Memories, Memories

It’s happening with greater frequency nowadays. At least it seems to me to be more frequent.

I’m downstairs and need something (say the stapler) that is upstairs. I fly to the stairs and climb them as fast as my arthritic knees will allow. I reach the landing, step a few feet to the right, and enter my office. And then I stand there wondering what it was that I came up to get.

Failing to dredge that fact from my memory, I turn and trudge back down the steps. About three steps from the bottom, I suddenly remember. I turn in mid-step and retrace my steps back to the office. As I pass through the door, I spy a book that I had meant to reshelf yesterday when I finished looking up a bit of information but, sidetracked by something else, had placed on my wife’s school supplies cabinet. I grab the book and return it to its proper spot on the bookcase shelf. Then I walk over to my oak roll-top desk, shuffle a few papers, and stare into space wondering why I came upstairs.

Again failing to recall the purpose of my ascent, I begin the trek back down. Entering the kitchen, I again remember, and I make a third trip up the stairs, muttering under my breath, “Stapler! Stapler!” I repeat the word over and over until I put my hands on the stapler sitting on my desk. I then take it back downstairs and staple whatever it is that needs stapling.

That happens several times a day, it seems. It happens so often that it has long since ceased to be the topic of humorous, self-deprecating conversation.

Memory–or the lack of it–can mess with one’s mind, especially if he or she is a writer. Even moreso if one writes memoir or history.

Two or more people can experience or witness the same event, and yet each will have a slightly (or maybe even a vastly) different memory of it.

I first became aware of this phenomenon when my nieces and nephews came to visit us and asked, “Uncle Dennis, Dad told us that when you two were kids such and such happened. Is that really the way it was?”

Then I felt obliged to set them straight on what really had happened in the anecdote my brother had told them. Somehow, in his accounts, he was always the innocent victim, and I was the guilty party. In my account, it was the reverse; he was the instigator, and I was the gullible victim. Each of us remembered the same incident in dramatically different ways. And each of us is adamant that our rendition is the true and only reliable account.

The truth is that each of us tends to remember only certain details in a decidedly individualized way. We don’t remember some details at all. And we often misremember the details we do retain. That’s why it’s so important that we writers, especially those of us who are attempting to write memoir or history, study multiple perspectives before we write. Even then, we must recognize the fact that our flawed and failing memories and our biases or prejudices can mislead or deceive us as to the truth of our subjects.

Too often, historians (especially those whose writings are motivated or driven by a political or philosophical agenda) present a complex event or issue in an oversimplified way that ignores certain facts that do not fit into their scheme and present their myopic view as the only right view.

Take, for example, the issue of slavery in America. Too often, that issue is simplistically presented as a uniquely Southern institution for whom only Southerners bear blame and responsibility. In reality, it was a national issue. Had it not been for Northern shipbuilders, shipowners, and ship captains and Northern textile manufacturers who profited from the transportation and sale of slaves and used the cotton produced in the South as raw material for their goods, there would have been no demand for cotton and therefore no demand for slaves in the South. Besides, in the colonial period, there were slaves in every American colony, including those in the North. And not only black slaves but also Native American slaves. And little Rhode Island was a big supplier of slaves for the trade. The same problem is evident in the recounting of the treatment of slaves. Many slave owners and overseers were indeed Simon Legrees, but many others were not.

Too many historians also present slavery as the only cause of the war that soon engulfed the nation. They conveniently forget–or ignore–the many other issues that contributed to the eruption: the tariff, state sovereignty, the debate over federally financed internal improvements, regional disparity in representation in Congress, etc. In reality, there was no one cause of the war but many. To present it otherwise is sloppy history at best and intentional deceit at worst.

In memoir writing, memory can put one in a nostalgic mood and win the plaudits of relatives, or it can cause life-long rifts between family members who remember events differently than the writer presents them. The key is to present memories as clearly as one’s mind will allow but to do so as kindly as possible. As John Leax wrote in his book Grace Is Where I Live, “I take the stories of my people, I give them shape, and hand them down. What I pass on is truth made new–half-truth spun through kind invention.”

Now let’s see. I had one other point I wanted to make about this topic, but I can’t seem to remember what it was. Oh, well. Maybe I’ll have remembered it by the time I sit down to write my next blog post–or not.

 

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4 thoughts on “Memories, Memories

  1. Memory is a very funny thing. One reason I believe that memories can differ is that the event being recalled affected each person in a different way. Recently my sister and I were dissusing an event that involved our mother. We both saw it in a different light. She was a little concerned in how I was writing about it for our family history. I finally had to say it was how I saw it and if she wanted her view she could write her own book. A little harsh I know, but you should meet my sister and then you would understand. Regarding the Civil War and the cause or causes that brought us this terrible tragedy , I argue that if you take slavery out of the mix we have no war. I had one more point to make but I just can’t remember what is was. 🙂

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    1. You’re so right, and that’s the danger that is ever present whenever one is writing memoir. Unfortunately, family splits have resulted from such differences of perspective when the whole reason for writing about the family in the first place was to bring a feeling of unity to the scattered members. But if one is to preserve one’s family’s history, it’s a risk one must take. That’s why a lot of people refuse to write anything about their family (or at least they don’t allow anyone else to read it) until after certain people in the family have passed.
      You may also be right in your comment about the war. I can’t imagine any of the other SINGLE issues resulting in such a war. On the other hand, I don’t think there were enough people in the South who were willing to fight over only slavery. Just as in the North most soldiers said that they were fighting for the Union, not to free slaves, in the South the soldiers rarely mentioned slavery as the reason they were fighting but often mentioned their states’ sovereignty. (Perhaps this was because most of the Southern soldiers didn’t even own slaves. After all, they themselves called it “a rich man’s war but a poor man’s fight.”) I still think, however, that the war was caused by the COMBINED issues, which together reached a boiling point.
      Best wishes on your continued work on your family history–and may all the relatives continue to get along!

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      1. I have given some thought to your answer on the causes of the Civil War. It is my opinion that what causes a war and the reason a person fights a war can be be two very different things. First I believe that many on both sides fought because they were drafted. I also think a majority in the Union at first fought as you said to perserve the Union. Many at first (I think) in the South fought to defend thier home ground. No one likes a hostile army invading thier home soil, no matter how you feel about the issues. I also agree that very few people in the Southern Army had a dog named slavery in that fight. But those that did had a large stake in it either for money, political power, or both. So I still think you cannot take slavery out of the mix of causes. If you do I think you would not have had a Civil War. Now as for the reason a person is willing to pick up a gun and fight is a different story. Just take the war of my generation Vietnam. Whatever the cause of the war had little bearing on why most of us fought.

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  2. I’ve never advocated removing slavery from the mix of causes. On the other hand, I do submit that to do history right, one must include ALL causes and not mislead or oversimplify such a complex event by failing–whether by omitting or ignoring–to include all contributing factors but slavery. Too many historians have done just that, most recently I think because of political correctness.

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