The mystery of memory.

Watching my boys grow up, I often think about what are the best memories from my own childhood. I find it fascinating how often my favourite memories are generally, not of an event, but rather of a particular smell or sound or feeling. Almost universally, it is moments of stillness that are my favourites. The sound of a wood dove on an otherwise quiet sunny afternoon, the stillness only interrupted by that soothing but also sad sound. Sitting in a quiet and empty classroom, with the sweet smell of burning as the school groundskeepers burned piles of leaves. Or what is perhaps my earliest memory, the sound of a jet passing high overhead as I sat in the back garden on a blanket. In that memory, there is the sound of the plane, the smell of the grass and the heat on the ground and even the feeling of peace. To this day, when it hear that sound, all of the other sensations associated with it from the one childhood event, come flooding back as if I am there again. Sitting on a blanket in the garden in the sunshine. I was three.

Some of my best memories are of songs: the happiness of being in the car, singing along with Ray Charles to “Hit the Road, Jack” or hearing my mother play Joni Mitchell’s “Clouds” on the stereo or the pieces that she would play on the piano after I had gone to bed. But these aren’t memories of specific events, they are memories of feelings, invoked by the song or what was happening when I heard them, the events themselves now faded from my memory. Universally, they are all the moments that brought joy or comfort. Hearing them now, regardless of what is going on around me, puts me right back in the emotion of the moment.

For me, other triggers for memory are objects. My mother always attached significance to things as anchors for memory. The things that she most valued were not always worth much, or anything at all, but she treasured them for what they represented, what they still held, echoes of the past. Not memories of specific events, but memory of how you felt at a certain time when that object was significant. I suppose I learned to do the same without even realizing it. One such object was a picture book that I had as a child. Lost in a myriad of moves from house to house and country to country, I couldn’t remember the title or the author, only the way it looked. It haunted me quietly, not all the time of course, but every now and again.
I had searched on and off for years, especially after my children were born, through picture books, looking for artists whose style was the same, trying to trigger any memory beyond that of the joy of the book itself.

Last night, I found it. Or perhaps it found me, as I casually browsed the shelves of a bookstore that specializes in publishers off-prints; those books that no one wants anymore. As I browsed the spines of vintage children’s books, not looking for anything in particular, there it was and all of a sudden all the memories came back: name, title, story, everything. The joy of that discovery was so intense, it was like reclaiming my childhood in that one lovely book.

There are so many types of memory. Short-term, for the day-to day things: which child has swimming lessons tomorrow, what do I need to buy at the grocery store. Deep seated memories: the sights, sounds, smells, feelings of childhood.
Apparently there is even evidence of inherited memory. But what happens when you have memories that you don’t want?

Looking at memory now, as I am prone to do, watching my boys grow up thinking of my own childhood and thinking of my mother who is no longer with us, I realize that my memory is rather like the Winchester Mystery house. I have managed to compartmentalize my mind to such an extent that many bad memories are virtually inaccessible. Locked away to such a degree that I can’t access them without a lot of effort. It is like the mind protects itself from the pain of bad memories by putting them away. Because if you looked at them often, you’d go mad.

When my mother became ill and eventually died, I compartmentalized everything. Emotion had to be kept locked down tight so as to allow my mind to cope with caring for my mother and then dealing with the aftermath of her death. People would, at the time, look at me strangely and ask why I wasn’t upset. Everything had to be tightly compartmentalized so that I could cope. But now, I find that there are leaks. Like cracks in a dam. Suddenly, with no apparent trigger, it’s like a door in my mind opens and ‘Surprise!’ there is an image: still or short scenes on continuous loop. It is rather like being sucker punched. And sadly, the images are never pleasant: my mother in her wheelchair, looking at me with horror at what she knew was happening to her, struggling to speak or eat. And always with these images comes the emotion that is associated with that moment. Every single thing that I felt at that moment. It is like being haunted, the images ghosts of what my mind had to put away. I often think of it like the brain bleeding memory. Perhaps it’s like a pressure valve, releasing images a bit at a time, so my mind can deal with them one at a time. Eventually, I imagine, my brain will be able to take out the box filled with these memories and open the lid and take them out and look at them without reliving them, perhaps learning to live with them.
In the meantime, I will cherish all of my memories, be they feelings, snapshots, constantly looping scenes or full events; be they funny or heartbreakingly sad, because in the end, all of those compartments are a precious and unique repository of life.

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