On (not) Understanding Memory: The Oldest and Only Story


Memory is messy.  It’s unkind, unfair, and more often than not, memory fails us.

We count on it to tell us who we are and where we’ve been.  We use it predict what’s next—as a foundation for projecting ourselves into the future and imagining where we’d like to be and what we’d like to accomplish in the coming week or month or year.  Memory reminds us where we’ve failed, and we rely on it tell what we should work harder on in the future.

Memory helps us recall where we’ve succeeded, as well.  It’s the basis for self-esteem, for how well we recollect our triumphs and who we credit for the good things that happen.

Given all of this, and given that we are in many ways what we remember, what does it say about us that we retain so few memories of our earliest childhoods?  And what do our first memories tell us about who we were as kids, what our lives were like, to whom we were most attached and why?

Interestingly, my earliest memory is of Kimmy, my paternal grandmother, on the occasion of my sister Susan’s birth.  (To read a post about Kimmy, click here.)

We are in a hospital waiting room.  I’m standing on the floor, between Kimmy’s knees.  I’m little—my tiny hands on her thighs.  I don’t know if we are waiting while my mother is in labor, or waiting for Kimmy’s chance to visit my mom after the birth has already occurred.

I would have been nearly three—one month shy of my third birthday.

I don’t know how accurate this memory is.  I don’t know if I ever actually waited with Kimmy in that room.  I know memory is not always accurate.

What I do know, however, is that this is what I remember, what I recall having come first—the first in an endless series of recollections—the first that I retained—the first to surface from the deep-sea of who Kathy was.  It’s a memory with buoyancy.  It’s one that stands distinct from all the rest, from all that came before, a lighted place in time and space, floating on the face of otherwise deep, dark waters.

Is it a memory of my mother’s absence, of Kimmy’s presence, or of a sister soon to be?  Is it one about separation, connection, or anticipation?  Or is it all of these?

Obviously, I can never know for sure.

What I do know, however, is that this memory might tell me something about my grandmother’s role in my early life, something about her presence, her permanence, her being a bridge—a point of light.

It reminds of other early memories of Kimmy—of her playing Old Maids with me and Concentration—of being stretched out on the carpet in her living room, turning over square cards with pictures, looking for the matches—the things that went together.

I remember the grid they formed on the floor—a way of laying out the reality of how games were played and lives were led—of not knowing where the pairs were located, but confident that they were there and could be found, if only I remembered hard enough, well enough, accurately enough.

It’s interesting that Kimmy played a memory game with me—that what I recall is play that made me think, remember, find—a memory about matches.  A memory about pairs.

Is this memory of playing Concentration, this memory about looking for mates, for twins—actually about my identical twin having been lost to me?  Is the memory of Kimmy in the waiting room really about the anticipation of a sister to be born?  Is it about a sister’s arrival for the first time or the hope, for me, of a twin sister’s return?  (To read a post about my twin, click here.)

In other words, are these both really memories about what would have been my earliest memory, if only I remembered it—a memory of loss—the hope of return—a faith that my twin sister and I would be reconnected?  Is this not so much a memory about being separate from my mother, or feeling close to Kimmy, or anticipating Susan’s arrival—but actually a memory much, much older?  A memory of Marty, my identical twin—of the closeness we had shared in the placenta, my loss of her—alone in an incubator—my longing for her, one that I experienced as hope when I was promised another sister?

I don’t know the answers to any of these questions about these particular memories.

I only know that memory is complex, not what we think it is, that the memory of one person, one place, one time, might really be a memory of someone else in a much more distant past—the as of yet undiscovered pair.

I only know that I will never know for sure.

I only know that memory is like that—often more about what’s missing than the thing that’s there.  Memory is impossible to pin down, and memoirs are really more about a past that we will never understand.

Memoirs are about accepting this unknown.  About accepting what we don’t remember—accepting that we will always remember much less about our past than we can actually recall.  That there is more unknown than known—more darkness than light—more memory—less memory—both of these or neither—one left without the other.

I only know that memoirs tell the oldest and only story—one of connection—of loss—and moving on without the other—

—hoping for her return–her always-never arrival.

Note:  If you are new to my blog, you might like to know that I am writing a memoir and blogging about growing up in an organized crime family.  This post is part of that story.  To read “Kids Make the Best Bookies,” click here.  If you are interested in reading any of my protected posts, please email me at kownroom@yahoo.com  or let me know in the comments below, and I will gladly share the password with you.

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62 thoughts on “On (not) Understanding Memory: The Oldest and Only Story

  1. Kathy, this post is perfect. Memory is flawed for several reasons. But the good news is that the events of our lives are less important than the meanings we attach to them (and that, in effect, is the secret of healing,) and so even though that meaning may change over time, we never lose the the thread of what ties us to that moment in the past. The constant, in the scene you have described, is the bond that was forged between you and Kimmy. The circumstances are merely the circumstances. They are powerful or not powerful. They mean what you intend them to mean.

    • Yes, yes, yes, Renee. I’m thrilled you get this. It is the secret to healing. And I can’t tell you how catharic it is to write this stuff. Well, actually, you probably know.

      Thanks for reading, my friend!

  2. Wow. Never doubt your ability to write and move people. I lost my grandmothers very young (my paternal grandmother was 44 and I was 6–she had been the center of my world) and I am saddened by all the things I DON’T remember about her, what I do recall being so scant as not to leave me any real warmth. You hit the nail on the head, sister. Great post.

    • Okay, this is cool. You get it, too! You and Renee have made my day.

      I’m sorry you don’t have many memories of your grandmother. I guess I don’t know if I have that many either, but as I write about what I do remember, things surface. It’s strange–and almost magical.

      Good luck with your writing to day, sister! Hugs————-

  3. Kathy, you perfectly captured the positive and negative of memories. I think I have memories from a young age, but time and re-hearing stories from others’ perspectives doesn’t help me remember any more vividly. If anything, it only serves to make me question if it is my memory or a version I’ve heard from someone else.

    • Yes, I understand what you mean about not knowing if you remember or if you are only living someone else’s story about your past. That’s a strange phenomenon, but actually, I don’t think it matters that much. You possess that mememory regardless of the means of transmission, and inevitably you make it your own.

      Happy New Year, Tori!

  4. I agree with what you’ve said here, Kathy…I often wonder how much of what I think I remember is actually true! I also have memories back to the time I was three.

    Happy New Year to you and Sara!

    Hugs,
    Wendy

  5. Very recently, within the last few months, I decided that the memories I have and the stories that come from them are unconcerned with the veracity of those moments. In other words, why can’t I make sh** up and revel in that?!

    >:-D Nice musing, Kathy. As always. (Keep writing!)

    • Hell, why not?! Go for it, my friend. I, personally, aim for accuracy but don’t worry about the degree of accuracy I actually get in the end. But, hell, why not go for broke and make it all up? Maybe that’s really what fiction is after all–our own stories made up–if that makes any sense.

      • Yep, fiction has to come from SOMEWHERE! >:-D

        Can you imagine making up the story of one’s family life? The way folks do when they sit in a coffee shop and point to ole Gertrude over there and ascribe to her a fully functional identity and life?! hahhahaa hmmmm….

        What is important to me is that I’m less concerned with “getting it right” than I am with capturing a moment with feelings attached. Quite freeing, really! My brain is tired anyway and this must be a way to let yet another thing go so I can hang onto my present and ooze toward my future.

        Happy 2012!

      • Yes, yes, Laurel. I understand. You have said it well–“capturing a moment with feelings attached.” Brilliantly said, actually, my friend. Leave it to you to articulate what I’m thinking and not knowing quite how to say. Hugs————-

  6. It is always interesing to talk to those you grew up with…well as least for me…since my memories of the past differ quite a bit from their memories…I wonder…do memories shape us or do we shape our memories? Just a random thought brought on by your fine post.

    • Excellent question, Charles. And I have no idea what the answer might be. Maybe a little of both. I tend to think the latter is more the case, but I have no idea why–so maybe it could just as well be the other.

  7. I like to think of memories like cream, the cream that we skimmed off the top of fresh milk and ladled onto our corn flakes, topped with sugar. I choose to remember the cream; the curdled sour stuff I let slip away.

    But, like you, I wonder sometimes what do I remember vs. what I was told to remember.

    Thought-provoking post!
    MJ

    • That’s a great image, MJ. I wish it were that way. For me sometimes, however, the curdled stuff gets mixed with the lovely, sweetened cream. Still it’s an interesting metaphor.

      Thanks for reading. Hope you have a great day.

  8. As a fellow-forgetter-of-memories, I am feeling some prickles of tears reading your blog today. Honoring that you have that one clear memory of Kimmy when you are still not even three. How many can say that? Knowing that memory is everything you have suggested here, and that it’s not an easy place to call back. I read somewhere that memory can actually only be accessed from the present moment, and thus it cannot be removed from the present. That interests me very much. Feeling your small heart, and your small hand, and the loving presence of your grandmother.

    • That’s probably true. I hadn’t thought about that being unusual. I also realized talking to Sara this morning that I have an unusual number of memories from kindergarten. I don’t know that that’s the case compared to other people, but I have more of kindergarten than say of third grade.

      I’m so pleased this post spoke to you, my friend! Stay warm and send me some of your snow!

  9. I completely agree with you that memory is messy. My own memories of my long lost youth were much clearer to me when I was younger than they are today when I’m older. For me, memories have faded with age. I think this might be possible for others, including you. Although I will never forget Mary Dank ratting me out to our third grade teacher for talking in class. The nun, Sister Mary Hellacious, asked, “Who’s talking?” Rat-fink Mary pointed her finger at me. Yet, most of what went on in my life at age eight has entered the ether. I’m sure a copious amount of teenage puffing on herbal essence has also contributed to my memory loss, too … if I recall correctly.

    • Ah, your comment made me laugh out loud, as if I, too, had had a puff or two of the herbal essence just now–which I haven’t, by the way!

      Damn that Mary Dank. And Sister Mary HELLACIOUS–guess that tells me all I need to know about her. She could have used a puff or two of the herbal essence herself, I suppose.

  10. Another wonderful post Kathy. Memories are a real mystery to me. I can remember incidents and stories from my childhood like they happened yesterday, yet am hazy on things that occurred in recent years. Another thought provoking post…. You have a great 2012 Kathy :)

  11. My earliest memories are of my grandfather. Mum used to send me off to play with him as we lived just a few houses away. I am lucky, he lived until I was about 30, and I love the memories I have of him. He tried to teach me Finnish without much success. I wish I had asked him more about his early life. He told me that his mother died when he was 2 and she was carried across the snow in a box. His father married the next year and when Matti saw boxes coming across the snow carrying the new wife’s things he thought it was his mother returning. He was about 3 at the time, the same age I was when I have my first memories of him.

  12. Your writing never fails to move me, Kathy.

    Memories are slippery devils. My earliest memory involves an incident that happened when I was 2 years old. I told it to my mother before she died, and she was surprised that I remembered so much detail so accurately. Yet I don’t remember much in between that and say… adulthood. There are gaps and blurs and occasional bits of clarity.

    • It’s interesting that you would get the detail right at such a young age. I wonder if you had a photorapher’s eye for detail even as a young child.

      I’m so pleased this post moved you, Robin.

  13. Memories from a young age are tough. I remember seeing a giant holding an umbrella beside our next door neighbor`s house. I can see it now. It was really a man standing on a ladder cleaning out a clogged gutter.

    Happy New Year to you and Sara! May you have another wonderful year!

    • Happy New Year to your and your family, as well. It’s so funny how children see things differently than than adults do. I guess that tells us how important perspective is. Thanks for reading, Emily!

  14. This is gorgeous work. The dreaming inherent in memory and the circular quality are so rich and alive here. How we add meaning later or change it. I love this piece, Kathy. Beautiful.

    • Gosh, thanks, Sandy. I’m so tickled this post affected you so strongly–you respond to the writing so well. If you think I achieved beauty that says a lot to me, as I so respect you as a writer.

  15. I think the ambiguity, flexibility, and inaccessibility of memory is what makes it so fascinating! I have “remembered” things differently throughout my life, depending on my then-current circumstances and on the particular lens I was using to filter everything. Getting to “play” with memory– trying to figure out deeper meanings, wondering if what your mind’s eye sees is “correct”– is part of what will give your memoir posts their potency. Loved this post!

    • Gosh, thanks, Dana. I hadn’t thought about reflection on memory as something that would add to a memoir, but I can see that it would. I think if I had to do it all over again, I wouldn’t mind studying human behavior–and memory in particular. You’re right. It’s fascinating.

  16. This is a way-simple finding but it seems that the memories you remember make you who you are, exactly, so is it the memories that change so we can change or do we change for different memories, all events equal? It seems like we should remember all-equal in theory, in practice this hardly happens though, but if we did remember everything we wouldn’t forget what makes us different– knowing that cognition requires a state of consciousness, we would not have the chance to remember it… change the way we view the pasts application of the far-past, opening our-self to possibility of failing germinates the option of growth without crossing pride or ego– in order to avoid self-prescribing oneself to be a hypocrite. remembering it all would disrupt the path of reason and skew future-you’s view of the present, leaving no free choice.
    It was fun thinking about and thanks for the subject material! AANd as always your writings’ a joy, simply sensational display of word expressing thought, both noteworthy and worth aspiring towards.

    I guess the simpler way to say it is “the Past is what you make of it”.

    Yepp, i caught the blogger’s-bug. I’m still new and your still Ms. Kathy so let me know if I’m not doing this THANG right, PLEASE ;)

    • Wow, Brad, how great to hear from you. I look forward to checking out your blog. Thanks for you perspective on memory. I’m so glad you think I’m worth listening to. Hearing from you actually brings back great memories for me. What a fun group we had in ENG 104–and India–wow! Hugs to you, my friend!

  17. Pingback: Points of Light « A Mind Divided

  18. You’ve just articulated some very distinct impressions I’ve recently had about my own childhood memories. I write them and the words flow effortlessly as I “remember” exactly the way it was. Then I think about someone reading them, someone who would really know the details of those events, and I begin to question the accuracy of my memory.

    • I understand. I wonder sometimes if this might have a bit to do with the dream-like quality of early memories. We experience them in a different way than we are used to processing memories–maybe? Thanks for sharing your experience, Terri!

  19. I love the idea of a memory not needing to be accurate, that it’s importance is in the meaning it gives us. What to do with those negative memories and the meaning I ascribe to them – accept it’s how I felt, I suppose. This was a fantastic way to work through and face some of your challenges with memory and those feelings of unrealized loss.

    • Cool, Rose. So glad this made sense to you. And, yes, that’s all you can do–accept how you feel/felt. However, lots of memories are negative because, indeed, shitty things happened. That’s not so easy to get over in my experience.

  20. howdy. Got the link to you via A Mind Divided. Seems the candle of light award started with you? In which or either case I find myself grateful.

    Read your post on memory and how the lottery was fixed in 80. Love the memoirs and will follow.

  21. Kathy – I always babble on about how good your writing is but I just have to say it again. This post put pictures in my mind from the first sentence. I just love reading your work and you pulled up so many childhood memories of my own as I read along. Thank you!

  22. Thought-provoking, Kathryn. I know that my memory of childhood events frequently has been remembered by a sibling in an entirely different way. (Maybe that’s what is partially behind the trouble I had with my memoir and my siblings.)

    • Yes, absolutely. So far I haven’t found my memories of the same events being different from my siblings, as much as I’ve noticed how we remember different things–different events entirely–events that confirm the validity of my memory but are different. I think–“Goodness. THAT happened, too?”

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