Before I forget…

The first time I couldn’t remember a name I was, perhaps, in my 30s. (It was a while ago; I don’t remember the year. Or my age.)

I was at the Met for a performance of Tosca. It was an excellent performance, although I don’t recall who sang Tosca. Or who sang, uh, what’s-his-name. You know, the tenor hero? At this moment, I can’t snap my fingers and bring up his name. This is what happens now, years later. Names of real people and of fictional characters sometimes go poof.

But I haven’t forgotten what I do remember. During the solo bows, out came the evening’s Scarpia, the American baritone Cornell MacNeil. I’d heard MacNeil often at the Met; he’d become a sort of resident bad-guy baritone. He was a really good singer and not a bad actor.

But, I was thinking, MacNeil was not as great a Scarpia as…And I couldn’t remember. Couldn’t remember the name of that great Scarpia.

I was at first amused. Then, after a few seconds, when the name should have popped right up in my brain, I knew it so well, I mean…I was bemused. Then annoyed.

I didn’t feel I was losing my memory. But when I got home I had to pull out my Tosca album to be reminded of Tito Gobbi. Tito Gobbi. Tito–

If I were a fearful and depressive person, I probably would’ve begun right then to worry about my memory. But I’m not and I didn’t.

It happens. Forgetting names, forgetting dates, forgetting who sang Mario Cavaradossi (and no, I didn’t need to pull out an album to check on the opera’s tenor hero; I just remembered it, right now)…it happens.

When, long past my unaccountable Tito gap, I did begin to forget names, I thought about Tito and laughed. After a while, I decided the computer which is my brain had determined to discard some data to make space for new information. I figured Google had something to do with it. Why should my brain retain names which Google can provide in a few seconds?

This is utterly different from losing one’s mind, from becoming incompetent.

I read Paul Krugman’s strong column about memory and Joe Biden. His title, “The Disgusting Furor Over Biden’s Age,” is his point. Read it.

A few days ago, a long friendship came to an end with a death. My friend B. had been slipping for years, although I didn’t necessarily attribute her memory problems to a disease. I now think she was working hard to cover it up. Still, there had been signs and for the last several years it was generally acknowledged that she was in mental decline.

B. did not live near me, so our last get-togethers were on the telephone.

It isn’t easy to talk to someone who has lost access to her once immense vocabulary, who can’t follow potential topics of conversation. B., a highly successful woman (a physician herself), now could not form too many words. Luckily — and maybe she relied on me for this — I can yammer on about anything. And that’s what I did.

I’d suggested Bach to B.’s son, especially “The Well Tempered Clavier,” which I’d come to play on non-football Sundays. I’m not able to articulate why this music is so affecting, so levitating, why it seems to clear my mind and psyche of miscellaneous crapola. But it does. I thought B. might be so soothed.

So our last phone call, with B.’s son on the phone with us, did come around to music at some point. Bach was mentioned, and Mahler.

What was said that led B. to start singing Tom Lehrer’s “The Irish Ballad”? Which begins: “About a maid I’ll sing a song, Sing rickety-tickety-tin, About a maid I’ll sing a song, Who didn’t have her family long, Not only did she do them wrong, She did every one of them in, them in, She did every one of them in.”

B. knew all the lyrics, every one of ’em. I was stumbling along behind her, plucking the words from B., as well as from my own memory bank, as the Irish maid killed every member of her family off, one by one by one, using an excitingly gruesome range of methods.

I suspect Vladimir Nabokov was thinking of recollections more resounding when he entitled an autobiography Speak, Memory, but I haven’t read it (not nuts about Nabokov, although I believe B. was), so can’t confirm.

What I can do is evoke a fine expression I only recently learned — because I’m a life-long apostate. Seems we Jews who don’t hold with heavenly realms or fiery pits of hell commemorate a death by saying, simply, “May her memory be a blessing.”

B., memory of you and your memory will be a blessing. Here, in your honor, is the full “Irish Ballad”:

About a maid I’ll sing a songSing rickety-tickety-tinAbout a maid I’ll sing a songWho didn’t have her family longNot only did she do them wrongShe did every one of them in, them inShe did every one of them in
One morning in a fit of piqueSing rickety-tickety-tinOne morning in a fit of piqueShe drowned her father in the creekThe water tasted bad for a weekAnd we had to make do with gin, with ginWe had to make do with gin
Her mother she could never standSing rickety-tickety-tinHer mother she could never standAnd so a cyanide soup she plannedHer mother died with a spoon in her handAnd her face in a hideous grin, a grinHer face in a hideous grin
She set her sister’s hair on fireRickety-tickety-tinShe set her sister’s hair on fireAnd as the smoke and flame rose higherDanced around the funeral pyrePlayin’ a violin, ‘olinPlayin’ a violin
She weighted her brother down with stonesRickety-tickety-tinShe weighted her brother down with stonesAnd sent him off to Davy JonesAll they ever found were some bonesAnd the occasional pieces of skin, of skinOccasional pieces of skin
One day when she had nothing to doRickety-tickety-tinOne day when she had nothing to doShe cut her baby brother in twoAnd served him up as an Irish stewAnd invited the neighbors in, ‘bors inInvited the neighbors in
And when at last the police came byRickety-tickety-tinAnd when at last the police came byHer little pranks she did not denyTo do so she would have had to lieAnd lying she knew was a sin, a sinLying she knew was a sin
My tragic tale I won’t prolongRickety-tickety-tinMy tragic tale I won’t prolongAnd if you do not enjoy my songYou’ve yourselves to blame if it’s too longYou should never have let me begin, beginYou should never have let me begin

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