar lines and refrains.
And when we would pray together, she knew to Whom we were speaking.
I’m thankful to have known GG before her memory faded, back when she could host a meal for the whole extended family in her tiny country kitchen. But I was very young in those days, and my recollections are mostly simple, hazy memories of a kind, quiet, hospitable woman.
But Daddy used to tell me stories of when he was a boy staying with his grandparents all summer so they could work from sunup to sundown in the humid southern fields. He told me of this amazing woman who woke in the pre-dawn hours (basically still the middle of the night) to prepare food for the family fieldhands and complete her calisthenics routine.
He also told me that every morning he’d see her reading her Bible.
When I saw her elderly frame lying in bed, her mind wandering and confused, there didn’t seem to be much resemblance to that strong, determined, sacrificial woman my dad had always described.
But when I heard her join us in reciting Scripture and singing hymns when all else was forgotten?
I realized then for the first time the power of what we hide in our heart.
In my teen years I spent a lot of time with a variety of elderly relatives and strangers at adult daycares, retirement communities, and nursing homes. I don’t think anyone has ever had more joy on their face than Mr. Jesse did singing along with us as we led a group in a rousing rendition of “Leaning on the Everlasting Arms.”
These image-bearers’ minds had forgotten most of the facts and details we tend to focus on the most in our children’s education.
But when they had forgotten everything else, what remained held lasting value.
I think about these experiences often as I plan our homeschool memory work.
Yes. There are certain facts that will make life easier and even happier. Knowing our math facts is important. Knowing the bones of the body and the Greek alphabet is not only fun, but practical. Knowing basic geography facts makes us better global neighbors and citizens. Knowing parts of speech enables us to be better communicators.
But you know what? When my memory fades, those facts are going to be cold comfort.
Again, please don’t misunderstand me.
Of course we ought to memorize facts and encourage our children to do so!
But if that’s all we’re doing?
Dare I say… if that’s most of what we’re doing?
What a waste of a life.
What makes us human? What makes us unique individuals?
What will we remember?
I can just imagine my great-grandchildren hanging out with me one day. Maybe they’ll play Shania Twain for me or a bit from Hamilton, and maybe I’ll start dancing and singing along. At least I hope so, because those things are part of what makes me the random, silly, unique person I am.
Actually, they could probably start singing the bones of the body song, and I’ll try to contort my elderly frame into doing the motions.
But most of all? By God’s grace I hope I can still recite the catechism with my family. I hope I can remember the Apostle’s Creed when all else is gone. I pray that Psalm 139 continues to comfort and sustain me, when I’ve forgotten everything else.
I look forward to the moment when my children recite “Death Be Not Proud” at my bedside. I hope it stirs up my heart and reminds me of what I may have forgotten.
So what now?
This post is not a how-to manual. Maybe you don’t quite understand why it’s included on a homeschool blog.
I’ve cried several times writing it, actually, from the emotions associated with my own personal memories.
And I haven’t even talked about the use of “remember” in Scripture and all its implications for worship and wonder and wisdom.
But can I just leave you with this for now?
Here’s what I hope you remember from these personal reminisces about memory and forgetting.
Whenever you start second-guessing yourself about what you’re doing as a family? When you start looking at all the things you “should” be including in the homeschool day, and probably aren’t?
Maybe the read-alouds should be replaced with reading-comprehension worksheets, or maybe the white space for prioritizing relationships should get squeezed to produce a bit more time for worksheets?
Stop, just for a minute.
Ponder, and ask yourself this question:
What do I want to remember – what do I want my children to remember – when we’ve forgotten everything else?
For more about how to choose the best memory work for your homeschool, read this.
For a Year of Memory Work (52 poems, speeches, and Scripture), complete with free printables and video recitations, head here.