Monday, November 24, 2008

Memories can be tricky

My sisters tell me that I once fell off the plank bridge Grandpa laid across the creek. The creek was high with the spring melt, and I would have been swept away but my cousin Tom grabbed one of my hands as I fell and was able to drag me back out. I lost a shoe.

They love to tell this story. I have no memory of it at all. My mother didn't remember it, either, but Mom's memory of our early childhood was extremely spotty. She was overwhelmed by our sheer numbers and blocked most of it out.

My parents-in-law used to park their motor home in the street in front of our house, plug into our electrical service, and stay for months. This was a problem for us. It's exhausting to have guests week after week, whether they sleep in the guest room or at the curb. One year my husband took his mother aside and told her that we simply couldn't host them for such a long time. This provoked a painful argument between them which left my husband tight-lipped and pale.

Some years later, after both of my in-laws had passed away, I mentioned that argument to my husband. He had no memory of it. None. He was certain it had never happened.

My Younger Sister remembers my Older Sister and me going to extreme lengths to scare the bejesus out of her when we were all small and shared a bedroom. OS and I remember how frightened YS was of the dark but we don't think we ever intentionally provoked her. When she was scared she'd leap from her little bed (not wanting her feet to touch the floor, where a snake was likely waiting to bite her) into the big iron bed that OS and I shared, which made sleeping difficult for all of us.

When my second husband (then boyfriend) graduated from college he moved to SoCal to take a job he considered his dream-job. My whole family lived in the Midwest and I had no intention of ever leaving, so when I graduated six months later I took a job in Minnesota. Eventually my husband moved to Minnesota to be with me. Curiously, he never looked for a job while we lived there, but I was frantically busy with work and wedding plans and didn't have time to think about the implications of that. I nagged him a bit (a lot?) and let it go.

At some point, he admitted that he hadn't actually quit his job in SoCal. He was on a leave of absence and had to be back there a month after our wedding. This came as a terrific shock to me, one which rippled through the early years of our marriage and eventually forced us to seek marriage counseling. But here's the tricky part: for years I told that story as though he made his confession after the wedding. One day I got to thinking about it, and it occurred to me that he might have told me before the wedding. I asked him which way he remembered it and he doesn't. Remember it, I mean. He doesn't know when he told me.

You see how perfidious a thing memory is, don't you?

As I get older, I trust my memories less and less. The broad strokes are clear enough, but the details get fuzzy. If you had asked me a week ago how many lines I had in "The Man Who Came to Dinner" when we performed it at my high school, I'd have said five or six. Watching the play this weekend (as performed by The Shoestring Players at Youngest Daughter's high school), I was shocked to discover that I had four scenes with several lines apiece. Huh. How about that?

I always thought my grandmother lived with us for at least a year in the C Avenue house which we occupied from the summer of 1956 to the summer of 1958. Looking through old documents, I discover it couldn't have been more than a few months. A month is a long time to an eight-year-old, so a few months could easily translate to a whole year half-a-century down the road. And a small role in a high school drama could shrink to a tiny one. But what's up with that other stuff?

Was I so traumatized by falling in the creek that I buried the whole thing deep? Or maybe I just slipped a bit and lost a shoe, and in my sisters' memories a close thing became a near tragedy. Maybe my husband told me about his leave of absence much sooner than I remember, and the decision I had to make was whether or not to cancel the wedding and not whether or not I wanted to be twice-divorced.

I'm not as worried about what I've forgotten as I am about what I remember. Time, emotions, and other people's retellings of shared events have an effect on our memories. How do we reconcile our varied versions? Silly question. We settle things in our favor. We prefer our own lying eyes to anybody else's.

So, what's the upshot? Well, memory is unreliable. Perspective matters. And, damn it, reality turns out to be highly subjective.

1 comment:

agentfouser said...

great post. memory is a funny thing, and we constantly deal with that aspect of it without realizing it.