The Fickle Nature of Memory

I am at a retirement age and no longer bound up in the daily struggle to make a living. I think back over my life and wonder why my memories are so sparse. I know people who can open their trunks of memories and it’s like opening a pressure cooker– things boil out in great detail.

When I open my dusty trunk of memories, I must get a flashlight to find a thread here and there in the deepest corners. Where did my memories go? Did I ever have any memories? Where did I put them?

Mark Twain said, “A clear conscience is the sure sign of a bad memory.” If that were true, my bad memory should afford me a clear conscience, but I can assure you my conscience is not clear.  I seem to recall with great regret those multiple events in my life for which my conscience  berates me from time to time.  I suppose one might say I remember the bad but forget the good. Kind of like a wife, some might joke.

This has become a matter of great concern for me, and I think about it far too much. I wonder, do I have Alzheimer’s disease? Am I in some initial stage of dementia? Why do I so often need to search for a word or a  name? Why do others need to provide that information I search for?

Perhaps I should see a doctor, but in truth I’m afraid of what a doctor might say to me. So I lumber from one search to the next, substituting a word that isn’t quite right for the word that I cannot remember, and that’s wrong of course. It was Mark Twain who said:

“The difference between the almost right word – and the right word is….the difference     between the lightning bug and the lightning.”

I remember yesterday I was writing something and I hit a wall – couldn’t remember the word I needed – finally wrote around it by using the phrase  “what if ” instead of. . . but  now, suddenly I remember. . . The word is “hypothetical”.

Here’s my theory about all this, which is so much more satisfactory than the possibility of dementia:

The memory is just another muscle within our grand human design. Like my biceps, my memory muscle will wither if not routinely exercised. It will atrophy and become as useless as the appendix.

Historically, men [meaning the generic human race] lived in rural settings.  They gathered at night, their extended family groups, around a campfire or the fireplace.  There was no entertainment to speak of, so they told stories, and all those stories were based in memory.  Some of the stories arose from epic events that occurred generations before, and became the glue that held a clan or tribe together, that created an incipient national spirit.

Even after stories were written and printed, the oral tradition continued, generation after generation, until recent times, and it was memory that drove the story-telling.

I remember as a child my family would go back to the country, to Franklin County where I was born, to visit with grandparents and extended family. It would be the dead of winter and the larger family would sit in cane  bottom chairs in a semicircle before the great blast furnace inside the rock fireplace. I would stand within that semicircle, my coat on, and would turn, burning on one side, freezing on the other, and turn again,  trying to stay warm, and half listening to one after the other begin a story−”Do you remember when. . . .?”

I was thirteen when I got my first newspaper route, and after that I delivered newspapers seven days a week and never went back to the country except for funerals. I grew up in Birmingham isolated from my larger family group and from that oral tradition.

And of course my father bought our first television, a small black and white model, when I was about twelve years old, shortly before I became a newspaper boy.  That, I believe, to be one of the   real culprits in my failure to make and keep memories.

We, as a society, watch television instead of interacting as a family or as a community. Books have been written on loss of community.  See for  example Bowling Alone by Robert D.Putnam.

So does this failure of the oral tradition, this trend toward isolation of the individual from community interaction, this sense of realizing that each of us is “lost in the cosmos,” as Walker Percy put it –does that somehow lead to a loss of individual memory?

And if that is not reason enough for our loss of memory, then look at the way we live today with an I-phone in our hands and anything we need to know we can learn from Mr. Google in an instant. There is simply no reason to remember when a world of information lies at our fingertips. If I need just the right word, the mot juste, [how in hell did I remember that one?], I may simply consult a synonym in the Thesaurus app on my I -phone.  No need to remember all those similar words. The question, of course, is whether this ability to instantly find information will obviate our need to memorize, to remember, and perhaps even the need to think, to reason, and if there is a connection, a cause and effect, how will this ultimately change the nature and character of the human species?  Will this loss of reason lead to more conflict or less?  Will we as a race become more loving, more affectionate. Or more remote, more anti-social?  Will society break down? Will we bring down our own houses, as we have recently witnessed in Syria, so that at the end nothing will be left but homeless people standing in the ruins, hiding from each other because of ideological differences and loyalties we neither understand nor can bridge, reminiscent of Walker Percy’s dystopic novel, Love in the Ruins?

We are working harder than ever, each of us caught up in our own search for a better life, always looking forward to what a better life is awaiting us at retirement, though I’m beginning to see that a life with a truncated memory may not be much of a life at all.  How can we put our lives in perspective if we don’t have a sense of where we’ve come from and those people who have been so important in our lives.

I think back to my father and mother, my brother and sister, to all those people who made me who I am and gave me my values. I have forgotten or half remember  important events in my life, while I  remember some events that mean little or nothing.    How sparse are my memories, how atrophied that memory muscle has become.  How very fickle is this thing called memory. Now more than ever, before I’ve come to view memory as an illusive, elusive thief, who has taken my past and hidden it, distorting it,  dribbling it out to suit itself.

And now, as  I grieve for my lost memories, a small insignificant remembrance comes floating by to taunt me, to make me feel like an idiot.


The Small Black Cricket

The fog rises this morning,
a thin diaphanous veil
floating among the high rise buildings,
then quietly drifting away.

I watch in profound silence,
reminded of the thin, sparse
quality of my remembrances
and how they too have drifted away.

So strange how the mind works—
all those many memories lost; the good
advice my Dad gave me, time and
time again—all plunged into the abyss.

The things my brother did and said,
my roommate for all those years we lived at home
walking the railroad tracks, delivering newspapers,
tinkering on motorcycles—so little I recall.

And my sister, seven years younger and
more or less housebound, obviously was a keen observer
of life; for she recalls
more of my adolescence than I;

and my mother, beautiful woman,
with dark, dark hair and
piercing green eyes—so little left of what she said beyond
her desperate yearnings for me and her church.

And my first girlfriend—
the girl on the Boulevard—I remember
her shining black hair, her luminous hazel eyes,
holding her hand in my uncertain grip, her warm kiss,

The memory of my hopeless longing,
I remember so well—yet what
in God’s name did we speak of,
she and I?

Why, then, having forgotten
such matters of substance,
does that single insignificant moment
stand out so vivid to me?

I was a small boy then, maybe eight or nine years old,
and I was told to cut the grass out front,
a small lawn falling into a sidewalk,
grass between there and the street.

It was a push mower, the kind with two wheels
that rotate the curving blades between.
The handle was as high as my head
and I couldn’t get my body weight behind my push.

I amused myself by pushing the mower on the
sidewalk where the blade whirred
enthusiastically, as if I were making progress,
Though in fact I was making none.

There on the sidewalk perched a small
black cricket, harmless and minding its own business.
I whirred on, thinking surely the lawnmower would pass harmlessly overhead,
As it had not yet cut a single weed.

And then—to my horror− a thousand small remnants burst from the whirring blade,
a black cloud hovering a moment before my startled eyes,
and then settling on the sidewalk before my planted feet.
My heart sank . . . ; and I grieve the poor cricket

as if it had been a family pet.

Chervis Isom


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