Memory and Memories

In her novel, A Complicated Kindness, Miriam Toews has her character, Nomi Nichels, say (I’m paraphrasing) “I don’t like to discuss the past with anyone else. It just introduces discrepancies.”

Recently an old friend read a draft of Shifting Currents and provided me with some helpful feedback. She also set the record straight about my erroneous reporting of a couple of events in her own life, challenging my memory (she was right, of course) and raising once again the question of memory’s role—not only in what we write, but in who we are.

When I say she was right, I mean she was right about where she was and what she was doing. Most of us can figure that stuff out, though sometimes it takes some doing. You know: “I’m sure it was 1977 when Jane broke her leg because that’s the year Bobby was born and we sold the Toyota when he was a baby and I clearly remember driving her to the hospital in the Toyota and the baby was in the car seat. So, it has to have been 1977.” That kind of thing. Even then, two people can be equally sure their divergent memories are dead-on. We used to be able to check snapshots in photo albums for some confirmation—assuming we took a photo of Jane’s leg in a cast—but now we’d have to browse through a thousand digital photos that are on some extra hard drive (and where did we put that?).

In this case, though, I’m not questioning the facts. I was wrong. I obviously didn’t remember—if I ever knew—the details of her life. But that’s not what my memory was about; my memory was about how my perception of her life affected me, which is a totally different kind of truth. There’s been a lot written about the role of memory in creating our stories and our sense of self. Some memoirists have been raked over the coals, and rightly so, for inventing events in their lives out of whole cloth. Somewhere there’s a line you just can’t cross. But it’s not always easy to find that line.

A few years ago, I studied for a few months with novelist and memoirist Bill Roorbach. Here’s what he says in his book, Writing Life Stories: “Memory is faulty. That’s one of the tenets of memoir. And the reader comes to memoir understanding that memory is faulty, that the writer is going to challenge the limits of memory, which is quite different from lying. One needn’t apologize. The reader also comes expecting that the writer is operating in good faith, that is, doing her best to get the facts right.”

I’m going way beyond my friend here, who really isn’t that concerned about all this, just a bit incredulous that I could have been so very wrong. But in my memory—in the story of my life—that wrongness was real. So who’s right? Shifting Currents is filled with stories that are true to the essence of my memories but well beyond my ability to confirm in any objective way. I’m sure it’s fraught with errors of time and place, some of which wear the cloak of truth in my memory and so, in some sense, are true, and some of which are simple failures of memory. Maybe Nomi has it right!

This is a very awkward segue into a few thoughts about the events of last weekend, when Jack’s family gathered together for a memorial/celebration of life with their many and varied memories of their mother, grandmother, great-grandmother.

My mother-in-law died in her sleep last April, just a month after her hundred and first birthday. When she was eighty-five (okay, I don’t really remember exactly when), she circulated a letter to her children—two sons and a daughter—saying that, upon her death, she wanted no service or memorial, just cremation and the spreading of her ashes without ceremony. In her mid nineties, after witnessing and participating in the celebration of her older sister’s life, she softened her stand. Well, okay. Have a party. It’ll be on me. And so we did.

She would, I think, have enjoyed the combination of solemnity and humour as family members spread her ashes, as instructed in her will, at the base of Elephant Rock—a ten-foot tall granite rock that stands at the entrance to Elephant Rock Road, the location of her childhood family’s cottage in the Berkshires. Someone had thoughtfully raked the area clear of leaves, and as one family member after another emptied their cups of ashes at the base, the circle of grey grew. It was not an occasion for mourning, nor should it have been. It was an occasion for remembering, and—here, too—for the sorting, editing, and, yes, creating of the memories that become our stories of a person who can no longer set the record straight.

The mother, flawed as all mothers are in the eyes and the memories of their children. The mother-in-law who clucked her tongue at my miniskirts and disapproved of her son’s back-to-the-land lifestyle. The feisty grandmother who told (very bad) off-colour jokes, rooted loudly for the Red Sox, played a mean game of scrabble, and (I have it on good authority) sometimes pegged creatively on the cribbage board. The aging mother, grandmother, and great-grandmother who grew increasingly tolerant, increasingly warm and affectionate, and who wore the mantle of the matriarch with pride, approaching glee—and who continued to begin phone calls with “Have I told you the one about…?” The woman who preferred not to divulge her age, even at ninety, for fear people would avoid being friends with an old lady who might die soon. The very old woman who declined as gracefully as one can decline into near-blindness and eventual confusion.

And one further diversion. I couldn’t watch the spreading of Jack’s mother’s ashes without thinking of my own mother. Fourteen years ago, I spread her ashes on what would have been her seventy-fifth birthday. My brothers and I, along with mom’s second husband, drove to a nearby tree farm where my parents had spent weekend retreats. We parked the car at the bottom of a long, heavily-rutted laneway and climbed the hill to a spot near several rustic cabins. It was an early spring day in the mountains of central Pennsylvania, the landscape of my childhood. Violets, forsythia, apple and cherry blossoms. Mom’s ashes. And tears.


We divided the ashes in three

Because there were three of us

And only one of her.

At least they were not insubstantial.

Not the powdery ashes of a campfire

Or the charred remains of a chimney-cleaning.

Gritty, instead, and grey, with a heft that bespoke

The weight of seven decades.

Scientists now say that some of a mother’s chromosomes,

Defy the laws of genetics,

And hitch-hike into the future,

Attaching themselves to the fetus

And riding, unaltered, into the next generation.

If that is so, the three of us

Spread ourselves, too, among the violets,

Along with our children and theirs to come.

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4 Responses to Memory and Memories

  1. carolynrmiller says:

    You say I was “right, of course,” but I was right only in my memory of how my perception of my own life affected me. What’s amazing is how different our two memories are. Or, maybe not so amazing, actually, since we’ve led such different lives.

  2. pdunning says:

    Obviously, I can’t remember your life, so what I meant was that you were right about where you were when. This is becoming way too convoluted!

  3. Mary-Lynn Murphy says:

    Lovely, Paula. Thanks. ML

  4. sandysteer1 says:

    What a lovely description of the lives of two mothers who will continue to live on through generations to come! Sandy

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