As I have worked on two large-scale writing projects over the past year, I have been awash in memories: memories of my parents, one gone a quarter-century, one gone a half-century; memories of the small Kentucky community where I grew up; memories of my early childhood surrounded by my father’s professional colleagues; and flickering memories of momentary interactions with long-lost relatives that I’ve tried to tease out of the recesses of my mind. These are the tricky ones, the ones that may shed some light on unexamined family relationships that altered the reality I knew.
My current project requires solving a fascinating puzzle: Why did my maternal grandfather, whom no one in my immediate family ever knew, make the choices he did? What motivated him? While I have been able to uncover a lot of his story through dogged research, what clues exist in the family stories that I do know or that I can remember?
Memory, unfortunately, is always unreliable and usually fickle. We have all been startled to learn that someone else’s memory of an event we recall so vividly does not at all match our recollection. Whose memory is right? How can we both be so certain about our differing stories? Has our memory been altered by hearing someone else’s retelling or by seeing a photo or video? Or did we dream it? How many family arguments and estrangements have been propelled by our illusions?
In 2016, Seamus Carey, president of Transylvania University, spoke eloquently about the fickleness of memory:
“The problem is memory itself. It is difficult to remember well. No matter how hard we try, memory flickers; no matter how earnestly we struggle, memory plays tricks with our thoughts; no matter how firm our promise to hold on, memory is the morning mist, so bright and stellar at its birth, so quickly burned away by the sun of another day.”
As each day passes, our minds are filled with ephemera collected from a multitude of sources. We spend our waking hours, and part of our slumber, sorting through this mass of information. By necessity, some gets moved to a shadowy corner. Some gets pinned to the forefront of our awareness. Some gets temporarily locked inside a box, only to reappear unexpectedly after an unsolicited and sometimes inconvenient provocation.
We cannot tame them, these unruly memories. We cannot hold them, even if we want to. Our unconsciousness regularly seizes control of our consciousness and sweeps them away. Sometimes this is good. Sometimes it’s for our own good, although we may not recognize it at the time. Sometimes it hurts. Sometimes we do everything we can to cling to the few memories we have.
But that doesn’t mean that I can’t still honor what I can’t remember. Or those whom I don’t remember. I will rely on others’ stories, on other photos. I will construct a memory that nourishes me and inspires me to build memories with those who are here with me now, chasing this wild dream we call life.
In memory of Buddy, whom I can only remember with love.