According to an article I read recently, my excellent memory is not, as one might surmise, the result of careful training and good genes but is, in fact, due to a physical defect. Apparently I am lacking in a specific biochemical which is responsible for sorting and storing memories, relegating recent events to the dusty file cabinets at the back of the brain. My file drawers hang half-open, it seems, the labeled manila folders within sticking up, where I can “see” many more of them than I should be able to do.
I’ve decided that the information from that article is probably true, for I’ve always had a strange and quirky memory. I can, for instance, recall most of the lines of a ridiculous song which we first graders were taught for a goodbye party, when the Roman Catholic school I attended was saying farewell to one of the parish priests. “Me and my teddy bear/had no worries had no care/until we discovered Father Sciarria was going away…” (These aren’t the only lines that I recall, either, but I will not inflict the other trite words on you, the hapless reader.) I even recall that my mother put a fresh ribbon around the neck of my brother’s carefully refurbished teddy bear for me to carry on this momentous occasion. Yet a friend who participated with me on that day has no memory of the occurrence, and certainly none of the song.
I also remember squatting with my older brother on the subfloor of the partially-built home my parents were viewing one weekend. My brother and I pushed a knothole out of the wood planks and then dropped nails through the hole to listen for the crash as they dropped to the concrete of the basement floor below. As to why, in the name of heaven, I recall this, I have no explanation. I could not have been much above two years old at the time, and it was hardly a stunning or memorable event. But, there you have it: I remember it, and my brother, three years older than I, once confirmed the silly recollection.
My fine memory has served me well on many occasions. The ability to recall minute details of specific events and conversations has saved me from many a misunderstanding, made my job easier, or made it possible for me to solve difficult problems. And I have learned that to recall a joyful incident can be, for just an instant, to live once more in that moment of elation. But, in the converse, being able to recall, in tortuous detail, painful past events is in no way a blessing. If recalling joy is to rediscover it, then a thorough memory of agonizing occurrences is to fully relive the anguish.
I’ve read, too, that each time we remember an event, we are actually remembering that we remember it. The memory is, in essence, a watery, beaten carbon copy, growing more mangled and less precise with each repetition. This causes me to wonder if the details that I recall—such as that fresh ribbon on the neck of the teddy bear—did, in fact, happen. It’s the sort of conundrum which makes eye witness accounts (as so many police departments and courts have learned to their dismay) totally unreliable. What a witness remembers, may, in fact, not be borne out by the simple expedient of today’s everywhere-present videos. People remember things oddly, or incorrectly, or that never even happened.
But the simple truth remains: if I remember the occurrence or event—if I recall it, and experience all the emotions surrounding it—then it is real to me. Whether or not I have added or lost specific details—whether or not I recall things precisely as they happened—they exist for me in the reality of my mind.
So I would not, not for any reason, and certainly not to be spared pain, give up one iota of my crazy, quirky, detailed memory. Not one sunset, not one touch of my daughter’s hand, not one friend’s face, nor one moment of awe or surprise or elation or even just simple, everyday life from my earliest childhood to this present moment.
It would seem that I’m not defective in that I have too little of whatever brain biochemical should relegate my sharp memories to the dusty file bins at the back of my brain. Indeed, it seems to me that those who have the “normal” amount of that compound must have far too much of it—and lose so much thereby.