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A recipe for memory

News production editor | Monday, November 16, 2009

Every time I eat pancakes, I think of my grandfather.
Something about the smells of syrup and fresh batter and the combination of those things melting in my mouth takes me back to my childhood.  
When I was three years old, my mother and I would go to my grandparent’s house every Tuesday morning, where my grandpa would make us pancakes.
I still remember him standing at the stove in his bathrobe while Mom sat at the table with me.
Those mornings are some of my earliest memories, yet I can still picture them clearly in my mind.
Last week, Grampy passed away.
And so I found myself boarding a bus for Cleveland to be with my family. As I stared into the endless cornfields along the Ohio turnpike, I was flooded with memories of Grampy.
He, on the other hand, didn’t remember much of anything by the end of his life, as is true of so many people who develop Alzheimer’s disease.
I began to wonder what memory really is, after all.
Why am I able to vividly remember those Tuesday mornings when I was three years old, but in his last years of life my grandfather struggled to remember things as simple as the names of his grandchildren?
And worst of all, what will happen if my own parents lose their memories, and will I someday also have Alzheimer’s?
When I arrived at my aunt’s house last Thursday evening, I found my family hovered around a table covered in photographs.
They were making display boards of pictures for the wake the following morning, but I found that the very process of looking at the pictures was most important.
Each photo sparked a different memory. Some of the pictures triggered memories I did not even know I had, such as piling into my grandfather’s old red Mustang convertible with my cousins for a ride around the neighborhood on a sunny summer afternoon.
Scientists can explain memory, and I hope they continue to make progress in research about Alzheimer’s. But all we need are our own experiences to understand how it all works.
Years from now, you won’t remember reading this column. Instead, you might have memories of sitting in the dining hall reading The Observer and talking to your friends.
But if you happen to be eating pancakes, I can guarantee you they do not compare to the ones my grandfather made.
One last thing about those pancakes: When I was still three years old and sitting in Grampy’s kitchen, I asked my mom why his pancakes were so good.
“They’re made with a special ingredient,” she told me.
She paused, and I asked impatiently about this secret recipe. Grampy chuckled as Mom responded with just one word.