Jim Bishop: Memories, pressed between the pages of our lives

On this Memorial Day weekend, I ask openly, why are memories so important to us earthlings?

Maybe that’s not the proper way to phrase the question. Some people may go out of their way to suppress certain memories. For others, their minds are playing nasty tricks on them as victims of Alzheimer’s disease.

I need memories – we all do, I believe – not to push us back into living in the past, which is all too easy to do, but to help nourish and uphold us as we deal with the numerous challenges and hassles that occupy our lives in the present moment and in facing the future unknown.

Most of my recurring memories focus on family. When a loved one departs this life, such as my mom and dad, I reflect often on the guidance, values and unbridled love they gave us siblings and treasure that legacy.

The 1930’s-era Crosley floor model radio (that still works) that once occupied space in the living room of my paternal grandparents, Walter S. and Priscilla Bishop, now stands like an electronic sentry in our living room. I’ll occasionally turn it on, wait for the giant vacuum tubes to warm up and tune in a Philadelphia AM radio station that comes booming in at night. It reminds me of “Nana” – Grandpa Bishop died in 1943, two years before my birth – and especially the many hour in my childhood spent seated in a chair in her third floor apartment, listening intently to radio serials on that mammoth super heterodyne.

Back in my home community earlier this year for the sixth annual Bishop cousins ScrappleFest, I spent about an hour with cousins Jon and Don Smith in the expansive graveyard at the Doylestown Mennonite Church. Mental images repeatedly surfaced from the decade that our family lived next door to the church (1952-62) and the many hours we siblings rode bikes on the narrow macadam paths, stopping to read names and epitaphs on weathered tombstones.

It’s amazing how an event, or even someone’s offhand comment, can trigger a song in my melody-clogged mind. Wife Anna remarked how great it was for the sun to reappear, however briefly, after nearly a week of clouds and nonstop downpours and from nowhere came the words to a song:
“Jesus wants me for a sunbeam, to shine for him each day,
In every way try to please him, at home, at school at play . . .”

I couldn’t believe it; this tune from childhood Sunday school days had vanished for decades, and suddenly I was again bellering the words and melody. Without a pause, the chorus burst forth as well:
“A sunbeam, a sunbeam, Jesus wants me for a sunbeam,
A sunbeam, a sunbeam, I’ll be a sunbeam for him.”

It works the other way too. A song from my teenage years suddenly invades my cerebral cortex, i.e., “Decided (By the Angels)” by Ronnie Dawson from 1960 played on radio station KQV, Pittsburgh, and I recollect scenes from that memorable summer on staff at Laurelville Mennonite Church Center in Westmoreland County, Pa.

“Sea Cruise,” a 1959 swamp rock ditty from Frankie Ford, immediately conjures up listening by the hour to WIBG radio 99, Philadelphia, on my Silvertone six-transistor radio. On one occasion, this rockin’ ditty was blasting over the public address system while I cleaned the sanctuary of the Doylestown Mennonite Church and the bishop, Joe Gross, appeared unexpectedly. My dad saw to it that that episode would not repeat itself.

Or play “Maybe You’ll Be There” by Billy & the Essentials, one of my favorite oldies from 1962 and I visualize cruising the roads of Bucks County, Pa., with my buddies with freshly-minted driver’s license in hand. It would be the last relatively carefree period of life before entering our senior year of high school and needing to start thinking about what we might eventually want to do with our bucolic existence.

More serious music, such as hearing a work from my favorite classical composer, Pyotr Ilich Tchaikovsky, stirs up memories – not all fond –of weekly piano lessons with Mr. Partsch, or the hymn, “Be Still My Soul” (from Silelius’ Finlandia), conjures up fond reminiscences of my late father, J. Vernon Bishop. My brother Michael Bishop led this stirring selection and soloed on several verses at his funeral in 1998.

I take many photos, and have for years, and try to keep them updated in albums with captions. Paging through an album or watching a home video from long ago isn’t often easy to view, because I’m reminded of how fast the time flies.

When we come together, for a reunion or similar group gathering, much time is given to reliving memories that help us to celebrate the good times and shared values that bind us together.

Memories, of the way we were, can stir our hearts and minds and help provide strength and resolve for the journey ahead. All aboard!

Jim Bishop is public information officer at Eastern Mennonite University. He can be contacted at bishopj@emu.edu.

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