Mystery of Memory

Writing this memoir blog has been revelatory in a few different ways. For one, I have gained a deeper appreciation for the mystery that is memory. Some of the readers of the blog have expressed wonder at the quantity and specificity of my memories. Some say they have no memories of their own childhoods. I find that hard to imagine given that my idea of myself is shaped so much by my memories.

My father maintained that he had no memories of his childhood, though there were a few stories (mostly about the presence of the mob in his neighborhood) that he liked to tell. I was left with the impression that he felt sad about his growing up years, that he felt neglected and unappreciated by his parents, and therefore, I assumed that he had repressed it.  Even without access to specific memories, he carried a narrative about his childhood that certainly shaped his adult persona. I wonder if it would have been helpful or hurtful to uncover specific memories, if he could.

My brother Mark is another person who professes to have little to no memory of his growing up years. But, based on his comments on the blog, I think he has more than he gives himself credit for. Perhaps my recounting of events awakened memories for him. I wonder if that has been a positive or negative thing for him. Sometimes his take on an incident (for example, when my cat, Cutie, jumped out the car window, which I wrote about here) is quite different than my own. In that case, I had no memory of Mark being in the car with us when Cutie took her fateful leap. He says he remembers it clear as day. So much for not having any memories of his childhood! And, so much for me being THE family historian.

As is often the case, I’m not sure how my oldest brother, Steven, would characterize his memory. He has shared some in response to the blog, but he tends to keep things close to the vest in many areas of his life, so I don’t know if that is the tip of the iceberg, if he doesn’t remember much, or something in between.

I knew before embarking on this memoir blog that memory was illusive, but as I write about childhood experiences and receive feedback, I understand that calling the blog “Stories I Tell Myself” was prescient. I’ve always suspected that we each have a narrative for our lives, one made up of selective memories and interpretations of those memories. That suspicion has been strengthened by my experience of writing this.

I have also come to realize that some of my memories are incomplete and/or unreliable (see the above referenced experience with Cutie the cat). In another example, I would have sworn that when I was in high school (I would have been 14 or 15 years old), as a stringer for a local newspaper, I wrote a story about a blind athlete who came from Yugoslavia. Turns out I wrote two different stories. One about a blind athlete and the other about a soccer player who had immigrated from Yugoslavia. Upon further reflection, the conflated memory made no sense because it was highly unlikely that the blind athlete, who I knew was named Andre Rodriquez, would have come from Yugoslavia! Somehow, in my mind the two became one, and that inconsistency was overlooked. When I realized the disconnect, I made up an explanation – perhaps his father was in the US armed forces stationed there. It wasn’t until I looked at my portfolio of clippings, and saw it in black and white, that I understood my error.

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The banners of the four Brooklyn neighborhood newspapers that I wrote for in high school – in my portfolio of clippings.

I don’t think this is cause to question all of my memories because the particulars aren’t necessarily that relevant to the meaning of it. But what is the meaning of the memory?

The editor of the local syndicated newspaper had asked me to interview Andre, who was going to participate in a Marine Corp track and field competition, despite his blindness. Andre was a student at Erasmus Hall High School in Brooklyn. I set up an appointment with Andre through his coach. I went to the gym at the prearranged time, which was during practice. I located the coach among the various people running, stretching, lifting weights, who brought me over to Andre. I introduced myself, we shook hands. I have a picture in my mind’s eye of Andre: café au lait skin, long brown hair, slight frame, wearing a blue track suit. We went to sit on the bleachers so I could interview him. He was accompanied by a student who acted as his guide when they ran. The guide, I don’t recall his name, sat next to Andre during the interview. Within a couple of minutes, it became clear that the two were friends also. After a few preliminary questions, Andre leaned slightly toward his buddy and asked, as if I couldn’t hear, “Is she pretty?” I giggled, as I waited for the response. He smiled at me and said yes, which was very kind of him (of course, what could he say?). Andre responded, “I thought so.” I was confused. “What would make you think that?” I asked. “I could just tell.” I could feel my cheeks burning, they were probably hot pink. I was grateful he couldn’t see that.  I quickly changed the subject back to the interview.

It probably isn’t surprising that I stored that memory. Other than Nana referring to me as ‘shana madela’ (pretty girl in Yiddish), I was rarely complimented on my looks. Rarer still from someone not related to me. It was ironic that it took a blind person to see it.

So, did it actually happen that way? I have no way to know. It doesn’t merit tracking down Andre to check (nor do I imagine he would remember it). But, it fits with the way I understand myself.

It calls to mind something that happened when Leah was about six years old. Gary and I were a little late to realize that if we intended to raise our children to be Jewish we would need to enroll them in Hebrew school. Consequently, Leah missed the equivalent of Kindergarten. We did manage to sign her up for first grade. Fortunately, she was a quick study. She came home after a Sunday school class with an important question. Having heard the story of Adam and Eve and the Garden of Eden, she asked, “Is it true? Did it really happen?” After thinking for a bit, I told her that I didn’t know if it was real, some people believed it was literally true, others didn’t. The important thing was what we learn from the story, that this was a story told for centuries and had value because of what it taught people through the ages. I suggested that when they read these stories in class, she should think about the lessons learned, rather than whether it was historically true. Lucky for me, she seemed satisfied.

Maybe our memories are like that, too: worth examining for what they reveal about ourselves, rather than the history they may reveal.

 

9 thoughts on “Mystery of Memory

  1. my rabbi once said when talking about moses parting the red sea the miracle was that the jews were able to escape and live in the desert as free men, the belief is the outcome of the story

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  2. I do have plenty of memories at least my long term memory is intact, not so sure about short term memories.
    Yes, I keep things close to the vest mainly because I see things differently then most other family members. To avoid conflicts I generally respect other people’s opinions & thoughts but keep to myself about mine more often than not.

    Generally growing up I more often than not kept to myself. In fact my fourth grade teacher called mom in one day to tell her that during recess I would not play with anyone else but rather happily kept to myself. Apparently the teacher thought I may have issues socializing . I had very few friends until I went off to college. That may of had more to do with having our grandparents and two uncles living with us, which by the way to this day give me the fondest and best memories of my youth. In fact I have more memories of doing things with my uncle’s friends than things I did with friends or acquaintances my own age.

    I spent a great deal of my free time riding my bicycle all over Brooklyn. I have fond memories of some of these treks. Some times I would be gone for the whole day. I would take trips to the Rockaways going over the Marine Park bridge (now called Gill Hodges) hang out at the beach, then ride home going over the other bridge (never did get the name of that one) that connected the Rockaway’s to the mainland. Ride past the then open garbage dumps along the belt parkway riding as fast as I could to avoid the stench. Sometimes I would get off the Belt on Pennsylvania Ave. and ride those streets back home. Looking back on that probably not the best of ideas as that area of Pennsylvania ave. was filled with junk yards and vacant lots. But I was fearless back then.

    I was in the car as well regarding the situation with Cutie. You might not like this but Cutie did jump out the window. Dad opened the doors and let her out to the streets of East New York. Sorry but that is what really happened.

    There are many high school memories that stay with me some of which are when on the first day of school of 11th grade when Dad grabbed Mark’s friend Anthony and pushed him hard through his two office doors. We had split sessions in those days and I was leaving to go home and the new freshman class was coming in when he saw Anthony walk by. Then there were the high school basketball games. They were some of the best games I ever went to, especially when we played Jefferson High. The gym was packed with an overflowing crowd, and probably some college scouts.

    So the memories are there.

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    1. Sounds like a wise strategy – rather than getting into disagreements, though, speaking for myself, I am always interested in hearing your perspective. I know we see things differently. I appreciate that and respect it. I love when you share your memories of growing up – it enriches the picture I have of our family.
      As far as Cutie goes, I have now learned that everyone was in the car! Mom, Mark and you! I thought I was alone with Dad. So interesting. And, if I understand what you wrote, you remember Dad opening the door to let her out. More interesting. Mark remembers it differently – and I remember it as a sort of combination (Dad opening the window so she her leaping out). You shouldn’t apologize for your memory – I’m not apologizing for mine.
      Thank you for sharing your thoughts – please keep doing so, as long as it suits you. I know most don’t want to do what I am doing, but I welcome your contributions (and anyone who wants to chime in with their perspective).

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    2. Ah. Steven, now I understand you. You use a filter before expressing yourself. You pause to think about the consequences of what you are going to say. How very interesting. I too believe in doing this. And I have. Three times already. And I am not even 62 yet.

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  3. Linda:
    I am glad I was able to be of service to you with regard to the events mentioned in your Cutie the Cat blog.
    I, being the very good brother that I am, shall endeavor to be of service to you, yet again, by addressing some of the questions you raised in today’s (wonderful) blog:
    i. You state that “perhaps” your recounting events “awakens” memories for me. I have no doubt that this is true. The memories are in fact “there” they are just not able to be recalled as quickly as you can. There is an entire field of science related to this. It is called “brain study” and I would tell you more about it but I am concerned that Leah may read this and have a coronary.
    ii. You also inquire as to whether our brother Steven “…who tends to keep things close to the vest…” does or does not remember much? I can help you here too. First, Steven rarely wears a vest so that is not wear (misspelled on purpose) he stores his memories. You are looking in the wrong place. Second, the best way to access Steven’s memories is through a Vulcan mind meld. That is how you will get your answer to that inquiry.
    iii. Putting (attempts at) humor aside, you also ask “what is the meaning of the memory?” What a wonderfully profound question. The anecdotes about the blind athlete and Leah’s inquisitiveness as examples of what your memories reveal about who you are, as opposed whether or not the memories are precisely accurate is worth pondering. One question this raises: “If the memory is factually inaccurate then does this mean we have [intentionally or not] created a false narrative and by doing so we have thus become something other than what we should have become? Have we failed to be “true to thine own self?”
    This examining of our past raises intriguing questions as to whether we have become what we should be. Maybe Dad needed to block out the bad in order to become the good that he was?
    …Regardless of whether we share the same memories of the very same events…it is always good to see how you write and the reflections it causes have always been intriguing (and more interesting than my work…which I shall now return to).

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  4. I agree with the remarks made by you and by the commenters about the fascinating role of memory. Picking up on what you said and Mark’s comments, I do believe that we need to tell ourselves stories. And those stories have to fit together into a coherent whole. They need to fit with how we see ourselves and others.
    I do believe that reality is also a significant part of memory. But where that reality has faded, we appear to be quite good at substituting what we create out of our imagination and our ego. But perhaps we are not so very good at figuring out where the facts end and where the imagination begins.

    This was a fascinating blog post. Thank you.

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  5. Linda –
    *This is a beautifully written essay, as usual. Like most of your posts, it makes me think. I believe you are accurate in saying that what we remember, whether actual or shaded with imagination, tells us a lot about ourselves. A character in one of my favorite books (The Children’s Crusade by Ann Packer) says, “I remembered a moment from my early childhood. Or rather, I remembered my memory of the moment, because after so long that’s what memory is: the replaying of filmstrip that’s slightly warped for having gone through the projector so many times. I’ll never know what actually happened and what distortions I added.”
    *My brother claims not to remember most of his childhood. I remember perhaps too much and too viscerally. We obviously have different ways of processing the difficult experiences we endured. I wonder sometimes if memory can be a curse. As is usual when I think of my brother, I often think he is the wiser of us.
    *Regarding your siblings, I was so happy to read Steve’s post. Thank you for sharing some of your memories. I do wish you would share more of your memories and opinions. I would be interested in how you see things differently and I would respect your perspective, even if I might disagree. I don’t see differences of opinion as argumentative, only enlightening. And Mark – you always make me laugh. I can recall recent times we have seen each other, where you have related shared memories. You may not have as easy access as some of us, but like you say, the memories are there.
    *By writing this blog, I feel that you, Linda, are helping our family create new memories as we comment on our experiences of the same events. Your blog has become a window through which we can all get to know you, and other family members, as the adults we are now, while preserving our shared history. Thank you.

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    1. Laurie, Thank you so much for your beautifully written comment. I am so pleased that you think of the blog in that way. One of the best things about it is the responses – especially when people share a different take on things.

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