Memory, Sweet But Fragile Memory

And the night shall be filled with music,
And the cares that infest the day
Shall fold their tents like the Arabs
And as silently steal away.
~Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, The Day Is Done

My mother was an amazing person and probably the most influential on my life and certainly on my values and outlook.  My mother died several years ago at the age of 93.  She was remarkable for many reasons, not the least of which having raised five children, four of them boys, while moving the family from Oklahoma to Nebraska to Oregon to California and finally to Idaho over the course of her life from 1915 to 2008.

But one thing about my mother’s life has haunted me over the past few years, and that is her battle with dementia and alzheimer’s as she aged. While this is not so unusual in people who live a long time now days, her situation was remarkable in one aspect.  While  she couldn’t remember the names of her children or even her husband’s name, she could still play Beethoven on the piano from memory!

I recall visiting her in Idaho at my brother’s home where she was staying about a year or two before she died.  In the little apartment above the garage she had her piano and nearly every afternoon I would hear beautiful piano music dancing in the air.  She was rapidly losing her memory of people and time, but not of her music.  My mother had been a piano teacher, choir teacher and organist at church for most of her life and it was she who introduced me to classical music at an early age. By far her most favourite piece of music, which her choirs performed every Christmas, was Handel’s Messiah.

One day my very young daughter sat down beside Grandma and they played the piano together for what seemed like hours, giggling, laughing and hugging.  I believe Stephanie, my now 13-year-old classical violinist got much of her musicality from my mother, maybe through genetics but certainly by osmosis as well.

So does anyone know how the brain (or better yet the mind) functions such that my mother couldn’t recall names or faces but could recall Beethoven sonatas?  I’m certain there is chemistry and neuroscience involved in the explanation, but I also believe love of music is somehow a contributor as well.

Memory, sweet but fragile memory!

Tight Lines . . .

John R Childress

About johnrchildress

John Childress is a pioneer in the field of strategy execution, culture change, executive leadership and organization effectiveness, author of several books and numerous articles on leadership, an effective public speaker and workshop facilitator for Boards and senior executive teams. In 1978 John co-founded The Senn-Delaney Leadership Consulting Group, the first international consulting firm to focus exclusively on culture change, leadership development and senior team alignment. Between 1978 and 2000 he served as its President and CEO and guided the international expansion of the company. His work with senior leadership teams has included companies in crisis (GPU Nuclear – owner of the Three Mile Island Nuclear Plants following the accident), deregulated industries (natural gas pipelines, telecommunications and the breakup of The Bell Telephone Companies), mergers and acquisitions and classic business turnaround scenarios with global organizations from the Fortune 500 and FTSE 250 ranks. He has designed and conducted consulting engagements in the US, UK, Europe, Middle East, Africa, China and Asia. Currently John is an independent advisor to CEO’s, Boards, management teams and organisations on strategy execution, corporate culture, leadership team effectiveness, business performance and executive development. John was born in the Cascade Mountains of Oregon and eventually moved to Carmel Highlands, California during most of his business career. John is a Phi Beta Kappa scholar with a BA degree (Magna cum Laude) from the University of California, a Masters Degree from Harvard University and was a PhD candidate at the University of Hawaii before deciding on a career as a business entrepreneur in the mid-70s. In 1968-69 he attended the American University of Beirut and it was there that his interest in cultures, leadership and group dynamics began to take shape. John Childress resides in London and the south of France with his family and is an avid flyfisherman, with recent trips to Alaska, the Amazon River, Tierra del Fuego, and Kamchatka in the far east of Russia. He is a trustee for Young Virtuosi, a foundation to support talented young musicians. You can reach John at or
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4 Responses to Memory, Sweet But Fragile Memory

  1. Halit Turgay says:

    Incredible story …


  2. Jennifer Fite says:

    John – research suggests that procedural memory is largely governed by structures in the brain that are separate from those involved with explicit/factual memory, such as names and dates. There are a myriad of research papers on this topic, but one famous case was that of HM (, who developed retrograde and anterograde amnesia and lost the ability to make new memories, although he retained the ability to learn spatial tasks and procedures. I am willing to bet that grandma would not have been able to sit down and write out the notes to her favorite songs, yet once sitting at the piano she could play them perfectly. I always loved watching her play.


  3. Moving story John. Thanks for sharing.


  4. Raunak says:

    John, thanks for sharing such a touching aspect of your life in the form of a beautiful narrative.


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