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Thanks for the Memories

January 30, 2019

Pay attention. Pay Attention! PAY ATTENTION!!!

The words hammer in my head like the woodpecker furiously drilling holes in the lifeless poplar tree at the edge of the forest: pay attention!

Phases of my life

The many phases of my life.

The majority of my life seems to have rushed past without allowing me the time to properly record and catalogue it. Minutes, hours, days, weeks, months, years have disappeared with barely a trace memory of where I was, who I was with, what I was doing at any given moment. When I try to put it all into some sort of perspective, there are far too many holes – too many “blank spaces” – in my memory bank to formulate a full picture. Where did the time go? How did I get here (I turned 65 in November)? Why can’t I remember so much of the past? What have I missed? And is it possible to get any of it back? (And, yes, I know aging has a lot to do with “memory loss”, but I’ve been pondering this question for many, many years!)

According to Catharine Young in the short TED Ed video, “How memories form and how we lose them” (http://youtube.com/watch?v=yOgAbKJGrTA), strong memories are formed when we are paying attention and deeply engaged, and the information is meaningful.

Family Vacation (1991)

One of many annual family vacations (1991)

From that perspective, I can understand why some aspects of my life are completely missing from my memory banks. Years of marriage and motherhood (laundry, cooking, cleaning, shopping, banking, child rearing, arranging family vacations, volunteering at pre-school and primary schools, driving here-there-and-everywhere, keeping everyone organized and on track), combined with part-time and then full-time work (teaching and corporate training for three different educational institutions – mostly evenings and weekends at first, then part-time and finally full day during the day as the boys got older) made it nearly impossible for me to fully pay attention to any one activity, never mind be “deeply engaged” for more than a few minutes (or hours, when teaching) at a time. And while I like to think everything I did during those forty-odd years was meaningful, it was so intertwined (home and work and family obligations) that, in hindsight, I have no idea how I managed it all and maintained my sanity, never mind my memory of what took place when.

CollaborationClearly there was little time for any of those myriad events to coalesce in my short term memory space before being passed along to long term storage (or tossed aside to make way for the next bit of information being taken in). Truth be told, considering my 24/7/365 schedule back then, it’s a wonder any of it made its way into the old storage banks at all.

Now that I’m retired, I have lot of time sit back and “remember and reminisce” about “the good old days”. That’s when I usually sit down with one of my many photo albums (and thank goodness for them, and the fact that I took lots of pictures and kept them organized [at least by date] so I can flip through the pages and study them in detail). Most of the time, I have at least some recall of the people, places or events pictured; however, more times than I care to admit, the details are vague or – even more distressing – I find myself drawing a complete blank.

Me in my Little Black Dress, 1965

Me in my little black dress

Occasionally, I force myself to sit quietly and nudge my aging brain to focus on a specific time in my life or past event. It takes some doing, but I have been able to extract dusty memories from the deepest recesses of my mind and record them for posterity (see: “I Remember” in 4 parts; “The Little Black Dress”). And while the “big picture events” of the last twenty or so years are pretty clear, it’s getting harder and harder to see the details of the more distant past clearly; they’re just slightly out of focus. I sometimes wonder if I’m running out of storage space.

According to a Q & A on Scientific American , “The brain’s exact storage capacity for memories is difficult to calculate. First, we do not know how to measure the size of a memory. Second, certain memories involve more details and thus take up more space; other memories are forgotten and thus free up space. Additionally, some information is just not worth remembering in the first place.”

Who decides what’s worth remembering, what should be forgotten, and how long memories should be kept? Surely it wasn’t me – because there are things I would dearly love to remember, but simple can’t recall at all. Here’s just one example:

Not long before my mother died, she gave me a large brown envelope filled with Mother’s Day cards, birthday wishes, and thank you notes my boys had sent her over the years, together with postcards from business trips I’d almost forgotten I’d taken and family vacations to the Caribbean, Florida, and California. There was also a newspaper article from 1984 about a “mom-to-mom” program at the local YMCA. A program I, apparently, had organized and run. While it certainly seemed like something I would have done, I had (and still have) absolutely no recollection of it whatsoever. I read the article several times, noted the photo of me in my living room that accompanied it (which means the journalist must have visited my house), and drew a blank every time. Not a twinge. Not a glimmer. Nothing. Had I not been paying attention? Not been deeply engaged? Wasn’t it meaningful enough for me to have remembered twenty-five years later? I have no idea.

In any event, in my frustration over not being able to remember it, I destroyed the article. I wish now I’d kept it, as it is one of many “missing” pieces in what is clearly the many faceted and complex jigsaw puzzle of my life.

New Grandmother (Feb 2015)

We live our lives as if it’s a race – rushing through events and activities, days and weeks, actions and interactions as if there’s some fabulous prize waiting for us at the finish line. And in our hurry to get there, we too often neglect to pay attention to the many special moments that would become memories – memories that will sustain and entertain us when we reach … the other side of 55.

 

 

9 Comments
  1. January 31, 2019 9:41 am

    Oh, how I can commiserate with you on this one. I will turn 65 in June and I too find my memory is starting to wane. I keep doing crossword puzzles because I read somewhere that it keeps your mind alert, but there are so many aspects of life years ago that I just can’t recall. My kids will say “remember the time we….” and I will draw a blank. Thank goodness, like you, even though I was caught up in the throes of raising three children with a traveling salesman husband, I had the presence of mind to take photos. I’m trying hard to “pay attention” now as I spend time with grandchildren. Your post was spot-on for me today, Margo. Thank you!

    • January 31, 2019 7:37 pm

      Crossword puzzles just make me angry! LOL! I am so glad that my boys remember a lot of things about family vacations, etc. that I have forgotten (or never remembered). At least the money spent wasn’t totally wasted! I focus very hard on just “being” with my granddaughter – I wan to remember every single moment!

  2. January 30, 2019 10:48 pm

    I’m glad I have three children and a husband because when I have problems remembering very much about something, I just ask them. I will get 4 different versions of the event, because they each remember something a bit different!

    My dad is 92 and he gets very frustrated that his memory is getting worse. I keep telling him his ‘hard drive’ is getting full. I ask him if he remembers to go down for dinner and if he always finds his way back to his room when he has been out. He says yes, so I tell him he is doing great!

    • February 1, 2019 10:58 am

      I love sitting back and listening to my two boys talk about family vacations and other events – because they remember so much I don’t have a clue about! My mother used to worry that she couldn’t remember what she’d had for lunch or dinner the day before and I’d assuage her fears (hopefully) by admitting I didn’t either (and often still don’t). In my dad’s declining years (he died at 94) he had difficulty remembering recent events but if you asked him about something that happened decades ago, he could tell you a story full of very clear details. Its short term memory that goes first, which is why its so important to really pay attention to the things you want to get into long term recall before they’re lost!

  3. Jane Watt permalink
    January 30, 2019 10:31 pm

    That was really good, my memory is not so good either. In August I will be just the other side of 70!
    Jane Hughes.

    • January 31, 2019 8:48 am

      I spend a lot of time thinking about the past these days (as I work on some genealogical research) and have discovered some great web sites that delve into the history of our home town – they occasionally trigger a memory or two!

  4. January 30, 2019 10:06 pm

    It’s amazing how you can stimulate your memory by reminiscing with an older sibling. My sister is nine years my senior and she’s good at filling in the gaps of my childhood for me. Many years ago, I began keeping a journal when I traveled. Writing seems to be a better way of cementing a memory than photos, although the two together are best. And then, of course, if you travel with your sister, you have two versions. Living in the moment may be good for short term but at my age, every day is pretty much the same so it all gets jumbled together in the end.

    • February 1, 2019 10:53 am

      I do some journalling and am often surprised when I go back and re-read what I’ve written that I’ve forgotten so much; I often feel like I’m reading about someone else’s life. I’m currently working on my “life story” to go with photographs and other genealogical information I’m putting together and I wonder now just how much of it is accurate (I suppose no one will know either way, but still …)

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