When I was a child, my mom would tell me to be careful about what I let rattle around inside my mind, explaining that
“every thought creates permanent creases in your brain.”
I couldn’t tell if she meant that literally or figuratively.
Around Thanksgiving, I returned to Chicagoland to spend time with my parents and to help celebrate my mother’s 80th birthday. My mom has some issues common with many octogenarians: she doesn’t sleep well, and her hearing allows her to catch just about every other word in most conversations. But physically, she’s as strong as a horse. In fact, I fully expect that my mother will be a pallbearer at my funeral some day.
Each time I return home, my mother and I take long walks together, strolls that take us out of her suburban neighborhood to a nearby lake complete with a meandering path paved through the woods with scenery that hasn’t changed much since I was a child.
At the very start of our walk, my mom told me a story about when she was a little girl making a new friend at school. Unfortunately, my mom’s new friendship made another classmate jealous. The girl who felt slighted said to my mom’s new playmate,
“Don’t play with HER. She don’t have a mother!”
You see, my grandmother died when my mom was a toddler, leaving my mom and her six siblings motherless. The death of her mother left a permanent hole in my mom’s heart.
“Who would say that to another child?” my mom asked rhetorically. “It wasn’t my fault that I didn’t have a mother. I missed my mom so much that part of me died with her,” she said sadly.
During our walk together, my mom repeated this same story to me seven times.
Another similarity that my mom has with many other octogenarians is that she tends to repeat herself.
My friend and aging expert Heather McKay explained to me that the last memories that fade as people age are emotional memories, those recollections linked with the strongest positive or negative emotional content.
At nearly 80, my mom bears “creases” from things that happened nearly 75 year ago, like the cruel words from a jealous little girl.
Another crease left its mark on my mom’s brain when her best friend, Mildred Howell, laughed and laughed when my mom had one line to deliver in a class play—and she flubbed that line. That memory left a crease because my mom laughed, too!
Another crease formed when I helped throw a 50th wedding anniversary party for my mom and dad a few years back.
Another crease happened when I got my mom a treadmill that she keeps in her garage so she can exercise even when it’s too hot or cold to go outside.
And she shows signs of a more recent crease since her birthday. Every time I talk with her on the phone, she says, “Scott, I had no idea that you were so good at throwing parties! When you said that you would take care of everything, you meant it! You did such a great job!” (I suppose I could tell her that my sister helped, but I’ve never been one to argue with my mom…)
Emotional memories leave the deepest imprints.
You might not remember many of your average days, but there’s a good chance you remember every day you spent on an emotional mountain top–or in an emotional gutter. Why? Emotional memories leave the deepest imprints.
Walk lightly so you don’t leave behind scars.
The little girl whose cold words carved out a piece of my mother’s heart likely forgot what she had said a few minutes after she spoke.
Watch your words and actions. They can leave scars.
When possible, leave behind a few GOLD STARS.
That treadmill I got for mom? I told her at the time that she should consider it her anniversary, birthday, and Christmas present for the next 10 years! She laughed hard and long, and probably because she laughed, she still remembers it to this day.
The anniversary and birthday party I helped throw for my mom included all of her favorite foods and guests. That’s probably why she still thanks me for my part in it every time we talk by phone.
Be intentionally positive with your words and actions, because they might serve as the last golden memory another person will hold onto.