Tuesday, October 13, 2015

When a memory disappears, where does it go?

When my mother turned 80, I got my three siblings to make a Memory Jar for her. We each wrote out 91 memories on slips of paper and put them in the jar so my mother could pull out one a day. We had to do them on different color-coded papers because it became clear that each of us had different memories of the same event.
On the Long Island Railroad, heading to my mother’s home for the surprise birthday visit, we read each other’s memories out loud till we were laughing so hard we couldn’t breathe. A piece of paper would trigger the hilarity of the actual memory and soon we had the whole train car in stitches.

My mother loved those memories. She’d pull one out and then phone one of us to laugh over the memory. When she got worried she’d run out of paper slips, we wrote more and added them to the jar.

Just a week before my mother turned 90, I talked with her about the Memory Jar. “The what?” she said. I dug around till I found it, and I pulled out some sample slips. But where before the slips had triggered the memory, now that memory wasn’t there for her. I had to fill in the whole backstory, tell the funny story. My mother laughed and hooted, but she was laughing at the funny story, not at her memory. The memory was gone.

My mother used to make a fricassee that was monumental. She’d save up assorted chicken parts, add meatballs, and simmer it on the stove. We’d come across her counting her meatballs: “122, 123, 124…” Soon she’d have three burners going.

About seven years ago, when my mother visited my brother, he asked her to make her fricassee. “I’ve never made a fricassee,” she said. This sent her offspring into a tailspin. My sister kept calling my mother with descriptions, tales of the fricassees we have known. No dice. When we unpacked the old house, we found the fricassee pot and put it in my mother’s hands. “I never made a fricassee,” she said, “but if I did, I’d use this pot.”
I guess I’d always thought of saving things as a way to trigger the happy memories later in life. That’s why nostalgia and sentiment make for the hardest de-cluttering hurdles. But now I see that when a memory is gone, there’s no triggering it back. We kids could have saved the fricassee pot because we’re the ones who hold that memory, but none of us make fricassee so it was given away, too.

And the Memory Jar? It’s staying put. My mother doesn’t remember those memories, but we kids do, with great hilarity. We remember recording them and presenting our gift. Maybe Sophie will even remember that she’s the one who decorated the jar itself. And sitting down with my mother and telling her the stories behind all the memories, that means the Memory Jar is still creating new memories for all of us.


  1. Nice piece. I have experienced much of this with my mother. Like you, I have observed that old memories can lie dormant until triggered, but when dementia sets in they can be erased forever. I have often wondered how this works.

    I recently saw a picture that triggered a memory that I haven't thought about for 60 years, yet there it was. It wasn't even something significant - just a trivial fact, really. (We moved into an apartment when I was I was 5 and lived there for 3 years. I remember the apartment, but I had "forgotten" that before we occupied it, some close friends of my family had lived there. Seeing a picture - on Facebook! - of their children, standing in front of the apartment, triggered the memory.)

    Why do we remember language, or how to walk, after we have forgotten our family? It seems that eventually these abilities are lost, too, but different types of memories seem to persist longer.

    I also wonder about what a memory is. Does it have a physical form? Is it electrical? Chemical? Maybe I will look this up and see what the experts think.

  2. My mother referred to the toilet as the "pot." And I could see a fee memories going there!


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