Memory is a funny thing, it is so different for each person. The same event can take on significantly different meanings based on how we remember it and then how we retell it, and then these events that are seemingly ‘facts’ get warped even further based on how they are perceived by those we tell our stories to.
I’m halfway through ‘Everything I needed to know about being a girl I learned from Judy Blume’, an anthology compiled by Jennifer O’Connell. It’s a selection of humorous and at times heart-breaking stories about growing up and feeling out of place, about being confused about your body, parents getting divorced, falling in love, and handling the expectations of parents, teachers and peers as a young girl. One thing that has struck me so far is the way that these different women remember certain details from the stories more than others, based on how they resonated with them. A small detail in a story might be exactly what one person is feeling and the part that sticks with them, a detail they remember years later. It got me thinking about memory a lot and how we consciously or subconsciously choose to remember things a certain way, perhaps to protect ourselves. Maybe it’s our minds way of helping us heal so that we can move on and still hope to fall in love, despite our parent’s divorce, or grow up and still feel beautiful and love our bodies regardless of how we were tormented by that bully at school – or maybe not. The way we remember things and the things we choose to remember – the slant a story takes, is influenced by so many different things I wish I could look inside people’s minds – or my own haha, and just observe at what point a memory changes or shifts.
For example, take a simple memory of swinging on monkey bars, staring up at the canopy of leaves above and watch them swinging as we arc, like a wide panning camera. At what point does this remembering metamorphosis and become a rose tinted memory of a glorious childhood. When does it change from ‘man I am so cool I skipped two bars today’ – a memory tinged with pride, to ‘the world grew quiet as I swung from bar to bar, a carefree child unburdened by the worries of adulthood and the carnal lust that grew in me not long after’ like how does this shift even happen?
There are so many memories I have. I’m one of those people who remember everything. Like Estha in The God of Small things, I am the keeper of history. I store everything in this head of mine. I am probably every parents’ worst nightmare because I remember everything, the things that are good and also the bad. And in a child’s mind, the bad things are magnified and stick more because they are so confusing and bewildering to a child who does not realise what it means. I wonder if my memory of events in my childhood are the same for my parents and grandparents to whom they would have been insignificant.
For example my first memory is of being lifted off a table or window sill or something by my mother. I remember the ground under my feet, feeling weightless, seeing the pale pink of my shoes and socks a blur under me, and then the softness of her cheek when I tried to kiss her. This is the first thing I have any memory of and I would have been under a year and a half because my brother was not yet born. This memory will always be special to me because no one ever told me about it, and I know I could only have seen that from my perspective, the depth of the ground, how far away it seemed, of my mum’s hands under my armpits lifting me up and the weightlessness after. I am so glad that my first memory is such a beautiful one.
The next thing I can distinctly remember is standing on the window sill in a nightie, hiding behind the curtain and looking out the window. My foot was dangling off absentmindedly and my brother who was lying on the sofa, leaned up and bit the heel of my foot. It didn’t hurt. It was almost a nudge saying hey. And I remember that.
There are other things I remember that seemed scary at the time but now I understand more. I remember when my brother was in hospital and my grand-mother stayed the night with him, and the rest of us went back home and everyone was shouting at me. It made me sad and feel horrible and I remember thinking I hope mama never stays away again because when she’s not there everyone shouts at me. But really everyone was probably stressed because they didn’t know what was wrong with him, snapped at me a few times and I remembered this differently as a child – because it was confusing and scary and I didn’t know what was happening. I didn’t know that my two year old brother had fainted off the top off a slide and fallen off, that he was on a drip in hospital and no one knew what was wrong. Though I would have seen him fall, and would have been at his side in the hospital, these are facts I do not remember. I remember only the feeling of confusion and loneliness at home afterwards even though it was probably a minute detail in the grander scheme of things, but as a child, this was the moment that stood out to me. That and the wooden splint that was strapped to my brother’s hand and cut him. I remember hating the nurse who did that.
I have come to realise that the things I miss, the things I mourn, or love or feel anything about – are not the things or places themselves, it’s the memory of what happened there, or the people I spent time with. I do not miss my childhood home, I miss the memories of time spent playing there, of sitting on my haunches for hours making islands with ants out of broken brick and mud, floating my ants down a ‘river’ on a big leaf and getting lost in this world I created. I miss playing cricket on neighbourhood streets with friends after school, not the streets themselves. And as much as memories of the past incite deep and intense feelings, so do ‘memories’ of the future, if that makes sense.
They’re not exactly memories of the future – more fantasies. Recently when I moved back home from Melbourne. I found that a lot of my clothes were missing which upset me a lot. It’s definitely a case of first world problems but after a year of living with one suitcase of clothes I was really looking forward to moving back home and having more options. Needless to say, when I got home and found half my clothes missing, I felt pretty crap about not having them and also crap for feeling like that. Because a part of me felt like I didn’t have a right to miss these clothes so much because they are material, and so many people live in poverty and don’t have anything but the clothes on their back and I have seen people who lead that life so I should know better.
But after thinking about memory while I was driving to work this morning, I feel slightly better about it because I realised that what I miss, is not the clothes themselves, but my memory of what I did in those clothes and how they made me feel. I don’t miss my warm maroon woollen sweater, I miss the texture of the knit fabric and how it made me feel feeling the warmth of someone’s body touching me through it. I miss the memory of how I watched it for weeks in Dotti, going down to 50% off and then 30% off before I finally bought it for $15, when I was working minimum wage earning $13.50 an hour at the mall. I do not miss my bright yellow ethnic dress with brown patterns and wooden beads in the straps for the dress itself, but because my grandmother gave it to me. In fact she altered it so it fit me and I could never throw away something my grandma gave me. I still have a top she bought for me when I was thirteen that I haven’t worn in years (although it still fits me) that I could never throw away because it carries with it the memory of her hands on them, warm with the love she has for me.
We all remember memories in different ways, I remember memories with dates, songs, and the clothes I was wearing. I remember every iconic moment in my life when I was 16 – 18 with dates that I consciously committed to memory because that was a year of treasuring every first, no matter how small or insignificant. It was a time when I romanticised every single action or thought and linked it to the date when it happened. Next came the era of the songs – perhaps that still continues. A single song can make me burst into tears or smile a slow half-smile based on the memory of what I did while I was listening to it, who I spent it with, the feelings I felt when I was listening to it. As for the clothes – I do not know how these clothes simply disappeared, but I miss the memories I have had wearing them and the fantasies of what I would do in them in the future.
I distinctly remember a pretty pale pink baby-doll dress I bought in India. I only wore it once – dressed up as a fairy for a Peter Pan themed Law stein, but I remember thinking at the time, “man this dress was a waste of money I can’t wear it to anything expect dress-up parties because I look like a child in it, but oh well, I’ll save it for when my daughter turns three and I can have a Fairy themed dress up party”. Like what the actual crap. In my mind, I had already jumped 10 years ahead and had not only planned what my baby girl’s birthday party theme would be but what I would wear as well. I think it was this keen loss of a ‘memory’ – and it really felt like a memory – I could see the pink helium balloons, her chubby hands holding onto my calves feeling shy when her friends came home, I could see her blowing out her candles with a big whoosh of air, and me and my husband watching her proudly in the background. I could see all of this and through it all I was wearing the baby-doll dress. And now that it’s gone, I feel like it’s not just the dress, but this fantasy I had of me as a mother, of my relationship with my daughter, of the ‘getting-it-right’ model parent pride I had. With the loss of that dress, I have also lost a little bit of that reassurance that I will be an amazing mother, for though it may have been a fantasy, it felt like a memory to me.
To the memories I have had, and the ones I will make in the future, to the memories of things I have experienced only in dreams, and ones I have made while awake, I hope they continue to make me happy long after I lose the people and places they are made up of.