Me, Myself and Memory
A former Peace Corps colleague sent me the photo of a group of us on the beach in Cartagena, Colombia. There’s no doubt that the young, thin woman stretched out on the sand is me. But I have no recollection of that day trip to Cartagena fifty years ago. It’s as if I lost that day of my life.
So many moments, days, people and events have vanished in the convoluted folds of my cerebral cortex. My grown son mentioned that I took him to the doctor several times as a child for his back ailments. I feel miserable because I don’t remember. I thought it was his brother that had the back problems. I’ve always believed that our memories are selective, recalling significant people and events in one’s life. Yet, this was my own son whose medical history I’d forgotten. When I say, “I don’t remember,” my sons must think she’s losing it.
Neurologist Oliver Sacks said that it is memory that makes our lives. This starts me thinking: what things do I remember? The list of visual scenes is endless: my family home, the floor plan of a grandmother’s house, the Springer spaniel we had when I was a child, the face of my father taking his last breaths, my son Danny standing on the toilet while I dried his hair with the hairdryer after his bath, the night I met my husband. My visual images are often triggered by remembered smells – the dry summer grasses of California hills, pungent redwood groves, Coppertone suntan lotion, my husband’s pajamas – and by sounds – the whistle of a train, rain on the roof, a voice on the telephone. My memory is particularly sharp at recalling the many times I put my foot in my mouth.
Yet, as I age, memory lapses multiply like rabbits. Frustrating, though not life-threatening, is my difficulty recalling names of actors, actresses and singers. One in particular gives me trouble time and time again, so I’ve trained myself to remember the letter O. Then the name comes to me. Oh, yes! Olivia Newton-John. Sometimes I must go through the entire alphabet until the name of the woman across the room comes to me.
Word retrieval is tricky when two languages are involved. I’ll be speaking in Spanish when a key word comes to me only in English. (Or vice versa).This is especially stressful when I’m in the company of several people. I turn to my husband for help. “What’s the word in Spanish for….? That thing that….You know…. But he doesn’t know what the devil I’m referring to.
For my experiential memories, my imagination must fill in the gaping holes shaping the memory to my own liking. This can lead to disagreement when recalling a shared event with someone: “But it wasn’t like that at all”!
Another type of exchange not unusual in our household goes like this:
“I did tell you!”
“No you did not!”
“Yes, I did, I distinctly remember. We were standing in the kitchen.” At this point, I give up. Who’s to say whose memory is more accurate? Though I continue to be convinced I’m right.
I envy those who have been constant in keeping journals over the years. I’m a sporadic journalist, though when traveling, I always take a pencil and notebook along. I recently came across a forgotten diary I’d kept during a visit to Colombia. Rereading it was a revelation and a joy bringing back lost moments, details and impressions: the rocky, wild bus ride into the barrio, a small girl in the barrio asking me if I was an albino, the death of my friend Ana, a trip with 8-year-old Hansi for his first view of the ocean.
Although I lament and wonder about the many forgotten moments – books I’ve read, children I taught, dances I danced – I believe that have stayed with me. They are a part of my life story.