Study Guide

The Usual Rules Memory and the Past

By Joyce Maynard

Memory and the Past

She would list all the things she would do—cut off her hair, cut off her arm, both legs, gain fifty pounds, two hundred, never have a boyfriend, never have anybody fall in love with her for her whole life, stand naked in front of her whole gym class—if she could just return to how it was before. (1.137)

When Wendy remembers the moment before she learned about the 9/11 attacks, she imagines all the things she would have traded in order for the attacks not to happen so she could still live in a world where her mother was safe and sound.

They kept showing the same pictures. The low plane. The crash. The building peeling down to nothing from the inside out. The people running. Firemen. The melted trucks. She wanted to freeze the picture so she could try to figure out what floor the plane had hit, but maybe that wasn't such a good idea. (3.40)

It's hard to forget about what happened to her mother when the news stations are showing the same footage over and over and again. Wendy can't help but feel sick and mesmerized as she wonders how her mother felt when it happened.

The only part left you could recognize. Only where the plaza used to be, where just last week Louie had practiced his skipping, there was nothing but a mountain of metal and dust. How high, she couldn't tell at first, until she made out the forms of a couple of men in orange vests in the middle of the vast expanse of rubble. (3.280)

Wendy remembers visiting her mother at the World Trade Center and seeing those huge buildings just a week earlier. Now there's nothing but rubble, little more than the memory of where they used to stand.

It wasn't hard remembering the fights because there'd been lots of those. Jesus Christ, Janet. If what you cared about so much was a microwave oven and health insurance, you should have married a damn banker. (4.47)

Even though Wendy misses Garrett, she doesn't have this idea that their family life was wonderful; after all, her parents did fight a lot. Deep down inside, she knows her mother is happier with Josh than she was with Garrett.

Sometimes when Wendy let herself start thinking about her mother, it would be memories of whole days that came to her: the birthday party—second grade—where her mother had taught her and a bunch of her friends how to do the Charleston and Kate had made a video of them in their flapper outfits. (7.23)

Once Wendy starts remembering all the good times she had with her mother, she can't stop—and the worst part is that she knows these are all the memories she will ever have. They won't make any new memories together.

She wanted to remember everything, and yet she couldn't bear to. Once you lowered your raft into the rapids, there was no steering anymore.

I never understood this before, she heard Josh saying one night when Roberto had stopped by, how precious everything was. (7.35-36)

Now that Janet is gone, all they have are memories of her. None of them realized how precious and fleeting their life together was—not even Josh, who thought he'd be with Janet for the rest of his life.

I'm maybe twelve years old at the time. He's sixteen, and there's sure to be other stuff he'd rather be doing with his Saturdays, but he signs the permission slip like he's a grown-up, in cursive. Rides the bus with me to the park every Saturday and sits on the bleachers through all my games. After a while, I've got a few hookups with this other kid's dad, where I could probably have got there without him, but he still came to every game just to watch. When I got a hit, I could always hear him cheering like a maniac. (24.40)

Even though Todd hasn't seen his brother in years, he still considers Kevin the most important person in his life. After all, his brother made sacrifices for him and was always there to cheer him on. He gave him a happy childhood.

It was starting to be Christmas. If this was an ordinary year, they'd be making plans to take a trip out to Connecticut to cut down their tree. You could buy one right on the street near their apartment, but Josh liked tromping through the woods in the snow and cutting it down with an ax. On their way home with the tree on the roof of their car, they always stopped at a diner that served the best macaroni and cheese. (28.1)

Wendy no longer has the prospect of lovely Christmases spent with her mother, Josh, and Louie to look forward to. Instead, she can reflect on those memories while spending the holidays in California with Garrett.

Hearing Kate's voice after all that time gave Wendy a dull, empty feeling, like walking past a house you used to live in a long time ago, and they've changed the paint and the stone lion that used to be out front is gone. She thought about the old days, not just before September, but before Josh and Louie, too, all those nights when she and her mother and Kate would curl up on the couch together watching Shirley Temple movies or old musicals and eating popcorn. (28.34)

Even hearing Kate's voice on the phone is a bit painful for Wendy because it reminds her of all the times she spent with Kate and her mother. Now they won't ever have a girls' night in with movies and popcorn. It's super sad.

One more thing remained in the box. It was in an envelope. She opened it very slowly, undoing the top instead of ripping the paper, picturing her mother sealing it up all those months before. After this one last gift from her mother, there would be no more, ever. (34.35)

Wendy waits for a long time to open the gifts from her mother that Josh sends her in the mail. After this, her mom will never give her a gift again, so these are the last memories of opening a gift from Janet that Wendy will ever have. Understandably, she savors this moment.