Memory Matters

I’ve been thinking a lot about my memories —the silly ones I retain, the important ones I don’t have access to any longer. It haunts me. The memories wash up like unremarkable and practically identical seashells on the shore, cluttered together with no apparent rhyme or reason. I can’t distinguish one from another or where it came from or even worse what to do with the ones I recognize.

Memories, unlike seashells, are flimsy ephemeral things. I also have concerns about my diminishing recall, but this is more about the despair of not being able to hold onto something solid from my past.

I think what’s the point if I don’t remember? Reminds me of a question I once heard (of course I can’t recall who posed it): if you had a choice between having an amazing experience you won’t remember or not having the experience at all, what would you choose? The question disturbs me since so much of what I will experience I will not remember. We never know yet what memories we’ll carry with us into the future.

Daniel Kahneman, the Nobel prize winning behavioral economist, distinguishes between the experiencing self and the remembering self. Someone once told him he’d heard a symphony of superb music and at the end there was a dreadful screech that ruined the whole experience. Kahneman replied that the person had listened to many minutes of glorious music and the screech did not ruin the entire experience, it merely ruined the memory of the experience.

This year, I’m coming up on a fifty-year anniversary of a high school foreign exchange trip I took when I was sixteen years old. I was part of a group of American kids who spent eight weeks in Israel together in a youth camp studying Hebrew. Then we stayed with host families throughout Israel for the next four months. The Yom Kippur War broke out soon after we had landed with our host families.

In September, I plan to attend a reunion for the group. We were each asked to post a vivid memory. Not only do I not recall other people’s memories, I don’t even recall who they were.

So far, other people don’t appear to recall my memory either. Nevertheless, I remember volunteering at a POW hospital, bringing juice and graham crackers to wounded boys who were basically the same age as me. I couldn’t understand these boys’ language, but I got their drift. We flirted. At least I thought we did. In my mind, these battered boys thought it hilarious and adorable for an American girl to be bringing them juice and crackers. In my naïveté, I figured we teenagers were all on the same page. It never occurred to me that these young Arab men may not have been accustomed to seeing girls dressed in shorts and tee shirts.

When I returned to my Ohio high school, it felt like I had nothing in common with anyone else. None of them had spent time in a bomb shelter or gazed up at fighter jets streaking across the bluest of skies. These little blips of memory have stayed strong for fifty years.

I wish I could decide now what will be worth remembering. I wish I had a way to sort through the multitude of memories I’ve accrued over the past 66 years and to instill some sense of order into their state of disarray. I wish I could preserve my precious memories and be able to call them to my mind on a whim.

I can’t remember all the fireworks displays I’ve witnessed or the campfire smell on my sweatshirt when I was backpacking through the Tetons or the way it felt when my baby daughter wrapped her little fist around my finger or the smell of the rain when my husband and I were stuck under a highway bridge on a day we definitely shouldn’t have been cruising around on his motorcycle. What is left after experience is memory and somehow that will need to be enough.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *