Vulnerable Memories

Inside the Science of Memory | Johns Hopkins Medicine

First of all, early this morning I posted on Facebook a picture I like of my father; he died five years ago today. When I did I remembered a quote from Friedrich Schiller, “It is not flesh and blood, but the heart that makes us fathers and sons.” So I added that to the post.

I’ll come back to this.

When I’m at the river I like to remember places I’ve been, or people I’ve known, or people I’ve been for that matter—who I was when I lived in New England, or when I traveled across the country after living in Arizona, so many more versions through the years. So I try and save any remembering for when I’m walking along the river alone. I should say I don’t do a lot of looking back, only that when I do I prefer to do it in a peaceful setting.

Here’s the science behind that:

I read an article some years ago by a neurologist and psychologist from NYU or UCLA, I forget, which stated when we unpack memories they become very vulnerable; they can develop a relationship between themselves and the situation we are in when we open that box in our brain. If, for instance, someone I’m not fond of keeps bringing up a particular memory, even if I enjoyed myself and would personally recall the situation with a smile, that event is now tied, even loosely, to someone I’m not fond of, and the memory is compromised—and what’s crazy is that’s true even if that person wasn’t even there during the memory. Now they are, indirectly.

The converse is true as well: if we talk to someone about something in their past, and return to the conversation enough, the next time they remember that memory of theirs, even if we’re not around when they remember and weren’t around during the event, we are now part of the emotional response to the memory. Keep this in mind when jumping in front of a speeding recollection.

This morning I went to the cemetery and sat on the grass and didn’t remember anything, I mean on purpose. I drank one of those airline bottles of Glenlivet and watched a construction crew working on an expansion of the grounds. I noticed how well they incorporated the new section into the old and thought how nice the place will remain. I didn’t try to not remember good times with my father; I simply was in the moment, like we were watching the crew together. A short bit later I was in a store just a few blocks away and an older man noticed my sweatpants I was wearing with “St Bonaventure” down the left leg. He asked if I went there and when I told him I had he said both his kids went there but graduated in the early nineties. I could tell by his accent he was not from around here, and he said “No, I’m from New York.”

“Where?” I asked, and he said Brooklyn.

“Oh wow,” I said, “I was born there and my parents both lived there until I was born. What neighborhood?”

“Bay Ridge,” he said. That’s where my father is from. Just a few blocks away

I left, did some things, saw my mother for a while, did some more things, ate some stuff, and turned on the radio; the Moth Radio Hour was on, and the first person talked about death and what it is like to be with someone after they die; the difficulty but need to see the body. She is a minister and works with youth who are dealing with grief.

Five years ago this very evening my siblings and I and our mother stood around my father after he died and said our goodbyes.

On the radio, they played a clip of the woman who was up next. In the except, she said, “So I need to start with this quote from Schiller: “It’s not flesh and blood but heart that makes us fathers and sons.”

I pulled the car over to listen to the rest.

She is a neurosurgeon from NYU and talked about the “vulnerability” of memory and how when and where we recall events in our history can affect our future recollections of those events. She was funny, and poignant, talking about her father and how quiet he always was, how he shared moments of his youth but not often, and certainly never the tragic moments.

And I thought of my father, and how quiet he always was, and when he did talk about his youth, which, with me anyway, was rare, and even then in short summaries—like the Ebbets Field story, or the snake under the upside down dingy where their clothes were story, or his neighbors with Gold Stars in their windows during the War, or how he was listening to a game on the radio when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor. Really, I can’t recall many. He didn’t share many. Part of that is me; I didn’t ask enough. I’m sure he would have told more stories if I had asked. I don’t know.

So when I came home I walked to the river and while there watched a deep red and yellow streaked sky as the sun slowly melted into the trees across the reach, and I remembered this one: Mom and Dad came to visit me in Pennsylvania in August or September of ’86. I lived in an old house on Main Street that during the Civil War was used to house injured troops. The doors had replicas of those old latch handles that lifted up and out when you pressed down. Dad loved them. Mom didn’t feel well so she sat on the couch while Dad and I went for a walk around the corner to a beautiful farm with a tree-lined driveway and a split-rail fence with horses. One came over and we stayed a while. I don’t remember what we talked about, if we talked at all, but most likely how pretty the area was and how quiet it all seemed.

The river is quiet tonight, calm, and the sun disappeared fast. Out across the bay the half-moon is already climbing and what I suppose is Mars is hanging nearby. This is a fine place to remember; there’s nothing negative to tether those events in my past onto, no sidebars, no distracting digressions. Just me, and the river to carry those memories out into the bay, and south to the ocean, where they might mix with the waters that maybe not so long ago washed out of the Narrows and into the headwaters of New York.

I’m not by nature a person who spends his time looking back, for a variety of reasons. But when I do, those memories are mine, just as I’m guessing Dad’s memories were his.

Oh, and that Schiller quote; it goes on: “Lose not yourself in a far-off time, seize the moment that is thine.”

Friedrich Schiller | Words quotes, Life quotes, Quotes

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