Ooh, I really like thinking about the brain, even though the brain can be a real ass. It prevents me from remembering to bring important things with me when I go out and it sometimes rambles busily on while I would rather be sound asleep. Yet, since the brain also keeps me breathing and stuff I can’t really bust on it too much. I am especially interested in the mysteries of memory – the function and biology of it, what goes in, where it lands, how it is retrieved again and how it comes out. So much over a lifetime gets lost, or we just aren’t able to retrieve it from some dusty grey matter corner. Some people seem to have good memory abilities, and some people insist they just don’t and there’s nothing to be done about it. Some types of memory retrieval seem to be linked with intelligence, but many aren’t. Our facts, figures, names, dates, faces, places, feelings…all add up to who we are. It seems dreamlike, incomplete, fuzzy so many times, hard to rely upon, hard to know if the brain is telling you the truth or playing tricks.

Yesterday, in the random way that things go, a perusal of mid-20th-Century high-definition color photography got me thinking about how the picture from 1942 I was gazing upon was only 20 years before I was born, and 20 years doesn’t seem as long a time span to me now.

Those people were about the same age as my parents were then, who were both born in the 1920s. Then to get even more ancient-y, I thought about my paternal grandparents, born in 1892 and 1887! Then I got to thinking about, well, who was the oldest person I actually ever came in contact with, how far back in time does that go? A memory floated to the surface – something I hadn’t thought about in forever – about a very old man I met that, I believed, was born around the time of the Civil War. Could this be true?? How could I find out? Fortunately, three things could help me figure it out: that I remembered that the man was an author and what he authored; my mother, who is still around and should recall what I was thinking about with possibly more accuracy and detail, and; I have the fabulous internet at my disposal. This would be a good and fun test of the accuracy of memory.

So, here is everything I can now recall about the man and the situation, before talking to my mom or poking around on the ‘net – we’ll do this investigation real-time!

1. For some reason, we were driving this very very old man around in the back of my mom’s car, and he was important. He was the author of a book about the famous silent film, “The Birth of a Nation.” I can’t remember his name.

2. The book had a yellow cover with red writing on it and showed a battle scene. We had boxes of the book in the trunk of the car. The cover of the book had a cross-hatch distinctive texture to it.

3. The man was mostly silent and seemed grumpy and fragile. I didn’t talk to him much, and I sat in the front seat of the car while my mom drove him where he needed to go.

4. I was very young, no more than 4 years old.

5. I think he was born around the end of the Civil War.

6. We didn’t know him well, but he lived reasonably close to us in Wisconsin, a few towns away.

That’s all I have left. So now I am going to phone up my mom, age 83, and see what she has to say about it. It’s going to be really hard to get her to stay on topic and not veer off ten times about earthquakes or dolls or the neighbor’s crappy son, but I’m going to give it a shot, and not lead her with my own memories. What can she access? Ooh.


Good GOD. People, think twice before you try to hack out 40+-yr.old history between one person’s 3’ tall childhood memories and an elderly person’s MENTAL SALAD. I’m exhausted. I’m not going to be cruel enough to make you read ALL the notes I took while my mother TALKED AND TALKED AND TALKED, but trying to edit it down is going to be a challenge. Bear with me. God, you have no idea. Anyway, in some kind of summary, let’s go back to my original memories point-by-point, added to by mom and then the ‘net.

1. There was a very very old man in the back of my mom’s car, and he was important. His name was Roy Aitken, and he was one of the earliest notable figures in the motion picture business. He and his brother Harry formed some of the first movie production companies, one of which was responsible for D.W. Griffith’s 1915 “Birth of a Nation” film.

2. The book Aitken did with writer A.P.Nelson was published on January 1st, 1965, and it looks exactly how I remembered it. Mom said the cover has kind of a fabric-y texture, and that it was inscribed to my dad by Aitken. She doesn’t remember the books in the trunk.

3. I was in the front of the car, but Mom remembers Mr. Aitken very differently: “Roy Aitken was a delightful man, sharp as a tack, charming and intelligent.”

4. Because of a second person* that was in the backseat of my mom’s car, we can pin down the time for this car ride to somewhere in the last few days of March 1968, a few days before I turned 6 years old.

5. Roy Aitken was old, but not that old. He was born in 1882. I must have made the assumption about the Civil War because of the cover of his book, and that 1882 and 1865 were pretty much all the same to me then.

6. He did live close by, in Waukesha, Wisconsin, where he died in 1976. How did we know him? Roy and Harry’s little sister was my dad’s landlady when he lived in Waukesha in the early ‘50s, so he heard lots and lots of cool old stories about her brothers' exploits. People are friendly in Wisconsin.

When I asked my mother today why Roy Aitken was in the back of our car, this is what I heard, fixed only for my typos as I furiously transcribed THIS:

Well, we were driving to Mukwonago with that movie star. Your father was mayor [ed. - of Delafield, WI.] and at the time, the liberal democrat running for president [ed. – Eugene McCarthy], well, one of his supporters was Paul Newman [ed. – * second person and MOVIE STAR], and Delafield was on their tour thing. Your dad arranged to have a gathering for them downtown, and then I got so excited when I heard that I would be the driver in our Humber Super Snipe station wagon, which was the same car the Princess Grace died in you know, and I was so excited that I was fixing my hair and I had gotten out of the bath and I went to spray it and I used deodorant spray instead! The hairspray was on my underarms! Oh what a mess! Your dad was already downtown with you and I met you down there.“

“Your Aunt Dorothy, who wasn’t really your aunt, was the second district chairperson for the Democratic Party and they had the honor of serving lunch at their home on Lower Nemahbin Lake to Paul Newman and his hangers-on or whatever you would call them. He walked in right in their house and helped himself to a bottle of beer from their fridge! We got him t-shirts from St. John’s Military Academy [ed. -where my dad worked at the time when not being mayoral] because we had heard he and his family liked t-shirts.”

“So, while this all was being set up, your dad thought that Mr. Newman would be interested to meet Mr. Aitken, as they were in the same industry and Mr. Aitken was such an important figure. Newman was very excited for the opportunity, but his schedule was so tight that the only time the two men would have to speak was in our car on the way to his next political speech. Mr Aitken and Paul Newman were both in the back of our car. The two visited intensely in low voices all the way to Mukwonago and then I took Mr. Aitken back to Waukesha. I remember that Paul Newman had elegant lovely clothing and he was very fine-boned.”

“Newman didn’t speak to me. At all. I wasn’t insulted; it was still exciting.”

Yes, I remembered that I was in the car with Mr. Aitken and with Mr. Newman, but I remember these as completely separate incidents – once with Mr. Aitken and once with Mr. Newman, and I placed the Aitken trip earlier, with no tie-in to Newman’s very brief stop to our tiny town. My mother and I went over and over the possible driving scenarios and the logistics to the day, but time has washed it out and there is no one else left to check it out with. Aitken, Newman, “Aunt” Dorothy, and my dad are all gone. It’s just me and Chatty Cathy.

I have zero memory of Aitken and Newman in the car together. Why? It’s possible that I wasn’t on that leg of the trip I suppose, but not probable. Maybe my mom had told me not to look at them or talk to them? I spent part of that day with my dad and part of it with my mom, that we can agree upon, but neither one of us can remember if the day was a weekday or a weekend, if I had gone to morning kindergarten or not, or where my older brother was, other than not there. Newman’s tour of Wisconsin was whirlwind – he went to a whole lot of little towns, including Kenosha, where (in some odd timing here) the subject of my post yesterday, Roger Ebert, had this to say about that day.

My memories of Paul Newman aren’t much more detailed than what I have left about Roy Aitken. I recall that he was handsome and wore a very nice black suit. Photographs I found today of him at his Menomonee Falls stop confirm it.

What no one else will likely ever be able to confirm is my recalling Paul Newman bending down to my level and smiling while talking to me, close to the high wooden stage my dad had someone construct for the actor’s 5-minute speech. No one will ever be able to tell me that yes, they saw Paul Newman pick me up, laughing, and toss me into the overcast spring sky, catching me as I gasped in surprise and smiled back at him. But that is what lives in my brain now, and has formed some part of my experience, which of course, forms me.

Roy Aitken was not born during the Civil War, my mother’s beehive ‘do drooped from misplaced deodorant, Paul Newman was mega-cute, and the brain can sometimes be a real ass. That we know for sure.