From time to time, I’ve considered writing a memoir, since this is the age of memoir and I’ve had a pretty adventurous life: a girl on her own, lots of ups and downs, coming of age in the 70’s and 80s, women’s liberation, sexual revolution, the advent of technology age, all that. I’ve got material: love affair with a Vietnam vet; cross-country bus ride with $24 in my pocket; frisked for drugs on the Mexican border. I’ve seen the big canvas: the California scene, the Big Apple in the 1980’s, a step back in time on the Eastern Shore, MD. Oh, right, I’ve written about those already, in my novels, and that is probably where they’re going to stay. There’s really no danger that this memoir will be written, primarily because I have such a bad memory. There are significant periods of time in my younger years that I can not recall much detail, not actually drug or alcohol-related. Even now, when I write, I’m not entirely sure if a scene is entirely fiction or something that might have actually happened.
I know I’m not the only one with recall problems. In my current stage, there is the menopausal “fog” of forgetfulness. Many of my older friends keep busy doing crossword puzzles, playing cards, studying foreign languages to keep minds sharp. I have a friend who lost her house in a fire, and since then has not been able to rely on her memory as she used to. I believe my memory issues have to do with a kind of “automatic” pilot I functioned on for many years just to keep myself afloat. Being in the moment and concerned with survival, I didn’t have the opportunity to closely observe and analyze things, and so they passed like flotsam on a river, gone forever. Fortunately, there are two people who are living, breathing memory banks for certain times of life: my sister, close companion of my youth; and my husband, who can quote what I said 30 years ago when we first met as undergrads. They are my zip drives, thumb sticks, memory devices that I can plug-in and retrieve things that are otherwise inaccessible. Thank God for that.
It wasn’t always so. As a student I had a terrific memory for some things, almost photogenic in some regards. In French and Spanish, I could pick up vocabulary easily on one or two passes. In literature, I could recall passages and even specific sentences. And yet, I had trouble retaining lines in a play, mostly, I think, because of anxiety that came from drawing up words from the back of my mind while the front of my mind was in coping mode, on the lookout for problems. My younger son claims this absent-mindedness has a genetic component, and perhaps it does. As does my sons’ aptitude for foreign language. No doubt memory has a biological basis; but more and more I see that it’s shaped, too, by experience and emotion.
The one part of memory I claim some pride in is what people tell me about themselves. It’s like having cabinets with files large and small, and I rarely throw things out. These files are also cross-referenced with other people and events. A fair amount of work, I assure you. And yet, I can retain that information because it’s important to me, clearly. And that I got from my grandmother, who kept track of all the comings and goings of her large family, down to who liked vanilla and who liked chocolate. So, it seems there is a truth to selective memory, what is kept and what is allowed to go.
The modern day is a challenge to all of our memories. It’s a busy life with a lot to remember, and a lot slips through the cracks, even with our best efforts. I have to make a list for anything over three items at the store. I’ve taken to announcing that I have x number of questions/issues at the doctors office or on the phone – alerting others that I may well forget something. But, if I have one consolation, it is that I’m already at home with a certain degree of absent-mindedness, and have learned to work around it. And, in some ways, it’s nice to let the more trivial things sift away, leaving behind mainly what I most care about.