I remember in university, taking a Toni Morrison literature class. My African-American teacher graded my final paper and told me I didn’t understand what the writer was trying to say about identity, helping me realize how it must feel to be black and read William Faulkner. It’s not easy to identify with something outside your identity. Despite that class being my only C of my last two years of school, that teacher did teach me something that stuck with me; the idea of re-memory. That is, remembering a memory. We all tell stories from memory. Homer, the ancient blind storyteller, conveyed great epics orally from memory. But, why do we only remember some things. Why are some memories, some smells, and some moments more memorable than others?
My ex (a catalyst of my future) had three long-term boyfriends who were all born on October 11, just like me. I thought that was a crazy coincidence. Perhaps, it’s only people born on that day, when the stars align just right to make a person capable of dealing with her. Only those mid-Libra birthdays are crazy enough to be attracted and sane enough to be attractive to that particularly irrational redhead. Then, in Korea, I met David, a young man from Nebraska, very similar to myself, who was also born on October 11. Is it possible that sharing a birthday, even on different years carries some kind of kindred nexus of past memories thereby making future connections?
He left Korea earlier this year, and I took over caring for his plant. Now, when I feed it, I remember him, hear his sarcasm and think of him. Not in a wistful or contemplative way, just in a perfunctory way of, “Hi, David’s plant.” I recently told a story of how I remember the smells of my childhood basement before we remodeled it. The musty, smoky, cool, dank smells of those spider webbed corners, those random pieces of wood, those giant water tanks, the scary African tribal masks are burned into my brain via my olfactory senses. When I hear a train whistle, I remember my grandparent’s house in the Philly suburbs and their dense green shag carpet that I was sitting upon when the main line express rumbled past Ambler’s station. I remember the smell of fire and the cold wind blowing in at dusk as we finished our pee-wee football practices. I remember the first moment I went underwater and took a breath with my scuba tank and felt the fear fade into exhilaration as I realized I was living among the fish for the next 30 minutes.
I don’t remember a majority of college parties. I don’t remember much from high school classes. I don’t remember the first time I ate popcorn. I don’t remember when I first saw Star Wars. BUT, I remember some college parties and the euphoria and freedom I felt. I remember sophomore year history teacher, Mr. McGuire, describing the smell of Civil War battlefields. I remember the sound of Mom popping corn from the kitchen during weeknight Flyers games. I remember watching the original Star Wars trilogy on VHS with my first love snuggled on my futon in my first apartment.
Our brain isn’t capable of remembering everything. It isn’t even capable of remembering the best things. It remembers some things. Who knows why, or what prompts a memory to be stored away in the annals of our myriad brain folds. Presumably, our large memory banks evolved to help us remember safe caves for shelter, animal migration routes or which berries were poisonous. Without this great human trait, we would be lost in the transitory present like a nervous jittery mouse, sniffing between steps and never aware of the beauty beyond our nose. Memory gave us the ability to feel the pangs of nostalgia, the pain of loss and the glory of victory, not just once, but anytime we are reminded of it. As we grow older, how do we even walk down the street without seeing things that remind us of something? It could be a crippling feeling, engendering the “What If?” game; or it could be a liberating feeling of a life well lived and memories of which to be proud.
Two people can experience some event and remember it quite differently, thereby creating the two sides to every story maxim. Every single person alive and everyone who has passed on have had a story to tell. They all had some priceless memories stored in their brain banks. In the classic Bill Murray movie, Groundhog Day, he says he remembers a day when he met a beautiful woman, ate lobster and made love on the beach. He wishes to relive that day over and over again instead of being stuck in limbo in rural Pennsylvania covering a weather-predicting rodent. But, he would probably get sick of that day perfect day too.
Memories, like wine or denim, get better with age. Even the bad things seem to get pushed under the rug of recall. That’s how we get back into bad relationships or repeat mistakes from the past. When George Costanza, from Seinfeld, was walking up Susan’s flight of stairs after elucidating his undying love for her, he felt all the bad memories that he had blacked out wash over him in a moment of panic. It took the re-memory of hiking up those stairs to remind him that was a metaphor for his relationship with her.
This is such a large topic, and such an important one to me. I remember so many (what I think are interesting) incidents of my young life. I could write an lengthy scribe of strange episodes, love affairs, weird experiences, and random occurrences; however, nobody really wants to hear about your life. It’s what makes memory so important. You can play the “Remember When?” game with yourself. It does get boring though, which is where friends and lovers come in to fill in the gaps of your memories. And, you will do the same for their memories. It’s a cycle of life.
I remember so many trivial things. People ask me, “How do you remember that?” I remember movie lines word for word, sing songs from heart and have to play dumb with certain historical facts or geographical details sometimes lest I resemble a poor man’s Rainman. However, memory goes deeper than statistics or statements. It taps into our conceptions of self. We are who we are due to circumstances beyond our control, such as place of birth, parents, school, and time period. In addition to that, we become who we are from personal choices, choices made from knowledge, knowledge gained, remembered and implemented. If we forget those great moments of enlightenment from a lover’s touch, a drug induced epiphany, a random waterfall, accidental encounters, or unintentional insights into the subjective nature of our life, we are doomed to remember lesser, trivial things, like movie quotes.