The Blessing (and Curse) of Memories

I have long been intrigued by memory. Why do we remember the things we do? Yes, it makes sense that we remember the big moments in life: graduations, holidays, weddings, funerals, “firsts” of all kinds! But why do we remember some random everyday events and not others? 

For example, at age 9 or 10, I remember sitting in our comfy brown rocker recliner in our dark living room with just the Christmas tree lights on. I’m guessing my brothers were having a bath or already in bed. It was so peaceful and beautiful. I loved how the lights reflected against our picture window and out to the snow beyond. Sometimes I can almost transport myself back to this moment.

At age 14, I remember sitting out on our farm house porch on a chilly, cloudy fall day poring through the newly arrived Montgomery Ward’s Christmas catalog. I can still see the gray sky and the brown fields across the road. I can still feel the cold air against my face and the excitement as I turned the pages, earmarking those of interest. Dreaming of the clothes I might get.

Why do I still recall these simple moments and not others?

And why are some experiences lost to the mists of time or never “recorded”?

Photo courtesy of Britain and Britishness.

For example, in my junior year of college I went to England for a month on a class trip. After spending mornings in lectures, we we free to go out and about in London. There were also planned day excursions by bus. One was to Oxford–beloved Oxford with its “dreaming spires” about which I can remember nothing. Nothing. And for some strange reason I have no photos of it either. Why? Why? Why? 

Actually I take that back I have one snip of a memory. We are walking through a small university chapel with elaborately carved wood walls. A girlfriend and I were examining the carvings and we found depictions of animals engaged in amorous congress and I remember laughing. That’s my sole Oxford memory.

And why do the hard moments of life stay with us forever?

Sadly, we all have tons of these memories too. Things we wished we could forget. At times I wish I could edit my brain like a computer and drag things to the trash can.

Source unknown.

Like this one. Back in junior high school in the 9th grade I was walking down the hallway towards my locker. It was December and not long till a much-anticipated Christmas break. One of my girlfriends, one of my posse, sidled up to me and pressed a tightly folded note in my hand. (That was how we did them back then. Secret communications were always done in tightly folded notes.) I opened it at my locker to find a long missive from my three besties telling me they couldn’t be friends with me anymore because I wasn’t “cool enough.”

I was hurt and bewildered, but mostly angry. My friends were “breaking up with me” and didn’t even have the courage to tell me to my face. (I suppose nowadays it’s the equivalent of breaking up by text.) And what the heck made them think they were so cool? Tell me that!

Thankfully I had other friends and more or less landed on my feet. Still it’s a memory I could live without. Betrayal and rejection are not easy at any age. 

(Of course, I recognize this is a mild “trauma” compared to what many folks have gone through.)

Is it time to preserve (and heal) memories?

I am also aware that retaining memory is not a given. As folks live longer, dementia and Alzheimer’s seem more common. I have written a number of short memoir pieces in the past and I realize it wouldn’t be a bad idea to get more of my memories down. To create a little book of sorts. And yes, I might include some of the more painful moments. 

Actually writing can be very therapeutic. I am a fan of the book “Writing to Heal” by James Pennebaker who leads readers through short writing exercises that help allow recovery from “trauma and emotional upheaval.” And I can attest that I have found it very helpful.

Yes, memory is a curious thing…

And I’ve learned that what sticks in the brain long term is prone to inaccuracy. The National Library of Medicine states, “Long-term memory is often considered easily corruptible, imprecise, and inaccurate, especially in comparison to working memory.” Leon Ho of LifeHacks explains, “Most times, people retain the visual aspects of an event but forget the details. What the brain does is to curate details that are reasonable to fill in this gap.” 

Ahhh…I’ve often wondered how memoirists can recall all the very specific details from an event long ago—from the clothes worn to the exact words spoken. Now I am realizing that likely, from time to time, poetic license is taken.

What does any of this have to do with vintage stuff?

I suppose very little other than things from the past, our past, serve as gateways to long-forgotten memories. Or help us relive happy times in the past.

I think that’s why so many people collect the toys from their childhood. Or treasure inherited jewelry. One gal recently bought a 1940s piece of pottery from me because her parents have one of their mantel and it evokes good memories for her. Another bought a ring that was similar to one given to her years ago by a beloved aunt that had gotten damaged. My youngest brother treasures a clock that once hung in our grandparents’s house.

It needs a good clear out!

For my part I adore the antique china hutch from our childhood home. It was the best piece of furniture my family ever owned  (given to us by my father’s aunt). Every time I look at it, it gives me pleasure and I still can’t believe it traveled 3000 miles and now resides with me. Sadly, I am using it to store some of my inventory and it looks like a hot mess right now. (Hmmm, maybe it’s time to clear it out a bit!!)

The truth is things have meaning and can bring joy.

Of course some folks have a different stance. Joshua Milburn of “The Minimalists” believes: ” Our memories are within us, not within our things. Holding on to stuff imprisons us; letting go is freeing. You can take pictures of items you want to remember.”

Yes, our memories are within us, but isn’t it wonderful to have a few items that remind of us them. I have a sweet paper mache heart box given to me by my grandmother when I was in my teens. I have managed to keep it on every move I’ve ever made in my life. It reminds me of her love. Yes, I could let it go and I would still know she had loved me, but it makes me smile when I see it, so why?

I’m tired of folks thinking it’s detrimental holding onto anything sentimental. (And no, I do not want to replace it with a digital photo I’ll never look at.) And while I believe in getting rid of excess things not being used, worn or appreciated, I think there is a benefit to have some beloved things around us.

I’ll close for now, wishing you happy memories,

Karen

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