Friday, May 1, 2015

Remember Every Day of Your Life? Forget About It

Are these smart people, people with good memories, or both?

Barbra Streisand only had it half right. 

Memories do indeed light the corners of your mind, but they can drive you crazy, too. We all have those moments of wondering why we remember our sixth-grade best friend’s phone number but can’t remember what we did yesterday. 

And then there are those who remember everything. And I mean everything. 

A 2010 film, “Unforgettable,” documents a man from La Crosse, Wisconsin, who has been dubbed “The Human Google” by his uncanny memory of his own life. Brad Williams has been diagnosed with the rare hyperthymesia, also known as superior autobiographical  memory. Marilu Henner of “Taxi” fame has a similar kind of memory and she appeared with Williams on a “60 Minutes” story about the topic. Only 20-some people in the world have been found to have this ability.

The film is on Wisconsin Public Television on Friday, May 1. 

There are probably those who are amazed by that, in a good way. I can’t think of anything more horrible than remembering every day of my life. 

To some extent, I speak from experience. While my life has been far from tragic, no one has good things happen to them all the time. And it’s only in recent years that I realized that I have a really good memory – though nothing like Brad Williams or Marilu Henner - which I both treasure and curse.

“You’re the one who can’t get Alzheimer’s,” said a friend who herself worries about dementia because of a family history. “You’re the one who remembers everything.”

For most of my life, I thought memory was this thing we are all born with like an arm or a leg. And that, like other body parts, it might get beat up or worn out but everyone’s basic raw materials were always the same. Then I  grew up and lived most of my adult life in other places, where the memories I shared with friends didn’t go back very far. 

And I worked in newsrooms, which are filled with people with spectacular memories. Brad Williams himself is a radio news host. I learned my craft from people who were encyclopedias, some of whom unfortunately took important reference material to the grave because they never bothered to write it down. 

I, and my memory, fit right in with those folks. We all thought we could kick butt on “Jeopardy,” though it’s hard to know if those contestants are actually smart or just have spectacular memories or a combination of both.

As the years went on, I seemingly had a better memory than my non-newspaper friends about things we did over the years. But let’s just say there are particular things they did that I didn’t that might have clouded their memories as these events were originally happening. 

Then I moved back to where I grew up. Suddenly I was continually sitting in rooms of people who were there at the very same time things happened when we were little kids, and had no idea what I was talking about. The storyteller in me loved this – I had a whole new audience for tales they had no memory of.

I often wondered if maybe I just made that stuff up, but then I found others in my family who had the same memory. It made me realize that memory isn’t like an arm or a leg – it’s like a birthmark, everyone has one and they’re all different. Eventually I realized that my youngest brother and a few older cousins also have these good, detailed memories, and that because of the age difference between us all we could be like the old griot in “Roots” and tell the oral history of our generation of the family.

That’s the good part. The rest? Do you really want to remember every slight you experienced in life? Because the actual memory isn’t the only thing there like a movie playing in your head, so are the feelings that went with it. They clog my mind in ways that still sting a little, but mostly as an irritant because I’d rather remember where my garage keys are. 

Yes, boy in kindergarten, I’m still kind of ticked that you told Mrs. Jabs that I was up and wandering the classroom while she was out of the room when the truth was I was the last to sit down and there were actually no chairs left in the room.  No, boy in third grade, I’m not still mad at you for saying to once-skinny me, “Don’t you eat?” I’m still intrigued by the memory of a mean thing a girl did to me in kindergarten and how, in retrospect, it was already the pattern for the mean girl she remained.

I used to test my memory, too, when I was a kid. I’d take random moments to say, “OK, I’m just going to remember what I am doing right now and see if I can remember it for the rest of my life.” So the memory of me getting a drink from the bubbler in fourth grade while wearing a green polyester pantsuit remains. 

But jeez, where did I put my library card? 

Yet memory can be a beautiful thing, too. I remember my brothers’ first steps and words (sorry, Mom, they began with a “D.”) I remember the beautiful indigo color my favorite blue corduroy coat turned under the street lights when my family walked to church on a snowy Christmas Eve when I was about 4 years old. I remember the touch of my uncle’s hand as he held my chin and stroked my cheek at my grandpa’s wake. Remembering old locker combinations and other details from youth helps create good Internet passwords, so there’s that too.

I’m lucky. I’m not harboring evil memories that hound me. Just this odd documentary of my life that pops up in the strangest ways sometimes, randomly edited and maybe with an R rating for language. 

Too bad there are no outtakes that can appear on a DVD. Because then someone else could watch and tell me where my garage keys are.

1 comment:

  1. Jane,

    I loved reading this post. Memory fascinates me, and I have been thinking a lot more about it lately - what we retain and why - as I've been trying to write some scenes of my life from just a few years ago.

    If it helps, I think your library card is next to your keys.