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Selective Memory

December 21, 2012


     This is a story about memory.  New evidence indicates that it’s not what you think it is and even photographs don’t tell the whole story.

     In the earliest snapshot of a childhood Christmas, I’m nine months old and my parents have placed me in an open gift box under the tree. My two older sisters kneel next to me on the braided rug as if I’m a present they’ve just opened.  Sharon, the oldest, dutifully holds the wrapped lid of the box with gentle good will. My sister Andrea looks stunned with disbelief and disappointment, so I’ll say it again. I’m sorry I wasn’t a pony.

     In a later photo I’m a diaper-clad toddler packing a six-shooter in a holster My western ensemble includes a red neckerchief, a cowgirl hat, and an emergency-room bandage taped to my forehead. I’d “fallen” down an entire flight of wooden stairs, hit the landing with unstoppable momentum and tumbled headfirst down the remaining steps where I’d cracked my head open on the coffee table. I say “fallen” because as I write this it occurs to me that some remorseful, pony-less cowgirl may have dressed me up in her Annie Oakley outfit to compensate for having witnessed but not stopped my unsteady approach to the top of the stairs.

      I don’t remember the fall but I do remember being on an exam table where a kindly male doctor pinched the profusely- bleeding wound closed with butterfly clamps instead of stitches to avoid leaving me with the large scar I now have. I remember being asked how many people were in my family and knowing the answer, five, although of course that is a trick of memory and not possible.  But in my mind at least, I counted us out on my fingers by name if not number, and the doctor gave me a grape lollipop for each member of my original posse.

     And then there’s the photo of my sisters and me in angelic white choir robes with red bows at our necks, gathered around the upright piano. I’m almost three now.  Sharon is poised with her hands above the keys playing carols and we all are singing. At least our mouths are open and we’re holding sheet music, but in my memory we’ve been instructed:  “Just act like you’re singing and stop hitting each other.” On the back of that photo my mother has written, “The girls love to make music together!” Did we? Could Sharon play? I don’t know.

     That’s the thing about memory. Neuroscientists have recently discovered that every time you remember an event from the past you change it. So the more you recall an experience or relationship, the more you distort it. They did a test with 9-11 survivors. Each time they told their stories the details changed until just one year out from the event their accounts of that morning were significantly altered.  Imagine what a lifetime of remembering does to experience. And what is true? The event or the memory you make of it?

     I remember my sisters slipping our presents to each other under the tree while the others hid their eyes. I remember the ringing of a strand of red, green and silver bells, passed one to the other, to signal that it was time for everyone to gasp at the magical transformation. With each ringing of the bells the little heap of presents grew. I remember a midnight church service where a flame was passed candle to candle to the accompaniment of “Silent Night” until the countenance of an entire congregation was bathed in light. And I remember three jostling sisters crammed together at the top of the stairs on Christmas morning while my sleepy parents lit a fire in the fireplace, turned the tree lights on, and got their coffee before we thundered down the steps.

    The December dawn cast its soft rose light over snowy swans in the icy cove as we opened gifts, but were they there? I don’t know.

     If memory can’t be trusted, what of our Christmas recollections is true? Maybe this: the unbearable excitement of believing in the unseen, in miracles; in thinking that just for one night, the impossible might be possible. Reindeer might fly and there might be enough love for the entire world.  Happy Holidays.



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  1. lucewriter permalink

    Laura, this is fabulous. It’s so true that our memories change. The more memories I recover, the more I realize that. This is one of my favorite blog posts ever :).

    • thestorywithin permalink

      Thanks for letting me know that the blog struck a chord. . Memory is so tricky, so easily distorted and can be both healer and jailer. The thing is, I suspect we get to choose which it is—working on that!

      • lucewriter permalink

        I agree with you. It used to be a jailer for me, but now it’s a healer!

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