As Memory Itself Runs Out of Time

In 1975, when my father was my age, he had a bronze plate engraved with his name and two dates. ”Edward Lynch,” it read, ”1924-1999.” He put it on a bronze casket in our casket showroom to demonstrate how the up-market units could be customized. It was a sales aid. He was a funeral director. So am I.

The nod to his mortality, full of Cagneyesque bravado, was instructive. Someday, he seemed to be saying at 50, he’d be dead. He was right. The numbers are, after all, convincing on this, hovering as they do around 100 percent. What he also seemed to be saying was that he would only inhabit the 20th century. He was right about that part, too. He and my mother are both dead now, together forever in heaven and Holy Sepulchre cemetery, spared the worries over Y2K, end times, and any more wars or rumors of wars.

Like millions of the moms and dads whose couplings begat the baby boom, my parents are forever fixed in the 20th century while I and my siblings and my generation sally forth into the future. Sharp grief has grown into glad remembrance. They are gone but not forgotten.

Still, all through this dull season of saints and souls, leaf fall and blood sport, constricting days, and all through this gathering hoopla over the holidays and New Ages, there has been this odd little ache, just now articulated, that once the calendar turns we will be leaving behind, with once-every-millennium certainty, all those lovers and loved ones, memories and dreams that will become forever 20th century inhabitants, permanent fixtures of the old millennium and more distantly past tense. They will become the former things in a way that days or years or decades changing could not make them.

Mean time, it turns out, has its gradations, too. The list of things likewise consigned gets longer if we let it: our childhoods, our children’s childhoods, our grandparents and the 60’s — and that cheery illusion, easily maintained till now, that the future always outweighs the past.

Is this middle age or millennial angst?

”And they all pretend they’re orphans,” Tom Waits sings with stinging wisdom. ”And their memory’s like a train. You can see it getting smaller as it pulls away.”

Does the last month of the last year of the last decade of the last century of the second millennium vex us more than most Decembers? Does the new broom of Jan. 1, 2000, sweep cleaner than the one that swept 1950 into 1951?

For me it does, as it sweeps not only my first kiss in my first ’56 Chevy coupe but Henry Ford, the Industrial Revolution, laissez-faire capitalism and the early formation of nation-states into the apocalyptic bin. The same gulp of Greenwich Mean Time will swallow, in a moment and a twinkling, the Beatles’ ”Revolver” album, the revolver that killed James Garfield, the French Revolution and the discovery of gunpowder. The shoe of history drops on the lot as we move from the decrepitude of one millennium into the infancy of another.

To have lived in two centuries is a fine thing. To be alive in two millennia is a much, much rarer thing. Genghis Khan didn’t do it, nor Mohandas Gandhi, nor Mother Teresa nor Edna St. Vincent Millay nor St. Paul. But it appears Charles Manson will, and Slobodan Milosevic and, please God, Seamus Heaney and Luciano Pavarotti and another six billion of our species. The notion is laden with portent. Waiting for time’s advancing tidal wave, we wonder what can be saved from the almost certain flood.

But if a New Age makes it harder to hold on to the best of our past, it makes it easier to let go of what was worst. Our fears, our distempers, our ancient feuds — each can be more easily assigned to old ways of thinking, old ways of doing things. The marriages that failed, the families we did not have, the hurtful, hateful words, the roads not taken — all can be left behind, like so much ballast and brouhaha. Regrets and good riddance are near enough twins.

”And it’s time, time, time that you love,” Waits croons in his chorus.

And why wouldn’t we? For time bears its burdens effortlessly — our loves and losses, hopes and remembrances, our parents and babies, good laughs and good cries. Time heals and holds us in its embrace. The future is a place we can travel lightly into, hopeful and afloat — all of our unfinished business finished by default — time runs out, runs on, with or without us.

December 26, 1999
The New York Times