What is memory? What do we remember? What makes something stand out in our mind so that we hold onto it in some format to come out years later in a conversation or on the page?
Yesterday Kathy wrote about her concerns that her memories are not specific enough for her memoirs. I argued that nobody’s memory is that precise, and that I find memoirs written with immense detail somewhat distracting because nobody can really remember every detail of his/her life, unless he/she took precise records on a daily basis.
We also all remember things differently. Even moments we spent together, when filtered through time, space, and the vagaries of personality will come out differently depending on the speaker. Every event can be interpreted with multiple truths like a never-ending production of Rashomon.
Yet, despite the variations in memory, certain things stick out. Tonight, as we took Sarah on her second round of Trick-or-Treating for what I am calling Halloween 2011, And Event that Never Ends she started complaining that her toe hurt.
The fastest runner gets the candy first
“Do you want to go back?”
“No! But it hurts.”
“Would you like me to cut it off at the neck? That will stop the pain.”
My brother, who was with us in his Woodstock costume commented on my choice of words as another parent who I just met said, “I haven’t heard that in a long time.”
“I am my father’s daughter,” I answered.
A few minutes ago, as I was trying to watch a movie and Jasper decided he needed some affection I said, “Jasper, you are a better door than a window, even though you are a pain.”
Oh yeah, that's the spot.
Steve, who is spending the night, said, “I haven’t heard that in a long time.”
“I am my father’s daughter,” I said again.
What does this have to do with memory, you ask.
It has everything to do with the memory of who my Dad used to be. I have incorporated many of his sayings into my life, and Sarah says some of them. These are phrases that I would hear repeatedly from my Dad once upon a time a long time ago. Because, you see, my Dad is still with us physically but each day moves further away from us into the world of memory, while simultaneously unable to remember anything.
Now, usually, a typical conversation with him involves his asking how old Sarah is and what grade she is in about five times in a row.
I answer each time, because I know he really cannot remember.
Today we learned that one of Dad’s oldest friends passed away. I do not know how he took the news, as I haven’t talked to Mom yet to find out. Would the news of a friends passing push him back into memories of younger days, when age and illness hadn’t entered the picture? Or would he simply forget soon after hearing the news, content in a moment not embedded in his memory?
Despite the fact that both my parents are still in my life, I struggle to remember specific moments in my childhood. It is not that I had anything majorly traumatic; I just cannot remember a lot. Occasional snippets come into my mind, like a movie jumping from scene to scene with poor editing:
- Me presenting my mother with a homemade Mother’s Day present that involved a real branch and paper flowers.
- Me running into the house after a bad day, running up to my room and hiding from my mother and trying to ignore my mother’s knocks as she asked me what was wrong.
- My parents sitting near each other on the couch and my father reaching over and giving my mother a gentle touch, unaware that I was watching. I believe this was my first awareness (as a pre-teen) that my parents were intimate.
- My father’s recitation every year in early spring of the following snippet of classic poetry: “Spring has sprung, the grass has ris, I wonder where the birdies is? The birds is on the wing, no the wings is on the birds.”
- The one and only conversation I ever remember having about sex with a parent, when my mother was driving me back to college one day (and this doesn’t even count as a childhood memory)
- My mom frosting a chocolate cake for someone’s birthday.
This list of tiny moments of memory could go on forever, but I struggle to remember anything substantial. What memories of my life will I return too if I succumb to this awful disease? What memories of life will I leave Sarah with as she moves on into her own life?
Sometimes I wish I could go back in time and rediscover the moments of childhood that mean the most. I wish I did not have to rely on memories that are either faint or misremembered.
I wish I had kept better records of my own life and the lives of my family, but all I have now are remnants and habits that come from sources that I barely remember. As I search for more detailed memories, I realized that memories live within me. In the phrases I use to speak to my daughter, in the foods I cook at special times of year (recipes from my mother). Memories don’t always come back with a full picture, but they can appear in the smell of baked apple pie.
What happens when there is nothing left, not even memories?
This morning I woke with this song in my head (although I struggled to figure out what it was–thank goodness “There’s an APP for that” and that my brother had it). In some ways I think it is perfect because it reflects the challenges that often come when trying to communicate through the inconsistencies of memories.