As I get older, I notice my memory’s not as good as it used to be. For me, that’s not much. I was a dreamy, scattered bookworm child, who, now, probably would’ve been diagnosed with ADD, but back then, I don’t think there was such a thing.
As a sparkly first grader, I loved to smell the freshly pressed “ditto” worksheets that our teacher gave us. The purple-inked papers had such an intoxicating aroma! I’m sure inhaling the spirit duplicating fluid didn’t do much for my developing braincells.
I spent a great deal of my formative years being told to “pay attention,” “stop daydreaming,” and “just tell the facts.”
Poet Dylan Thomas describes me perfectly in a passage he wrote in a “Child’s Christmas in Wales”:
“I can never remember whether it snowed for six days and six nights when I was twelve, or whether it snowed for twelve days and twelve nights when I was six.”
That’s me, now. I can remember the essence or intention of a conversation, but maybe not all the details. I’m horrible with names. Dates? Not so much. How old am I? I have to count in my head. (Once, when a doctor asked me that very question, and I was counting back, I swear I could see him write “patient does not know how old she is.”) Left, or right? Which hand is my ring on? It drives people crazy when I give directions—“turn left” (gesturing with the right hand) “at the store with the purple flowers in the yard.” As an adult and former teacher, I often use parables to communicate, weaving many thoughts together to make a point.
It’s funny how memories are stored.
Once, my husband and I were driving along a freeway, either in Arkansas or Oklahoma. A mountain lion ran out right in front of our car. We were doing at least 70 miles an hour. I remember seeing a streak of ochre swooping towards us on the driver’s side, then, in the mirror, a feline profile, ears pinned back, eyes squinting, concentrating on getting across the highway. The details of the expression of the cat, even the whiskers are etched in my mind—if I could draw better, I could recreate the image of the cat in the mirror, but I don’t remember which mirror it was, or where we physically were.
I am not alone in dealing with a selective memory. Many of us tend to better remember bad things that happen, rather than good. (Remember junior high school?) I’ve been told that’s how the brain protects us from danger. Focusing on unpleasant or bad things will hopefully teach us not to do them again; but then, I know a lot of happy-go-lucky people who blissfully skip through life leaving behind a trail of chaos and devastation to which they are oblivious.
Our museum deals a lot in memories. People send us stories of what they remember from their childhood or their service. We take things they share on face value, because memories are subjective. Things that we remember from even a few weeks ago can change. Did that event happen in Arizona, or in Nevada? Was it a house or a barn?
When people come to the museum, they have all sorts of stories they want to share with us and we are happy to listen, to the good, the bad, and the in between. We appreciate them for what they are: a snippet of a piece of memory etched in their minds. We are not the truth police—and don’t want to be.
Sometimes couples come in, and one starts telling a story and the other one jumps in to correct him/her and highjack it.
Spouse One: “I remember back one September when we were sitting around the table…”
Spouse Two jumps in and says, “No it wasn’t September, it was November; I remember the Halloween candy sitting on the table.”
Spouse One, “Really? Are you sure? I could swear it was September.”
Spouse Two, “No, mid-November. I remember Mary was trying to open one of those little bags of candy corn—or maybe it was gummy bears. I think it was gummy bears.”
“Oh, ok,” concedes Spouse One.
While this verbal tennis is happening, I’m waiting to hear the story, and hope that the month is really, really important to the plot because Spouse One is looking deflated and has lost some enthusiasm for telling the story. When it does come, it’s usually recounted in a monotone.
I wonder how many memories don’t get shared because, over a lifetime, someone has been interrupted or cut off by someone, or they feel as if they don’t get all the facts exactly right—or the names or details—they’ll be called out on it.
I used to teach a mentoring class at the VA where we talked about active listening, showing the traditional vs the simplified Chinese symbols for the word “to listen” to illustrate a point.
Traditionally, people listened respectfully with their whole bodies, honoring the speaker; now the emphasis is on judging and refuting.
Today, people are in such a hurry. Information is instantaneous. People are quick to judge. We are busy. We have too much to do, checklists to complete, jobs to go to.
Listening to old movies, I am struck at how slowly they all spoke. My parents speak slowly, while I frequently cut people off mid-sentence. I’m not being rude, I tell myself, I’m being enthusiastic about what they are saying.
Still, thinking about Spouse One, I wonder how many memories I’ve missed hearing, not because I’m rude, but because I’m scattered. I wonder how many people have wonderful stories to tell, but are afraid they don’t remember it exactly the way it happened and that they’ll be judged… or corrected.
People remember things differently, and fortunately they mostly remember the important stuff.
Stephen R. Covey, author of “The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People,” once said, “Two people can see the same thing, disagree, and yet both be right. It’s not logical; it’s psychological.”
So, don’t be like Spouse Two. It doesn’t matter if the memory is perfectly factually, accurate. Shared memories really come from the heart.
Circe Olson Woessner runs the Museum of the American Military Family in Tijeras, and covers veterans issues for The Independent. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.