I stepped from Plank to Plank
A slow and cautious way
The Stars about my Head I felt
About my feet the Sea.

I knew not but the next
Would be my final inch -
This gave me that precarious Gait
Some call Experience.

Emily Dickinson, c. 1864

Sunday, June 22, 2014

Many lives and my faulty memory

Chris, me, Norma Jean, and two masked munchkins
This picture must have been taken in Michigan around Halloween, since Norma Jean's two kids, Allison and Peter, are wearing masks that she knit for them. I spent some time yesterday scanning pictures from the past into my digital library, and I stared at this one for a long time. It almost feels like I was a different person in that picture. Chris looks so fresh and happy, and Norma Jean and I are young and beautiful. I'm wearing a hat that I knit; Norma Jean might be wearing one, too.

The main thing is that I have no recollection of that time in my life. And where were we going? I would have thought maybe it was Halloween night, but Chris is not in costume, so I suspect Norma Jean and I were going somewhere and she brought the kids over to show me the masks she created. They are really adorable, aren't they? It's easy to tell which one is Allison, who was blond and cute. Peter is of course wearing a mohawk, or are those feathers? Chris didn't have anything nearly as nice as these, and his costume was probably purchased in the store.

What this picture reminds me is that over the years of my life, I've been many different versions of myself. I know there are some people who are raised and live their whole lives in one place, or two, and there is a direct trajectory between who they are today and who they were before. My turbulent past doesn't allow me to have any such a thing.

But the one thing that is constant in almost every one of those lives is my sister Norma Jean. Just this past Saturday we spent two hours visiting on a video chat. There was a period of about ten years in the middle of my life when I didn't have much to do with my birth family, including her, as I was a wandering hippie. When Chris was around twelve, he went to live with his father, and I began a period of travel and exploration. There are major landmarks that I can use to tell something about a particular time, but often my memories overlap and become distorted.

I'm curious about that young woman in the picture. What were her priorities at that time? I remember that I was married to my second husband (he probably took the picture) and we lived in Michigan. Chris' father came to get him every other weekend and for longer periods during the summer and holidays. I well remember how difficult that was for me at first. Somewhere I have a picture of Chris getting on the bus to attend the first day of kindergarten, and I remember crying because he was growing up so fast. He had to deal with getting on the bus alone, as well as his mother's tears. These days I see parents dropping their kids off at school and picking them up afterwards, but it was different then.

When Norma Jean and I recall some of our past, it amazes me that our memories of the same event can be totally, completely different. Of course, at the time that picture was taken, we were married and living our separate lives and only saw each other occasionally. But I don't really remember much from those days fifty years ago. Why would I? And much of what I do remember is not actually accurate. Memory is a funny animal: I've read that some theories believe that every time we recall a memory, it changes. I found an article from the Smithsonian while pondering this question, and this line resonated with me:
[The author] says it may be impossible for humans or any other animal to bring a memory to mind without altering it in some way. Nader thinks it’s likely that some types of memory, such as a flashbulb memory, are more susceptible to change than others.
He defines "flashbulb" memory as those that occur when something momentous happens, such as where you were when Kennedy died, or 9/11 or similar. When we bring up that memory, it can be totally different than what actually happened during the event. I have plenty of flashbulb memories from events that happened in my own life: where I was when Stephen died in the hospital; when I received word that Daddy had a heart attack and I needed to come home immediately; and where I was when I got the call that Chris was gone.

I suppose if I won the lottery, for example, that would be a flashbulb memory of a positive event. But most of my memories, those that I recall, are not of wonderful moments. I found a picture of my first wedding, which is very distant in my memory now, and I was surprised to see people in the picture I don't remember at all. All I remember of that day is my pretty blue silk dress and the ride from the church to my new home with my newly created husband. I was all of eighteen and he was twenty. No wonder I don't remember much! I was also pregnant and desperate to hide that fact from the world.

It would be interesting for me to sit down and write a timeline of my life, to see how much I can actually recollect as far as facts and figures go, and then see what I might actually remember from all those different lives. Now that I've been here in the Pacific Northwest for six years, it feels like those other situations were just vehicles on the path to bring me to this place. And it's a good place, a good life. The advent of the internet and blogging has given me the ability to document and record this period. When I go back and read some of my early posts, it's kind of like revisiting a favorite novel.

Well, it's about time for me to wrap this up so I can get on with the day. My partner still sleeps beside me, my tea is gone, and the warm sunshine of early summer lights up the outdoors, beckoning me to get out of bed and get started. Today I'll go to the movies with a couple of my apartment neighbors. We talked about doing so while gathering strawberries in the garden, and now it's become a reality. I am wishing all of you a day to remember, one that you will recall happily years from now.


Far Side of Fifty said...

Not everyone remembers everything...give yourself some slack. I hope you have a wonderful first week of summer:)

Anonymous said...

Great post, DJan! I tend to remember the event, but not the names of the people involved in that event. Like who was that guy I slept with that night!!! Lol.

Rian said...

DJan, I too have recently been trying to recall memories of childhood, etc. and am having trouble doing so. I have a few, but few are actually *at home*... most are on vacation or at a cousin's house, etc. I've been working on my family ancestry again... having gotten my interest peaked when trying to find family medical history as criteria for some of the genetic testing. I really like your family pictures. Thank goodness for pictures! If we don't have the memory, at least we have the pictures.

Elephant's Child said...

Heartfelt hugs.

Gigi said...

Memory is, by its very nature, a fluid thing. Pictures help, of course.

Enjoy your movie (be sure to tell us what you saw and your thoughts!)

Have a great week, DJan.

Arkansas Patti said...

You are so right about memory and how we recollect them. My brother and I, I am sure, lived in two different families.
Too bad the Internet wasn't handy for our younger years.

Sally Wessely said...

Memory is a strange a strange phenomenon. I am always interested how people at the same event remember things so differently. I think we revise in our minds those parts we wish to forget.

I am intrigued to think you have absolutely no memory of this time. Do you want to remember it better? Or is it ok if you don't?

Red said...

You hit on a very interesting topic today. Our memory does change over the years and we don't like to admit it. Other experiences come along and new information is added. There are things I have no recollection of. My wife will remind me.I hope you enjoyed your movies.

Glenda Beall said...

My sister was with me this weekend and we talked about our memories of high school and college. I was amazed at how differently I had imagined her feelings at that time. We discussed what and who we remembered and what and who we couldn't remember.
I teach seniors to write stories about their lives for their families. It is interesting how memories come back in a class when we hear the stories by our classmates. Little things can prompt a memory we had not thought of for decades.
I recommend two good movies I've seen. Million Dollar Arm was excellent and I saw The Chef which was also a great story although it was filled with vulgar language which I am not fond of. Have a great week. I love the photo.

Linda Myers said...

Big gaps in my memory too. I am especially blank in the years I was a single parent raising my boys. I know where we lived and where I worked and what they looked like, but the events, not so much. Was I not paying attention?

Rita said...

I used to have a better memory, even though it was kind of swiss cheese when you think of your whole life. Since I've had fibro fog for years I don't even have the memory I did have. My sister and I remember some events differently, too. Also, she will remember things I have no memory of at all or vice versa...same with the girl next door who I am still friends with. Memory is more unreliable than we think, I guess.

I was wondering if your sister just knit those as fancy ski masks? I remember they used to sell all kinds of fun ski masks in the winter years ago. Then it wouldn't have to have been Halloween. Just a thought. :)

Stella Jones said...

I think perhaps our memories are selective. We remember what we like to remember and forget the hurtful bits. I know I do that. Sometimes I do it deliberately. There is a period of my life which I'd rather forget (when I was 12)and I don't have many memories of it but sometimes things happen that unlock the door of that dark cupboard and then the demon comes out for a while.
Loved reading your blog today and hearing your thoughts.

Trish and Rob MacGregor said...

Your life has been and is the Sagittarius archetype in so many ways. Truly fascinating. Love your take on memories!

Midlife Roadtripper said...

A though-provoking post you've written here. I think I've been several different people throughout my lifetime. As to memory - I'm sometimes amazed at what I don't recall. Other times, so certain I've remembered something correctly when someone also in attendance describe it differently. We saw things with different minds and eyes for different interpretation, I guess. Interesting thoughts you had on a Sunday morning.

Linda Reeder said...

I have been working on writing my memoir. I have a few photos of my early years,school pics and albums I have put together. I have flashbulb memories too. I know how self centered my memories are. When my sister asks me if I remember something that is significant to her, I find I have very little memory of it. We all remember based on the effect the situation had on us, and for everyone that is different. But they are still our memories, "true" or not.
Once again, DJan, you have given me food for contemplation.

amanda said...

I really admire the way you write about your life, DJan. The honesty of it, that you don't have to hide anything from anyone.
I love the idea of a Timeline. The psychology of memory is a very interesting topic!

Friko said...

It’s interesting what you say about memories. I myself am often totally amazed at how differently other members of the family remember certain events.

I am sure I am right though! The others must be mistaken. Or?