When Memories Morph

Robin,-1201-Montrose,-Albuquerque,-1947I’m gobsmacked. I pulled up this picture of my kid sister in that ancient stroller/ walker. I planned to stick it in an email to a cousin to illustrate a story snippet about our  grandfather and my dad the day they poured a big square concrete pad in that back corner. I was three at the time, and I remember that while he smoothed concrete, Granddaddy smelled like whiskey and cigarettes, the point of my story to Cuz. That pad served two doors, the one you see, and one you don’t. The second should be around the corner to the left. That second door opened into the dining area. Or so I’ve always thought. Until today.

I strained toward my screen in bewilderment. Where is that door!?  I KNOW it was there! Holy cow! How can this be? I mentally scramble inside that small dining room on a day before my mother and grandmother knocked a wall down while the men were out hunting. Before the wall came down, Mother had her sewing machine in that room along the soon-to-vanish wall. Until this very minute, I would’ve sworn to you that the door was behind her left shoulder as I sat facing her on the floor to her right, making tangles in thread while trying to sew.

Okay. I get it. The door was never there. I edit it out of memory and the picture still looks right. My earliest memories are in that Albuquerque house where we lived until I was six. This is not the first mind-shattering discovery about memories of that yard. Previous pictures have shown my sandbox was not where I remembered it being, and a willow tree did not have two of its four trunks amputated. What gives?

I have no idea why I remembered these things wrong, but neuroscience is no help here. This just happened. No need to explain. These morphed memories are not just a factor of my young age when they formed. Like most everyone, I’ve learned through the years that my memory often differs from what others remember, and I’ve seen evidence to back those others up more than once. The question is how that affects my story. I ask myself these two questions:

Does it matter? In the case of this house, yes. It matters to me to stick with the evidence and note that my memory was different. Since I have no emotional attachment to the earlier memory, it’s an easy switch. If no evidence is at hand when my sister and I remember a room color differently, I might flip a coin or stick with my version. If details change the truth of the story, they matter.

When it does matter . . . If I discovered I was wrong about something I was emotionally invested in, something that did change the truth of a story, things would become more complex. Using a hypothetical example, let’s say that while Nora was settling her father’s estate, she was stunned to discover documents proving that her mother was his second wife. He’d been married for several years and divorced before he met Nora’s mother, and furthermore, Nora has half-siblings she never knew about.

That extreme example would set off a hurricane of memories and emotions ─ and maybe research ─ leaving a new story in its wake. In stories about her father, Nora may choose to honor her original memories of her dad as a staunch church member and strong advocate of family values, then reflect back on them in the light of what she’s learned and what it all means to her. Perhaps her story would focus on how things changed. But if she wrote stories exclusively within the period before learning this fact, she may choose to write from the perspective of what she believed to be true at the time.

So whether you remember wrong or learn something new, memories morph. When you discover discrepancies, it’s your choice whether to make that discovery part of your story or the focus of your story, or to honor the truth of the memory that shaped your life and made you who you are. It’s your story. Write from your heart and be true to your Story.

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