Untangling a Memory Knot

Do you remember how you celebrated Memorial Day when you were a child? And what difference does it make to know? Traditionally, for me, Memorial Day marked the end of the school year. It was the official beginning of Summer Vacation, and worthy of celebration for that reason alone, especially since, rather amazingly, none of the many veterans in our family lost their lives while serving their country.

This question arose just just now as I wrote about my high school graduation in my journal. I graduated from high school on May 28, and the next day I went home with my grandparents to spend the several days between graduation and the first day of my summer job. My parents came to pick me up ... when? Memorial Day weekend? That didn’t seem possible. There isn’t time for Memorial Day weekend if I graduated on May 28.

My compulsive need for accurate details kicked in. I set my journal aside, reached for my nearby laptop, and googled over to a perpetual calendar to refresh my memory regarding the day of the week that May 28 fell on that year. Although perpetual calendars are enormously valuable for unraveling many mysteries, it didn’t help with this one. A few more clicks turned up the explanation that Memorial Day was always celebrated as a stand-alone holiday on May 30 until the passage of the Uniform Holiday Act in 1971 that created all the lovely three day weekend holidays we enjoy now.

Thus Memorial Day was not a long weekend back then as I’d been thinking. It was the First Day of Summer Vacation — unless it fell on a Sunday, in which case it was the Second Day of Summer Vacation.

What difference does all this make? It’s a prime example of how memories morph and blur. I forgot that we didn’t always have that three day weekend. It probably blurred together with Labor Day, which marked the official end of summer vacation — it was carved in stone that we return to the classroom the Tuesday after Labor Day, which has always has always been celebrated on the first Monday of September, ensuring a three day weekend.

If I had written in the Los Alamos Years memoir I’m tapping away on that my parents came up to pick me up over Memorial Day weekend, nobody would ever have thought twice about it, and it would have been true enough. That claim expresses personal truth, supported by the reality of memory. If anyone checked a few decades from now, at worst they’d figure I’d gotten a little wifty and let it go.

Since tools for determining factual truth are easily available, with about four minutes of searching, I was able to set the record straight. I can keep my account accurate, and perhaps insert a little historical insight by including half a dozen words about the history of the holiday date change.

Although this is a personal decision, when accurate facts are readily available, I feel better when I make the effort to find and use them. When the facts are not available, memory and considered speculation will suffice, though if I have serious doubts, I may qualify such statements with a phrase like as I recall... .

Write now: click over to a perpetual calendar and use it to determine the day of the week for significant events in your life. For example, do you remember what day of the week you were born? How about your children? What day of the week was JFK assassinated? Conversely, if you remember the time of month something took place, for example, the third week of August, you can probably find the date using the perpetual calendar. You can file these dates away for future reference, or just know that this tool is always there.

Alternatively or additionally, write about your feelings about technical accuracy in matters like this. How important is it to you?


Pat's Place said...

I agree with you that our stories about the past need to have as much of the factual truth as we can obtain. I love the fact that my mother took, labeled and kept so many photographs for our family. That helps me date some of our activities rather well. I remember the poppies we used to wear for Memorial Day. They were red poppies with a wire stem and a tag on them that said something but I forget what. Could not find anything about that on the web.

Roadrunner said...

Perhaps it is being a "stickler for details", but I too would have done the same thing- verified the accuracy of a memory if I could.
I did the same thing when writing about an earthquake I felt when traveling in Mexico. It left tremendous amount of damage in Guatemala...so it was documented well. It was a memory I had, albeit a faded one from the 70's!

Roadrunner said...

I found the writing on the paper poppies.
It is a fundraising event for the American Legion.
You will see a photo on the page of the tag and writing.

Ritergal said...

Pat, photos are terrific for jump starting memories, and you are fortunate to have enough to also use them as documentation.

Ritergal said...


Are you from New Mexico? I like your name! Bravo for checking on that earthquake. We are so fortunate these days to have the Internet at our fingertips to check on things we may not have been able to find even fifteen or twenty years ago.

Thanks for the info on the poppies. My hubby told me he saw them for sale here before Memorial Day. Shucks, if I'd seen them, I would have bought one for old times sake as well as the cause.

Terri Tiffany said...

It bothers me when I think I remember something a certain way, and write about it and then dig through my diary and find it with some facts a little off! I try now to dig first!