I was talking with my brother, Michael, after dinner last night and he conjured up an old face from way back when. He’d been visiting with our father, and Dad mentioned his long time friend. “Peter someone,” Michael said, and I grasped at his last name until it came to me. It was Curran. Peter Curran.
Even so, the minute Michael mentioned the man, Pete Curran’s face popped into my mind. They were in the war together, Michael informed me, which made sense because it seems that face has been part of my memory bank forever. Searching for my earliest memory associated with Peter’s face, I settled on an enormous house on the hill outside of Norvelt, Pennsylvania. We moved from that house when I was three years old.
Peter Curran was “a professor of mathematics at Fordham for nearly five decades”, according to his obituary in Fordham News. We moved from the Eastern Seaboard when I was sixteen, and I am pretty sure I have not seen him since. Yet, his face is still easily retrieved from my memory vaults.
Our ability to remember faces is astonishing, especially these days when no one can remember a phone number, or what they just finished reading on their Facebook news feed. I search my brain for the right word when I speak, and carry a notebook to record all the little things I think of during the day. One minute it’s in my brain, and the next it has evaporated.
I was sweeping the pine bark off the sidewalk at work this morning, chasing an errant thought, and a different thought popped into my head. Maybe we have trouble remembering things as we age because there are so many faces stored in our brains. Back in college anthropology class, I learned about Koko, a gorilla with an impressive vocabulary of 2,000 words. One piece of Koko’s story stood out. At 2,000 words, she was still able to pick up new words, but for every new word learned, she forgot an old one.
It is common knowledge that although our world is very different from the world of our cave people ancestors, humans have not evolved much physiologically. Our knees, unused to jogging and other extreme sports, break down with alarming frequency. We still crave sugar, salt, and fat. And we probably only have room in our brains for a couple hundred faces. Problem is, we meet thousands of people in our lifetimes, all of whose feature our eyes expertly scan and sock away for future retrieval. Survival depends on knowing the difference between strangers and our tribe.
Dad’s old army buddy died last April, a few days after my father’s 92nd birthday. I may have trouble remembering Peter Curran’s name, or much about the year I lived in Norvelt, or even what I had for dinner last night, but his face, a face I have not seen for close to fifty years lives on in my mind’s eye. I am certain both my father and I will be able to call up this face, and many others until we draw our last breath.