If you’re like me, memories are a bit of a puzzle. Why, for instance, do I remember completely inconsequential bits of trivia, yet sometimes have trouble remembering things of vital importance? Or why have some memories from my childhood survived while others have vanished without a trace, regardless of their face value?
When I gave in to the impulse to piece my mom’s life together and examine it as an unbiased investigator, it hit me how random my memories of the past were and how they differed from what my siblings could remember. Having their pieces of the puzzle helped me considerably in reconstructing her life.
Here’s another question I struggle with: what is it with the memories that are buried in our psyches, bound and gagged, unable to float to the surface of our minds? Why are they hidden? And what causes them to sometimes surface?
At the age of 11, I had one of those flashes from the past, and not a very good one. I can recall how out of left field it seemed to me at the time, for nothing my mom and I were discussing had anything to do with the memory itself. Even today I can remember her reaction when that episode reared its ugly head after being shoved away for six years: Don’t ever tell your father—he would kill him.
This flashback tells me our brains can hide bad memories from us for our own protection. So, it makes me wonder—what else is buried in there? And do we really want to know?? What is that mechanism’s criteria for relegating some bits of info to the nether regions while allowing us to remember every word of the Gilligan’s Island theme song? Do only bad memories linger, or is there a treasure trove of long-ago delights glistening under the surface?
Quick—think of something utterly random from your childhood that you haven’t thought of in years…
What’s your reaction to it? How does it make you feel?
Of the memories I’m still able to access, some of the most vivid are of the wild rides in our mom’s barebones Rambler sedan. That milk-colored vehicle was the dictionary definition of “economy”. It had no seatbelts, no headrests and no A/C. It had crank windows and an unreliable radio that only picked up AM stations. The fan only worked when our mother wasn’t accelerating, which is to say not often, and it usually blasted us with hot air straight off the engine.
There were some pretty hairy moments in that ramshackle bucket of bolts. There were times when I knew it was taking corners on only two wheels. It was not uncommon for it to overheat. Of course, the way it was driven and the lack of funds to maintain it properly didn’t help. But what I remember most is sliding across the bench seats as we careened around corners, the worn blue-green vinyl as slippery as a block of ice on a hot day. And I remember standing up in the back, all three of us hanging onto the back of the front seat as if it were a life raft.
But I also remember the calmer moments, like when our mom impressed us with her ability to divide two sticks of gum between her three children while at a stop light. Or huddling together for the warmth we could generate, forgetting the impulse to fight like the heathen savages we undoubtedly were.
As I write this, I have the strong desire to look inside that old car again, to see how my memory of it matches up. I’m sure if it were possible, years of images would come flooding over me. They might be good, they might be bad, but they probably would bring back a piece of my past long forgotten.
Any favorite family vehicles you’d like to see again? Can you remember the smell of the interior or the sound they made? Or the way you felt sitting behind your parents as they transported you down the road?
As Alzheimer’s continues to distort my mom’s mind, we’ve gotten glimpses of the fragmented memories that are now rising to the surface. She talks of, and to, her parents, siblings, friends—people she hasn’t talked to in decades. In her brain, they are still alive, frozen in scenes that have become interactive again.
It is so interesting to me that all our experiences are at the mercy of our capricious memory. It seems to me there’s really only one way to truly safeguard them, and that is by writing them down—not just for curious family members, but for the days when what seemed concretely moored to our memory banks has seeped away.
Until next time…
Very truly yours,