Thursday, March 16, 2017

Stumbling down Memory Lane

Somehow the subject of traveling to Russia came up in conversation with a friend. “Tim and I went in 1990,” I said, “when friends of ours were living in Moscow. We went on diplomatic visas, so we weren’t part of an organized tour. In fact, we went on our own to Leningrad by train, and …”

And I froze. Suddenly, big questions consumed me: How did we get around Leningrad? We don’t speak Russian. We met a guy and went home with him; how did we meet him? How did we get to the Hermitage? How did we even get off the train?

This is a Giant Memory Chasm, the place where things you know are isolated by a vast unknown of things you can’t remember. It’s like a bad DVD with a glitch that suddenly jumps from scene 5 to scene 7. You try backing up, but it skips again and again. If you’re lucky, you might catch an intermediate blip of action, but mostly it’s all a big mystery.

What I did remember was a box downstairs with “1990 Corsica/USSR Trip” written on the side. I pulled it out, and Tim and I pored through it. Tim remembered some things: a Finnish hotel. I remembered Peter the Great’s palace (But how did we get there?!?) There were lots of receipts and flyers, but all in Russian. Fortunately, I had a little calendar book that I’d written notes in: “Find Intourist, get directions to sign up for tour.” I found the little note from our tour guide who took us home: Grigory! A guide to the palace refreshed that memory, but the rest is very, very dim.
There was a note about going on a river trip to the Bay of Joy, but I figured that was on the Moscow end. Suddenly, a light bulb went off: I recalled going down a river, looking out at the shore where houses were. That’s where that was! A glimmer of that memory had endured, but I thought it must have happened in Berlin with my sister – but we weren’t on a boat there. So that memory – uprooted without context or location – now had a location! (if it really is the right memory…) It wasn’t my sister; it was my friend, Susan. The houses were dachas.

Oh, the elation when random bits of memory assemble themselves into something recognizable!

Photographs, diaries, little calendar notes all help refresh the memories, and when I find the USSR photos, that’ll probably help a lot. But sometimes the evidence just establishes how bad the memory is. While browsing the photo albums, I came across a picture of me in Pinnacles National Monument, a place I’d recently considered visiting for the first time. I would swear I have never been to Pinnacles National Monument, but there it is:
Sometimes I feel as if unmoored memories are some sort of crime, like incorrect addition or a poorly constructed house. Then I try to think of Ralph Waldo Emerson, who said, “I cannot remember the books I’ve read any more than the meals I have eaten; even so, they have made me.”

We are the product of our memories; creating them is what made us. Remembering them is a bonus; forgetting them, a glitch. An annoying, disturbing, frustrating one, but maybe a glitch just the same.


  1. I LOVE the Emerson quote. It puts a very different (and positive) spin on forgotten experiences.

  2. Yup, to further beat ourselves up for things forgotten, I have this proposal: Since we forget things anyway, why bother giving a partner that memorable gift? or nice dinner? of that expensive show? Heck, even a great night of (free) passion!

    They'll forget anyway! Save the money and bother for another day -- you know, that future day when you'll remember.

    This is a variation of what I believe parents can and should do when raising children. Since they'll forget that trip anyway, don't do it! Unless of course, it might matter that we live in the meantime...


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