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The Memory Game

Our memories can be mysteriously fickle. One writer considers her own (ever-changing) sense of recollection.

By Daphne Merkin
A table with a vase of paper flowers Jason Fulford and Tamara Shopsin

I have always been inordinately proud of my powers of recall, both factually and emotionally based. Although I don’t possess a photographic memory, my ability to conjure up names and places―the movie that’s on the tip of someone else’s tongue, the novel that was unforgettable but the title of which has slipped everyone’s mind at the dinner table―is fairly impressive. And then, too, sometimes when I can’t fall asleep at night, I walk myself through the rooms of my family’s first summer house, on West Beach Street, the one we moved away from when I was 10 years old. I can still picture the sloping ceiling in my sisters’ blue-and-white bedroom on the third floor, the confetti-like linoleum in the small room I slept in by myself behind the bedroom of our fear-inducing caretaker, and the way the back stairs led into the kitchen, with its old-fashioned stand-alone freezer that was filled with ice cream sandwiches. In my head, I am mapping a kind of psychological cartography of my life, trying to establish the wheres and whens of the whys.

Perhaps one of the most curious aspects of memories is how much store we set by them, given how subjective they really are. Then again, it is precisely because memories of experience―as opposed to retrieving a fact or a piece of information―are so often tinged with strong emotion that they seem to require so much pinning down, only to escape back into the tunnel of the past. The novel I published when I was 31, Enchantment, was, as so many first novels are, a slightly fictionalized walk down memory lane―in this case, one strewn with hurts and sorrows. But even then, more than two decades ago, I was aware of how contingent―how unreliable―those memories were, crucial though they may have been to me: “Can it be,” I wrote, “that memories are so precious because they are so individual―no two sets exactly the same, like fingerprints?... Without compliance from anyone other than ourselves our memories are no more than arbitrary. They are possessions we rearrange endlessly on a shelf somewhere in our heads: was it a Sunday two summers ago, or would the moment fit in better a bit further forward or further back?” Interestingly enough, scientific evidence confirms my unscientifically-arrived-at theory that memories are elusive and unique to the person carrying them. This would help explain why two people from the same family can remember events from their common background so differently, almost as though they hadn’t been living under the same roof, like the two sisters in Alice Munro’s story “The Progress of Love,” one of whom remembers their mother’s suicide attempt as a tragedy and the other as a dark joke.

But, yes, for the longest time I thought I was immune to the weakening of factual memory that assailed my peers. I would watch as one or the other of them looked visibly perplexed by the declining performance of this facility, by a temporary inability to remember something obvious and usually accessible, whether it was a niece’s or nephew’s name or the age of an ex-husband. I would think smugly to myself that I was safe, that there was something invincible about my memory, which I kept in good shape with the same attentiveness other people applied to dental hygiene. I had gotten into the habit, that is, of running my memory through its paces, of flossing it to a clean sheen by conducting little tests, checking to see if I could still recite Robert Frost’s “The Road Not Taken” or whether I remembered the name of Lolita’s mother in Vladimir Nabokov’s novel.


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