You Can’t Trust Memory!

Abq-bkydI would have bet half the farm that this picture I drew was an accurate representation of my first backyard in Albuquerque. I would have lost half that farm.

I pulled out my 64 color box of fragrant Crayolas a dozen years ago and had a blast drawing a vivid memory of that backyard, calling on artistic skills little improved since I last sat on that swing. I remembered sitting inside a curtain of leaves on the pictured stump of one of the four trunks of that willow tree. A second stump, hidden in the picture behind the two intact trunks, was cut off somewhat higher, about shoulder level for me as I sat on the lower one. I drew the grass beneath the tree, and my sandbox back somewhat behind the tree to the left. The chicken house is in the back, along with the storage shed.

Sometime later I asked my father when the two trunks had been amputated. He had no idea what I was talking about. “That tree had four trunks,” he insisted. “We never cut any off.”

Abq-bkyd-photoHis report was a jolt, but the nail in my memory’s coffin came when I reviewed blurry photos from the first roll of film I took with my first camera when I was three. This one settled the matter in my mind and convinced me, I can’t trust my memory. Mother is sitting on something – I have no idea what – in what passed for my sandbox, and the tree clearly has four trunks. There is no grass under that tree!

Where the devil did that memory of sitting on the stump having a tea party with my doll come from? I have no idea.

A later photo shows that later I did have a proper sandbox with  wooden sides around it, and as I think about it, the sandbox never could have been back where I drew it. That area was over the septic tank, and I didn’t have to be told twice not to walk there – it could cave in!

In the larger scheme of things, it doesn’t matter a bit whether I sat on that stump or not, whether the yard had grass, or the state and position of my sandbox. I’ve enjoyed that stump scene pretty much forever. To me, that’s still the true memory, whatever the evidence shows. So how should I handle this schizzy memory?

When I wrote The Albuquerque Years, a memoir of my preschool years, I intended it as a family historical document. I wanted it to be as accurate as possible, so in the face of the evidence, I chose to simply ignore the faulty-but-cherished memory of the tree stumps. The memoir is written as a simple past tense narrative, tightly confined to those few years, so there was no way to discuss discrepant memories, and it didn’t fit with the rest of the content anyway.

If my purpose were more literary and the structure more sophisticated, I might include my original memory, mentioning how happy I felt sitting there looking at blue sky peeking through green willow leaves with the scent of roses and honeysuckle wafting my way on gently balmy breezes that caressed my skin. That’s a memory I return to now in meditative moments. The memory carries its own truth, and I would let it stand on its own, with no further explanation.

This trivial example applies equally well to more substantial situations. One aim of a memoir is to document changes and insights, so it’s entirely appropriate to include discussion of discoveries such as mine – but only if they fit within the framework and structure of the story.

Write now: write about a time you discovered you remembered something wrong. What implications did the discovery have? How did you handle it? How might you incorporate this discover in a larger story?


SuziCate said...

Ha, memory can be deceiving! My sister, and brother and I each have differing view on a particular item from our past. Our father settled the dispute when he figured out what we were referring to. We were each right in a way...we just saw it differently due to our age differences.

Sharon Lippincott said...

SuziCate, I have yet to hear about siblings who agree on everything. My sister and I do agree that we grew up in different families -- probably alternate and overlapping universes. Everything got simpler when we figured that out!

Billy Dean said...

Sharon, I love your tree story. And the Story Tree on your home page too. That image is worth a zillion words. I encourage people to not be overly concerned about how others might remember the past. We are all wearing different glasses and hindsight is not 20-20. My memory loves to play hide and seek. If it gets any better at that game, I'll be able to hide my own Easter egss. If only we could peer over the edge of our interpretations and see things in the raw, as they really were!

Sharon Lippincott said...

Billy, I love that line about hiding your own Easter eggs. Is there such a thing as seeing things in the raw? I've heard that the Caribbean natives couldn't see Columbus's ships because they didn't know what they were. I suspect that story is a bit ... off, but I do believe that they saw something they didn't know how to explain, thus ignored. Thanks for the comment