My sisters and I talk a lot about memory now. Perhaps this is inevitable as the four of us straddle the 50 divide—two already there, the other two taking quick gulps of 40-ish air before their inevitable plunge.
One sister is downloading apps that help her brain stretch in new ways. When another says she no longer likes playing the piano because reading music is too hard, the rest of us wonder. Is it about time she just said no to something she hated, or is this a convenient excuse to shut down the part of her brain that used to be quite good at reading music? We fear the slow constriction that shadows our choices, and the loss of supple youth each decision underlines.
Through the magic of Facebook, I am now in touch with more high school friends than I ever was after we graduated. The other day as my daughter told me about something that had really embarrassed her, I thought about the two most mortifying incidents in my youth.
One, a moment of bad judgment in the vicinity of my then-boyfriend’s parents, I remembered quite clearly. It was still embarrassing, but then I realized that both his parents were now dead. How was I supposed to feel about my hideous lapse of good sense now that it no longer mattered? Could I let it go—should I actually rake smooth the ground where that stone had forever tripped me? What, if anything, was the cost of forgetting?
The other incident happened in junior high school, as most embarrassing moments tend to do. I remember the two classmates who witnessed it, and how afterward I spent many nights tossing and turning in shame. And that’s all I now remember.
I could easily contact those two classmates now and ask them, but other than a vague recollection of us being outside the auditorium, I have no idea what actually happened. Was it something I said? Something someone said to me? The details of that heart-pounding moment have been completely erased, and all that remains is the shell that used to house the most embarrassing thing that ever happened to me in junior high school.
I feel about this incident the same way I do when I misplace something: I am frustrated by my inability to remember what I did with a minor, semi-valuable possession. But perhaps this is more a blow to my pride than any cause for concern about my memory.
After my dad died, I looked forward to finally asking my mom the questions she would never have considered answering if he were within earshot. But just as she seemed to ease into that reflective, post-raw-grief phase, she stopped being able to remember. Not through any act of will, but by the forces of erosion my sisters and I now fear.
There is a difference, I think (I hope), between realizing we have forgotten something and not being aware of ever having known. I am grateful for the things my sisters remember about our childhood that I do not. I am pretty sure they feel the same way when I fill in the gaps for them. And we now know the importance of living lives that others have witnessed, and knowing that even when the details fade away, the etchings of our passage remain.