Who Owns Which Memory?


I know three sisters who remember life differently, and sometimes things I hear from them drop my jaw, at least mentally. For simplicity here, I’ll call them Annie, Betsy and Connie, in order of age. All are in their mid-eighties.

One day I got an email from Connie with a scanned letter attached. The letter was from her aunt, confirming that this aunt had indeed taken Connie as an infant to her house to care for while Connie’s mother was sick.

“I can’t wait to show this to Annie! She has sworn for years that Aunt Laura never took me home with her, she just took me to a motel!”

Apparently, when Annie saw the letter, she humphed and changed the subject. Obviously this development did not square with her memory of things, and as the older sister, she was supposed to be the authority. 

During a recent visit with Annie and Connie, we got to talking about their grandfather. He let me drive his old car all over the place when I was only eleven. He even lied to the Department of Motor Vehicles so I could get my driver’s license when I was twelve. He told them I was fourteen,” said Annie.

“That’s interesting. He did the same thing for Connie,” I said.


“She told me the same story about him taking her to get a license when she was twelve and letting her drive thirty miles to Turkey Town by herself to get something he needed.”

Annie looked at Betsy. “That’s not possible. He didn’t live near us when she was that age.”

Betsy shrugged. She didn’t seem eager to get involved. I changed the subject.

Which sister owns that memory? Did Connie hear Annie tell the story often enough that she started thinking it had been her? Stranger things have happened.

As it turns out, I may be the one with the creative memory. Connie affirmed that it was Annie’s story. “I hardly ever spent time with him when I was young.” Well … whatever. In the overall scheme of things, who cares?

This all goes to show that much of family history is myth, and a changing one at that. One key thing we collectively agree to is that the old man was a scoundrel who bent rules when it suited him and ignored them much of the time.

From the larger perspective, that matters more than which granddaughter got to drive when or where. I’m semi-sorry I sought to clarify the source.

Writing tip: Do some freewriting or journaling about conflicting stories within your family. (This may be best left unshared.)


Amy said...

Since my husband and I frequently have different memories---often VERY different memories---of the same events, I know how unreliable memory can be. As someone doing genealogy research, I've learned to take family lore with skepticism, working to find whatever I can to support (or refute) it.

Sharon Lippincott said...

Amy, I have to laugh at your comment. My husband and I have traveled all over the world. When he starts talking about a specific trip, I often ask if I was on that trip with him or that was his other wife. Oops. I just finished The Witness Wore Red and am currently in the middle of The 19th Wife. No, it's not like that. And no remarriages are involved. Here I go creating myth in the moment.

Truly, research has shown that in longterm, close relationships, be they friendships or spousal, memory functions tend to be delegated, generally without awareness. "You remember social and calendar stuff and shopping lists, and I'll take care of keeping the bills paid and oil changed." So when one half of the couple departs, through death or otherwise, they both quite literally lose half their minds.

I'm working on a post now about ancestral stories and myths.

Amy said...

I often say the same thing---that must have been with your other wife. What drives me crazy is when I "know" where we were and when something happened and I can't convince him of it at all. (I am sure he feels the same way, but we know I am right and he is wrong, right?)

I look forward to your next post.

Sharon Lippincott said...

Ah, Amy, these are no win arguments with a neurological basis. We remember what we pay attention to, what's important to us. That's our reality. So whose reality is more real? Maybe the one that can be documented... But remember, depth of field in vision (aka stereo) depends on seeing from different angles with each eye. Sounds like you and your husband have great depth of field ─ a gift if you know how to use it. Lucky lady!

Amy said...

Yes, memory is indeed slippery. Isn't it odd how it twists and turns? Why should we ever trust anyone's memory as fact? But I've also learned that so-called "official records" are no more reliable than those family memories---they are as subject to error and distortion as our memories are. Alas, there really is no way of knowing "the truth," something I struggle with all the time in writing about the family history.