It’s very difficult to recall a past event accurately. It’s even harder with someone who was with us in that time and place. For one thing, there is selective amnesia. As in the case of the ninety-year old man who leaned over and gave his wife a kiss. She looked up and said, “What was that other thing we used to do?” And beyond that, there is selective perception. Think travel tour when pictures are shared at a reunion. One fellow traveler has 200 shots of plants and flowers. Another has only architecture. A third has all birds. Which explains the problem a marriage counselor faces when asking a couple to describe a recent dust-up.

When it comes to recalling joint experiences with a spouse, or friend, Ruby Payne, an educational specialist for children of poverty, offers an insight. She describes their story comprehension as non-linear. Instead of following and then repeating a story arc, impoverished children tend to absorb random instances of pain, joy, dismay and anger. So, the Cinderella story is about a beautiful dress and cleaning the floor, glass shoes, a mean sister and a prince. No order. Perhaps we do something similar looking back on the pages of our life story. The intense moments stand out, if only for us.

They say that a Sicilian, as he ages, forgets everything but his grudges. Like chunks of meat in a stew, after a time, bitterness can be so marinated with all the other ingredients that it’s hard to isolate the original beef floating in the gumbo of time and place. One of us is cosseting the peas of insult and pain while the other chews on the carrots. So little of our life-recall overlaps in the Venn diagram of our togetherness.

My mother would soft focus in the middle of a reminiscence and remark, “That was when I was pregnant with…” And I could tell she was watching a home movie, behind her eyes, of her world at that time. As the first-born, I would have certainly been in her cast of characters, but we only have cameo roles in someone else’s movie. Which makes it so difficult to reconstruct the past, to salve hurts, to make up for pain when editing scenes from our shared existence.

Just ask VFW members as they try to tell their respective stories of a particular battle. Even if they were part of the seven soldiers raising the flag at Iwo Jima, the personal experience of each would be unique. And talking of veterans, my father-in-law refused to recount war stories. “If you were there, you would know what it was like. If you weren’t, I can’t recreate it for you.” There’s a certain honesty in all that. A realization that a moment in time, for each individual is beyond reincarnation.

In the same light, if combatants in the battle of the sexes try to reference a certain time and place in their relationship, half the battle would be about the details of life back then and the other half about emotional context…both hotly contested and shot through with selective amnesia and selective perception. Vivid details may stand out in the life-tapestry for one party but be absent entirely from the other’s.

Maybe that’s what drives writers to write. Perhaps they keep trying to describe parts of their lives that others who have ‘traveled the way’ with them may not realize or recall. It’s a vain attempt to make the reader say, “Ah, now I know what you went through.” Ironically, about the time a writer somewhat succeeds in this endeavor, a close-friend-reader will invariably say, “That’s too familiar. I couldn’t see past you to the underlying story.”

We are trapped in our own experiences and can only reach others by clumsy analogy hoping someone will say, “I can relate to that. Reminds me of when…”

2 thoughts on “Stuck in Our Own Memories

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