Monday, November 23, 2009

The Brush Off


"A memory is what is left when something happens and does not completely unhappen."
~Edward de Bono

The Brush Off

Ted Parker enjoyed his childhood in Upstate New York where his father taught mathematics at Cornell University in Ithaca. Because his father's roots were Kentucky, they regularly visited his kin in Louisville and Lexington. Ted's growing up years were filled with fond memories of playing "on the way to grandma's house" and other assorted games to pass the time during the somewhat long drive.

He had a cousin whom he became especially close to named Kurt. One summer it worked out that Ted could stay with his cousin for six weeks, which was a real treat. He was fourteen, the age when boys have begun to really notice the fairer sex.

Across the road from Kurt's was a really cute girl named Joy Jones. Joy had become well aware of the impact she made on boys and (fortunately not all girls get this way) was quite impressed with herself. Because she had grown up across the street from Kurt, she did not have a high opinion of him. When he was younger he had been the kind who teased girls he liked, and she had been the object of this attention for longer than she cared for. Kurt saw her as prissy and she saw Kurt as a big jerk. Ted might be a nice kid, even somewhat cute himself with those freckles and that big grin, but he was with Kurt must be a jerk as well to hang out with someone like that.

Against this background the incident occurred. Joy was sitting on her porch catching some sun in a pair of shorts and a tank top. Kurt and Ted had just finished lunch and came out to sit on Kurt's front steps. It was not planned, but after seating themselves the boys looked up and saw that joy was directly across from them on her own front steps. They stared. She ignored them and proceeded to work on her nails. They continued to stare. It was as if she were three feet away. Ted had never once talked with her in his life, mainly because she'd learned to avoid Kurt, who was not really a bad kid but went through that stage many boys go through.

Kurt said, "How ya doing?" and it was strange because there was a road between them, but the distance was gone.

Joy finished what she was doing with her nails and looked up. Her right had went up to her left shoulder and made a flicking motion as if sweeping cooking crumbs off a countertop. She stood up and walked in the house.

"She's so stuck up," Kurt said.

"What was that all about?" Ted asked, repeating the gesture on his own shoulder.

"She was giving us the brush off. Let's go down to the park and see who's at the pool."

Years later, while Ted (now 55) was in the board room at Donovan Electric where he was VP of Sales, he noticed a few flakes of dandruff on the shoulder of his dark suit. He flicked them off and as he did so thought of that encounter with Joy in Louisville. There was something basic and Pavlovian in this memory connection to the gesture because this reaction had been going on for nearly twenty years.

When Ted reached his sixties he became aware that his forgetfulness was more serious than he'd realized. To his dismay, he was experiencing the early onset of Alzheimer's. For a while it was hard for his family, especially his wife Gloria. And as time went on, the sun began to set on Ted's fond memories of recent achievements.

As the shadows crept slowly over his past, the only memories left were from his youth. He had forgotten his children, his wife, his vocation. But he remembered going to Kentucky, marching around the house with Kurt, and playing silly games.

Near the end he became pretty much incommunicative and no one knew what was left there in the recesses of his memories. The nurses, though, routinely got a kick out of the way he'd say, "Joy Jones" every time they brushed something off his shoulder. So this became a ritual they all seemed to relish. They would brush his shoulder and he would automatically say, “Joy Jones.”

It bothered Gloria though. She knew that Ted had been somewhat of a roustabout, but she also thought she’d heard about everyone who really mattered from those early years before she became his sun, moon and stars. She wasn’t devastated by it, but while laying awake a few nights, she wondered… Joy Jones?

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