Making Memories

road sign for memory lane

We do not remember days; we remember moments. ~Cesare Pavese, The Burning Brand

The other day while eating lunch, a conversation at a neighboring table caught my attention. Several women were discussing memories, specifically the earliest memory that each of them could remember.  For three of the four women at the table, the answer centered on some event that happened around the age of three or four — a birthday party, an accident, and a family vacation.  The fourth woman, however, looked at the rest dubiously.  “Really?” she asked.  When questioned about her earliest memory, the listeners –her companions and those of us eavesdropping– were left amazed.  “Why, I remember, clear as a bell.  I was sitting in my crib, and this big shaft of sunlight came through the window.  I remember looking at my hand in the sun, feeling it get warm.”  We were open-mouthed stunned.  “Are you serious?   Your crib? How old were you?”  She couldn’t remember her age, but she clearly remembered the sunlight — seeing it, feeling it, enjoying it.  All of those sensations were right there at the tip of her mind.

Many studies agree with one done back in the early 1980s published in the Journal of Personality that the most common age for one’s earliest memory is between three and four. Studies since then have sharpened the focus — are there differences because of gender? Or culture? Following the events of September 11, 2001, new studies focused on what were termed “Flashbulb memories.” Although the idea was originally developed in the late 1970s, the number of studies increased in the aftermath of those moments of collective memory.

But there are also studies which tell a different story, which question the concept of memory itself. A study at NYU in 2000, for example, suggested that the very act of remembering changes the memory itself. The issue of memory and its relation to fact and fiction is a topic much covered in the literature concerning oral history. One of the leading scholars in the field of oral history and memory, Alessandro Portelli, wrote a book about how a village in Italy remembered a specific event – and how the village incorrectly remembered the event was more meaningful overall than the actual event itself. As he said in a 2005 address to the American Italian Historical Association, “In oral history, in fact, we do not simply reconstruct the history of an event but also the history of its memory, the ways in which it grows, changes, and operates in the time between then and now.” (Portelli, 24)

So do I really remember falling into the hard wooden corner of a window sill when I was three? Or do I remember my parents and siblings telling and retelling the story as I grew up, especially to explain the half-inch scar along the edge of my eyebrow? I know I remember taking my oldest brother to college, because that meant we also went to Disneyland. That, I remember well, but then again I was five at the time, too.

What do you think? How far back does your earliest memory go?

What about our characters? We often talk of their backstory, but do we give them memories?

[Note: This post is #13 of 26 of the April A-to-Z Challenge. Please see the button at the lower left of the page for more information.]

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Filed under April A-to-Z Challenge, History, Life, writing

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