Where Does Memory Come From?

My heart skipped an extra beat when I was talking to my sister Susie this holiday to wish her season’s greetings.  At the same time, I was thinking how to finesse a segue to her memories of the day I burned my leg, which I realized was probably impossible to do so subtly.  And so I just asked, “On another note, Susie I have this memory of you telling me that you smelled me burning and told mom to go upstairs and check on me.  Is that at all accurate?”  Susie, the consummate Ph.D. in psychology, paused as she would normally do to process the question and her response.  “I have to tell you Annie,” she said and hesitated a bit.  “I don’t remember a thing about that day.”  My mind swirled.  How could that be?  The story I long remembered was that she and I were playing downstairs in the basement.  Mom was with us just feet away, ironing and talking on the phone.  I saw that image clear as day.  How could Susie, who was a whole 18 months older than me, not have any recollection? 

“How old would I have been then,” she asked. 

“You would have been 3 and a half.  I was just a couple weeks shy of two.”

“Well, I guess that’s why I don’t remember anything.  I was so young.  I’m sorry.  Tell me what you remember.”  And so I did, my memory being much more vivid than what she knew or recalled, even though I know she was there with me that day.

Where exactly does memory come from?  How can we recollect something so clearly that someone else hasn’t registered?  It’s one of those mysteries that has to be accepted and is absolutely befuddling.  I so wanted confirmation of my memory and at the same time, know that when you embark on a journey to uncover the past, you simply have to accept whatever it is that you find.

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Happy Burn-iversary!

Today is the anniversary of my ill-fated climb up the kitchen stove, according to the best research source I currently have — my blue baby book. Without evidence-based confirmation from a verified medical record, which I may or may not ever find, I rely on my mother’s elegant script in the baby book, where she marks this date in an eerily understated entry, “My oh my. Another big scare with Anne……”. This is the first year in the more than 40 since that I’ve even known the date — the first time I’ve looked in that ole baby book to check it.

Parents Notes- Mom's description of accident

Putting on my detective hat and with the not-so-clever use of the Internet, I see that November 24th way-back-when was a Tuesday just two days before Thanksgiving. I wonder so many things — what were their Thanksgiving plans that week? Who was cooking? Did their plans change when I went into the hospital for a 2 1/2 month stay? Did they visit that day? Was I in surgery on Thanksgiving? Did they cry when it happened?

To date, I’ve interviewed a number of my parents’ friends and relatives and no one remembers that specific week, those specific activities. In the end and in the big picture, I know it doesn’t matter so much but it is still a nagging curiosity even though I feel more like a voyeur to my own story than its main character. Is that how I cope? I’ve always been expert at compartmentalizing and I wonder if this is why.

In all of this, the most important piece is that I’ve found resolution and peace. In the most fortunate of ways, I heard my parents own words many years later. That they wished they had spoken of this earlier. That they loved me. That it changed their lives far more than mine. I’m lucky this way. Many people for many reasons don’t open this door. Have you?

Talking with Relatives

Man with street organ and monkey on chain.

Image via Wikipedia

One of the most fascinating aspects of looking back in time is talking to my mother and father’s relatives. Memory is an interesting thing. So, apparently were the 1960s. Intuitively I think I knew that things were different for families in the 60s but mom’s cousin Verna told me today that ‘we dealt with the monkey rather than going to the organ grinder.”  There was a hesitancy to most everything back then — whether it was the idea of calling someone long distance or doing things against the grain. I was trying to figure out how, after the accident, I actually got to the hospital. My sister told me that mom called dad and had him drive home from the office to take me. Cousin Verna confirmed this possibility, “If it were me, I would have called [my husband] to come home from work. Remember, we dealt with the monkey so we would have hesitated to call the hospital and there probably wasn’t 911 back then.”