Isn’t This Where We Started?
Irony and Remembering in Late Life

by Philip B. Stafford

A couple of years ago, after a long absence, we made a sentimental journey to the old neighborhood and realized the truth of the saying “You can never go back.” Gone was the casual and tolerant informality in lifestyles, along with the former graciousness displayed in area neighborhoods. Victorian houses had been razed and replaced by imposing new mansions, creating an atmosphere of wealth and even arrogance. New stores had ushered out the old familiar ones. New York merchants, with high-priced offerings, had moved into a huge, elaborate shopping mall a few miles distant. The lovely little village we cherished had vanished — like Brigadoon — and been replaced by ostentatious wealth and class distinction attesting to moneyed success.[1] 

Not too long ago, I made a similar “Trip to Bountiful” — back home to explore my old neighborhood in Hobart, Indiana. My parents moved to Hobart in 1948, seeking a small town alternative to life in the city. They purchased an 1850’s farmhouse on the edge of town, initiating a 20-year remodeling project that engaged all five members of the family. We moved the kitchen so many times we came to call it the “whichen.”[2] 

The acreage behind the house was mostly undeveloped woods and field, leading down to “Duck Crick,” where we spent hours and hours, in every season, wading, swinging, exploring, building forts, sledding and, occasionally smoking. Across the creek lay danger, as the area bordered the “hoody” part of town and kids from that neighborhood would shoot their BB guns at us as we played. It was a classic idyllic childhood, I have to say.

I left that neighborhood for college in 1967, my parents moved soon after and, in subsequent years, it rapidly developed into a suburban zone with ranch houses, cul-de-sacs, and neatly trimmed lawns. No wonder I was totally disoriented on my return to that neighborhood about 40 years later. It was difficult to imagine myself in the woods while looking around at asphalt and grass. As I was sitting at a street corner in my car, trying to orient myself to the area of the creek, I looked up at the street sign. It read “Memory Lane.”

That is irony. The (street) sign, in semiotics, would be called a zero-sign, where a presence derives its significance, for me, from an absence. How ironic that the sign is meant to evoke the value of memory (or, rather, nostalgia) when, in fact, the memory of the place has been radically erased.

As we reach advanced old age, much of our reality is defined by absences rather than presences. The scales begin to tip in favor of things gone, over things remaining. Positively and meaningfully engaging with absences becomes another of those existential challenges facing us in old age, akin to Erikson’s notion of integrity versus despair. Irony is perhaps the singular dramatic trope that defines our condition at this stage of life,[3] as we are surrounded by signs that signify absence — a landscape of trees and buildings razed, a house full of photographs of people no longer alive, a newspaper replete with wars that have been fought before.

To return to a landscape we inhabited in the past is to experience the dialectic tension between who we are and who we think we were. Irony occurs when there is a dissonance between the two identities and, as Vesperi has noted, citing Kenneth Burke, the irony can be tragic or comic. Erikson appears to have dwelt on the tragic, without considering the healthy function that the comic can play in sustaining our sense of psychological health (ego integrity). I can laugh at the Memory Lane sign. I can hold the cherished landscape in my heart even though it no longer exists.

Ralph Remembering

Some time ago I became interested in the process of individual remembering while listening to and working with an audio-recorded life history of an old friend, now deceased, whom I came to know initially through a counseling relationship during my days as a geriatric mental health worker. (I will call him Ralph to protect his anonymity.)

I recall with fondness how much of my so-called therapy with my older client (and others) centered around a process of reminiscence. I wouldn’t be so presumptuous as to call this “reminiscence therapy,” however, for that lends an overly professional label to something that felt much more like good company. What was remarkable about my old friend was his depth of attention to his past and his serious obsession with life review. Perhaps most notable about the six hours of audiotape is that they were produced by a man completely alone in his room, door closed, speaking into a microphone, like Samuel Beckett’s figure, Krapp,[4]  and unprovoked by the interviewer, so ubiquitous in most life history studies as an external condition of remembering.

To borrow these tapes, I phoned Ralph’s widow, with whom I had intermittent contact since his funeral several years ago, and inquired as to the availability of his tapes for my research. Graciously, she invited me to visit and took me to his room, which I found completely unchanged since his death — not a thing moved from the closet nor bureau, though clean and tidy as a pin, as is always the case with her entire house. Atop the bureau, among numerous family pictures, sat his wooden, slotted case, holding perhaps 100 or more audio cassettes, carefully labeled with dates and themes. Most of the tapes were “mixes” he created from country music stations on the radio. But, sure enough, there were five tapes labeled Golden Memories, and I suspected these contained his personal memories. With her permission, I borrowed the tapes to duplicate, including a couple of music mixes on the theme he called “Old Age Ain’t So Bad.”

Listening to the tapes has been an emotional experience for me. Hearing his gentle and articulate voice lent a renewed presence to our friendship. Discovering them five years after his death was like finding a secret gift, left by a friend too unassuming to demand instant recognition and gratitude.

It would be my wish to identify my friend and provide the recognition he never received during his life. But my friend is dead. He cannot provide his informed consent. My interpretation of his life cannot be confirmed nor co-authored. There is textual evidence, however, that he presumed an audience. Frequently, throughout the tapes, he makes comments such as: “Listen to this,” or “On this tape, we’ll talk about…” Moreover, he explicitly deletes major areas of his life story that he doesn’t want to talk about because they are too painful. While I am personally familiar with those events, I cannot make reference to them, out of respect for his wishes.


“Let me do what I can, be it ever so small each day, and if the dark days of despair and depression overtake me, let me not fail to recall the strength that comforted me in the desolation of other dark days...”


There are, in other words, things that are to be forgotten, but, as I reflect on the meaning of the story, the things forgotten lend meaning to the things remembered. The vividness and animation of his childhood memories stand in stark contrast to the brief and reportorial character of his summary of later life. Whole decades of his adult life are essentially elided. Yet, in his last tape, he brings his life full circle and, while sparing the details, makes reference to the role that failure has played in his life. He authors his own obituary and waxes philosophical as he reflects on his life as he has lived it, standing outside of the remembering itself.

In constructing a retrospective of his life, my friend relied on several tools. The primary tool was his own introspection, and I use the term consciously as a “looking in.” Frequently, he employs visual imagination, “his mind’s eye,” to revisit and describe the landscape of his childhood, experienced on foot. He employs self-drawn maps to recreate the expanding automobile-supported geography of his adolescent and adult years. He uses old photos to recollect his schools, teachers, and fellow students. Old-time songs taped from the radio support his sense of what things “were like” during the Depression. Occasionally, he makes reference to conversations with his brother and phone calls with school mates that helped to confirm memories.

For the most part, he did not, however, use the physical return to origins — the proverbial Trip to Bountiful — as a technique to jog his memory. The closer he came to the end of his life, the more painful did his visits back home become, as the landscape changed and the buildings disappeared. Increasingly, his comfort was derived from dwelling among things absent, not things present. It might be said that his childhood identity was no longer supported by the physical environment. Yet, alternatively, insofar as emotional pain was part of his adult identity, it was supported by the physical environment — an environment of zero signs, where the meaning (as a world lost) is derived from absences and not presences.

I don’t think it is paradoxical to suggest that my friend’s identity as a child and his identity as an adult were maintained concomitantly. In the privacy of his room, he was a time traveler, moving back and forth from the comfort zone of his past as reconstructed through remembering to the painful zone of his present, characterized, ironically, by absences — things he might have done. Some have argued that the work of autobiography in old age seeks continuity of self.[5] 

My friend, like Krapp, experienced discontinuity, moving to his childhood through the embodied tool of visualization, but continuingly re-encountering his adult self upon re-entrance into and reflection upon the present. I think he felt trapped by this paradox. Though I occasionally saw Ralph exhibit the comic, for him the irony was, sadly, too often tragic.

And finally, this could well be my obituary, if they would use it, heh, I don’t know if they would or not… born June the 21st, 1920, in a house long ago torn down, to John and Eunice Deckard, in Monroe County, at the foot of what is known as the Handy Hill. Of five children of John and Eunice, two lived beyond the first few months, John Jr., born on the 16th of August, 1917, and myself. I spent my childhood days on Handy Ridge from 1924, when they moved into the house there. I attended the first through eighth grade at the Red Hill School and four years at Unionville High School, graduating April the 21st, 19 and 39. [Dates and names are fictionalized.] The only accomplishment worth mentioning in my life is that I surpassed the allotted time that the Bible allows man, three score years and ten. And time will not permit to tell of all the blunders and mistakes in those years but I can always look back and think of what might have been.


“Though many of my former friends may seem to have forgotten me, let me not forget myself in despair. Though all the world may seem unfriendly, please do not let me become unfriendly with myself...”


In Wendell Berry’s short novel Remembering,[6]  Andy Catlett, a figure quite reminiscent of my friend, struggles with the pain of self-hatred, focused on the literal loss of a member — his hand — to a corn-picking machine and the figurative loss of his attachment to his own past. In his role as a farm agent, Andy is attending an agri-business conference in San Francisco and lapses into a deep depression as he ruminates obsessively about days gone by. When experienced as something which is absent, his past brings pain, as he thinks about the good old farmer and mentor Elton Penn:

To Andy, Elton’s absence became a commanding presence. He was haunted by things he might have said to Elton that would not be sayable again in this world. That absence is with him now, but only as a weary fact, known but no longer felt, as if by some displacement of mind or heart he is growing absent from it. It is the absence of everything he knows, and is known by, that surrounds him now. He is absent himself, perfectly absent. Only he knows where he is, and he is no place that he knows. His flesh feels its removal from other flesh that would recognize it or respond to its touch; it is numb with exile. He is present in his body, but his body is absent.

For Andy, recovery and redemption require remembering — re-membering[7]  the long chain of personal relationships over time and centered around a place, Port William, Kentucky. In a reverie near the end of the novel, Andy revisits Port William and discovers it occupied by the shades of his ancestors, not absent but present; and it is the world of the dead that leads him to the world of the living. The paradox is resolved, and his depression lifts as absence and presence are revealed as a unity.

While my friend’s obituary might suggest that he could not find the redemption that Andy Catlett found, perhaps at times he did. On his last tape he spoke something that he had composed and written down on the previous New Year’s Day, 1991. He wrote:

Let me do what I can, be it ever so small each day, and if the dark days of despair and depression overtake me, let me not fail to recall the strength that comforted me in the desolation of other dark days. Let me remember the bright days and hours that found me in the days gone by as I wandered in the woods behind my home on Handy Ridge and as I fished in Griffy Creek with my Dad. Let me recall the comfort that would quiet my puzzled mind as I sat beside a little stream and listened to the crows in the trees overhead. Let my memory relive the enjoyment I shared with others at Unionville High School and the fellowship of the church…

Though many of my former friends may seem to have forgotten me, let me not forget myself in despair. Though all the world may seem unfriendly, please do not let me become unfriendly with myself. Lift my downcast eyes upward as I jog my memory of the worth of friends, loved ones, and the sunshine and the moonbeams that flow in my bedroom window as I sit here and write here today…

Let not my disappointments of the past overcome my appreciation of all the good things that have befallen me in those seventy years plus. Give me a few friends who still love me just for what I am, and let me not condemn others lest in so doing I condemn myself. No, don’t let me get lost in the clamor of this world and all its effects, but let me just walk calmly down the path that is chosen for me in my latter days.

Though my sicknesses and my inabilities of these past few years tend to overtake me and I realize I have fallen so very short of the goals that I once had for myself and for my family, in days gone by, then Lord, teach me to be thankful for life and for time’s golden memories that are so good and sweet and will continue to the grave. Then, may I, as dust begins to settle on my life, be thankful for living, and for the privilege of family and friends, and the companionship of those who may, if they didn’t understand me… but, who kinda liked old Ralph, anyway, and were my friends.

Remembering and forgetting constitute a dialectic of presences and absences, each of which cannot exist without the other. What is said always leaves something else unsaid. Voice cannot exist without silence. As for my friend’s personal memory and autobiography, it is not my place to describe things he wants forgotten to an audience he didn’t create. Indeed, I suspect that, for most of us, our obituaries will recount things we did and not things “we didn’t.” Yet, as anthropologists who engage in cultural critique, an important role is to reveal and even resist the forces at work in the forgetting. Chief among those forces are the bulldozers of modern development, scraping the soil of its memory, creating new environments that bear no relationship to a past. When the bulldozers can’t be stopped, it becomes ever so important to employ story to sustain that connection to our past. Old people, as the rememberers, represent a treasure we must protect. They re-member our communities.

Philip B. Stafford, Ph.D., is a cultural anthropologist and Director of the Center on Aging and Community, Indiana Institute on Disability and Community at Indiana University in Bloomington, Indiana. He is a founding board member of the Memory Bridge Foundation and the author of numerous articles on culture and dementia, participatory research and planning, and the meaning of home for older people. His recent book, Elderburbia: Aging with a Sense of Place in America, was published by Praeger Press.


1 Francis Sanden, in E. Peterson-Veatch, ed., Experiencing Place (Bloomington, IN: Bloomington Hospital Evergreen Project, 1995).

2 This article is adapted from a paper read at the 2005 meetings of the American Anthropological Association, Washington, DC, entitled “Talking about Memory: Zero Signs, Irony and the Cultural Construction of Truth.”

3 Maria Vesperi, “A use of irony in contemporary ethnographic narrative,” in Philip B. Stafford, ed., Gray Areas: Ethnographic Encounters with Nursing Home Culture (Santa Fe: SAR Press, 2003).

4 Samuel Beckett, Krapp’s Last Tape and Other Dramatic Pieces (New York: Grove, 1960).

5 Sharon R. Kaufman, The Ageless Self: Sources of Meaning in Late Life (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1986). Also in Medical Anthropology Quarterly 2(2):189-90, June 1988.

6 Wendell Berry, “Remembering,” in Three Short Novels (New York: Counterpoint, 1992).

7 Barbara Myerhoff uses the hyphenated term re-membering in an essay entitled “Life history among the elderly: Performance, visibilility, and re-membering.” Kaminsky notes in his Introduction to that volume that Myerhoff claimed that the term originated with Victor Turner. See Barbara Myerhoff, Remembered Lives: The Work of Ritual, Storytelling, and Growing Older (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan, 1992).