“I don’t remember that”
A phrase that has been used on a number of occasions over the last month or so as friends, family and I have been catching up. Stories were told that jogged more memories and we laughed and joked about things we had done together in the past. The memories are the cement that binds our friendships – our past together vocalised and brought to life. But like the bards of old, each telling is subtly different and over the years we add or remove elements to improve the telling and stories morph into something more personal.
We have all experienced the same thing – people telling stories and recalling memories that others don’t remember, and the inevitable “No! It wasn’t like that”. People then discuss and challenge: did things happen the way one person remembers or the way another person says? Did they happen at all? Or is it just that a different view on the same thing has resulted in differing memories, taking the same facts as the starting point and creating a new story with new realities? Memory degrades over time if we don’t recall and strengthen the memory, we are told. Proust wrote hundreds of thousands of words about memory and the tricks it can play, but until this trip I had never had such a personal experience of the odd nature of memory and just how much of a shock it can be to not remember something.
When I was at my parent’s house a few weeks ago, dad was out and I was sitting around and chatting with mum – nothing important, just general chit chat, when the conversation turned to family matters. Some familiar stories came up and some variations on old stories too. Mum then made a comment about a trip we had made to visit family in Ireland when I was a child. My response was simple – “I don’t remember that”. Mum replied that I had only been about 9 months old on the first trip but that there were pictures from the next trip with various cousins and relatives.
I must have been about 2 or 3 years old on that particular trip, so I can still be forgiven for not really having any memories of it. We pulled out a couple of the old photo albums and spent some time looking through, laughing at the pictures, recalling friends and family names of people we haven’t seen for many years now and generally proving that indeed, I had been in Ireland when I was very small. Pictorial evidence existed and it couldn’t be denied.
Later that afternoon a press clipping was handed to me from 1986. I have no recollection whatsoever of the picture being taken, nor that it had been in the newspaper. I remember the reason for the picture (an orchestral tour) and remember the tour very well. Germany, Austria and Hungary – in those days Hungary was ‘behind the Iron Curtain’, hence the headline on the picture. If nothing else I have the scar on my elbow from a fall in the Stadtpark in Vienna to remind me. But somewhere along the line my brain has simply hit the delete button on being photographed to be in the local paper. The thing is that even being shown the picture hasn’t helped. I still don’t remember and couldn’t even tell you where the picture was taken or even the most basic circumstances surrounding it. As a memory, it simply does not exist.
It is slightly sobering to look at something, to know that it happened but still to have no memory of it. For the first time ever in my life a little voice started to whisper, slightly anxiously, that there may be other things that have been forgotten. That slightly nagging fear that this may just be the start or something. That I may look at more pictures, hear more stories and listen to more tales and simply shake my head and say “I don’t remember”. If I can’t remember something that happened to me, how can it be expected that other people will remember, or even want to remember such things?
Memory is something we all take for granted but it clearly isn’t what we think it is. Memories only come to life when we talk about them or write them down, when we communicate them to others or recall them. But yet, I was shown a picture and even with such a prompt have forgotten and cannot recall anything surrounding that event. A small hole burnt into memories never, it seems, able to be recalled. Other things that were much less important or memorable (from the point of view of a 16 year old, as I was at the time of the picture) have been told again and again, becoming part of the collective culture of family and friends, taking on their own life remaining factual but honed and perfected in the telling. More story than memory.
I studied history at university and am very much aware of the importance of collective knowledge and the power of storytelling and national myths. These play out over and over again in our consciousness and sense of identity within a nation, place and time. But our own memories and those of our friends and family do the same for our social networks and social identity and are just as important, powerful and personal. For that reason, if no other, time with friends and time recalling are such an important part of life and living. This trip back has brought home that unexpected truth. I hope that this will be something I can recall in 20 years time and share once again with family and friends, that the little hole in my memory, so recently highlighted, doesn’t grow.