Sometimes I contemplate my memories and I feel terrified. Not because of their content: it’s the good memories that make me feel this way.

Someone who had some authority in the matter once told me that NO MEMORY is genuine. That is, the very first time we remember an event, even split seconds after it happened, the memory is flawed. It’s not what really happened, but a recreation. It’s our brain massing together some chemicals to retell a story the best we can recall. We are fooling ourselves if we think of our memories as an exact recording of events–a movie printed on the filmstrip of our mind. Physically, that’s what a memory is–a bunch of chemicals, which is the first place things can go wrong, if that brain recipe isn’t just right–whipped together in your skull mixing bowl to recreate what you think happened. Even things you think are perfectly factual: a smell that you feel went along strongly with the memory, isn’t going to be remembered the same way, or at all, by someone who was standing right there next to you as the event unfolded. I’m reminded of the cilantro conundrum, where they finally proved that people that loved cilantro and people who hated cilantro REALLY WERE actually tasting cilantro in a wholly different way from one another.

But the memories I’m worried about–the issue isn’t that someone else might be remembering them differently–although I’m sure you can see where that aspect can lead to miles of discussion. The problem for me is realizing that no matter how hard I try, I can’t get a filmstrip of what’s happening. Here is one of those memories that inspire such terror in me, something that just happened:

My little daughter comes into the bedroom. I’ve had a long week–my first week at a new job, and I’m still reeling from the loss of the wedding and my new unsure ground with her dad. He’s not here of course. We don’t know where he is. That’s typical. But I’m relaxed. I’m laying on the bed, the patio door is open and its grown dark, the cat is petting himself on my outstretched hand as I just doze. Suddenly that little bundle of sweetness bounces in and perched on the bed near my head. I can just see her face in the fading blue light. Her eyes are glimmering and in that smile shape. Yes, she’s smiling. There are the dimples. “I want more juice bottle.”


Just the slightest shadow passes over her smile because I am slow to answer and haven’t jumped up to get her juice. Did I understand her and what she wanted? Is she going to have to wait a -to her toddler mind–unbearable long time for me to shake off my sleepiness and get up to get her more juice? I am quick to reassure her:

“I’m going to get you more juice. But…you’ll have to pay me first.”

The shadow leaves, and the smile actually grows bigger. Oh! This is a game. The slightest of thoughtful crinkles touches her eyes and she starts to turn to leave. Oh goodness, she actually has something in mind! Is she heading for her piggy bank? Or has she thought of something incredible and funny and unexpected? Part of me wants to find out, but part of me really wants what I originally intended, not just for me, but for the effect it will have on her. So I let her off the hook.

“I’ll need your best kiss.”

What do you know, it possible for that smile to get bigger. That look on her face is just what I was hoping for: she is surprised and bemused and very happy because I’ve asked for something she knows she good at and she can deliver. She actually winds up. Sits back and straightens up and takes a big healthy breath in, and then dives in and gives me the sweetest baby kiss on my right cheek. It’s not even too slobbery. And I try so hard to freeze that moment in mind.

Even as I’m getting up and walking into the kitchen, as I’m getting the juice, as I’m responding to her chatter with, I admit it, half a mind, I am trying to cement that one moment in my mind. The sweet squeak and timber of her voice. The sound of her breath. The way that kiss felt–carrying with it that incredible gentle softness of touch that only babies and very small children have. I want it recorded like a move, but I’m already realizing it’s hopeless. I try to recall other details from the environment. The way the mattress felt, the feel of the cool air and the night sounds from outside the patio, the cat’s purr. Was the cat purring? Oh God, see? Already I’m not sure. And you’re supposed to remember these kind of details, to help you recall the important parts of the memory. Recall, not play back. Redo. Recreate. It is slipping away from, becoming intangible, sliding away down the drain of my mind to get lost in some great homogenous river.

I try to think back to similar moments with my older kids. From when they were little like this one. I start to reassemble memories, but there’s nothing there I can just play back. I can hear each one of their little voices. Each one’s was different and sweet. The oldest–even when he was small, he always sounded a little worried, earnest. Tiny Tim’s really was the tiniest, like you would imagine belonging to a little cartoon mouse. And my older daughter, she has this one constant note in her voice, like her own specially minted bell, that is always ringing the way a tuning fork would, behind every sound she makes. It’s there in her adult voice still, and it was already there in her little voice. I can imagine the things they said. Every morning, while I was pregnant with his sister, Tiny Tim would come in at the break of dawn and curl up with me and whisper, “I love you mom.” and then he would put his mouth up against my belly and whisper, “I love you, little sister.” I KNOW this happened. But even as I “remember” it, I realize I am just recreating it. I don’t actually remember–have printed on mindfilm, any of the moments where this happened. As I turn it around and around in my head, I can come up with a setting. Early in the morning–I need the bedroom, then. Where did we live at the time? Ah, right. That bedroom. Once I have that, I can even supply the most likely bedspread for the time. Oh, that awful lamp. That was there too. But the more I build the picture, the more I despair. Because that’s all I’m doing: reassembling the pieces, painting a collage of what logically must have all gone together–and voila! My brain spits out a “memory” at the end. But it’s not. It’s not real. Even if I put it all back together just right, if I somehow managed to hold all the minute pieces all these years and somehow miraculously stuck them all back together exactly right–it’s not the memory from 17 years ago. I made it brand new, just now.

And what kills me, what really kills me, is that I know that I did the same thing back then, that I just did right now: I thought, “I want to remember this moment forever.”

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