We all know memory is a tricky thing, sometimes teasing, sometimes torturing as we grasp at the past, often during attempts to deal with the present and plan for the future. As we learn more and more about the human brain and its miraculous functions, we also come to understand that memories are not exact, finite things. There is no portion of the human brain that functions as a “filing cabinet” from which memories are extracted whole and presented for retrospection. Instead, a “memory” is formed through input from various sections of the brain, with data collected and assimilated into a reconstruction of something or someone past. This means a “memory” is not an exact thing, but a re-creation.
I was considering this recently after reading a column by a friend with whom I attended school from our first day through high school. His well-crafted piece, featured in the hometown newspaper, was his recollection of beginning school with that fearful walk into the first grade classroom (no kindergarten in those days in our little town). Having shared that experience – we were in the same class – it was interesting to compare my memories, admittedly dim, with his, and allow his to cause me to examine things forgotten.
One thing I agreed with was the slanted perception of that time and place and situation. For me, it reinforces the notion that memories are recreations, perceptions fed through filters into something not exact but close enough. I’ve noticed that many times when I “remember” something it’s not as it would have been from my true perspective, but as if I’m an observer watching from across the room. I “see” things in ways they couldn’t have been. The attendant feelings and sensations may seem true and real, but it’s obvious the memory is as much fiction as reality.
Another jolt of memory was triggered by the sudden death of another schoolmate. Having left my hometown for college and really never spending much time there again, I’d tended to lose touch with childhood memories and people once known. This particular fellow came back through the unrelenting outreach of Facebook, one of those connections reborn by individuals seeking to stay in touch or regain touch.
In this case, I certainly knew the name, with which came certain recollections of time and place. But the face in the photos did not coincide with a face in my memory, the young face, the boy I would have known. My high school yearbooks having long ago disappeared during one move or another, I had no point of reference, but enjoyed this particular fellow’s gregarious nature and zest for life. He was one of those Facebook faithful who shared multiple aspects of his life with his online “friends,” showcasing the things he was doing, places he went, even the food he was eating. He offered his opinions on life and politics, and he and I enjoyed several spirited online discussions from differing points of view. He even allowed us to take a voyeuristic journey with him as he battled the ill health and a lingering disease that finally claimed him. But even his most dire posts were somehow upbeat, and he always ended the same way: “Life is good, God is great.”
I searched out his obituary in the hometown newspaper, hoping for clues but finding little. In the end, he was for me the proverbial someone I used to know. But there was a connection, I realized, because at the same point in time we had walked the same streets, gone to the same places, sat in the same classrooms, known many of the same people. We would have experienced, in ways shared or otherwise, dramatic events both in the little world of our town or the greater world surrounding us. These were connections that would always be there, no matter how far we drifted. And, therefore, I mourned him.
Memory is indeed a thorny and complicated thing, just as the past too often haunts us as we revisit things done and left undone. There are those who proclaim the past is past, it cannot be altered and shouldn’t be allowed to affect the present. William Faulkner countered that when he wrote, “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.”
But, then again, as Jim Harrison observed in his memoir: “Life is so short you want to remember all of it, bad and good. It moves so quickly you easily forget that it is utterly unforgiving.”