Wednesday, 20 April 2011


The Persistence of Memory - Salvador Dali

After lunch today we waved goodbye to the third of the annual pre-Easter family visiting groups. I have mentioned before that we have a large family between us, three pairs of own, adopted and step children, two of whom now have families of their own. We don't meet any of them very often, having removed ourselves from easy access; so visits are more prolonged and therefore  more intensive than they would be if we could just meet up for the day now and then.

All went well; two-night-stays are long enough to catch up on all the news and short enough to avoid those small, pointed, exchanges, which could turn into instant flare-ups, given a drink too many, a child misbehaving,  pmt or hot flushes, sailing too close to the wind on aunt Mary's legacy to one and not another or just being cooped up together 24/7. The sun shone, tempers remained amicable and we all had  a happy time exchanging "do-you-remember"s.

Except that I noticed this time particularly, how much remembrances of past incidents and situations vary among the people present then and now. Why is it that we all remember the past differently? Or not at all? Occasions which were of huge importance at the time had either been forgotten, or the participants all saw them differently.

There was the story about Granny sitting in her favourite chair in the corner of the kitchen,  bossing everybody around and making sure that her son, in her eyes the head of the family, had a meal waiting on the table when he came home. Except that the son knew that he had never come home for this particular meal because of his very irregular time table. Long after Granny's death, family folklore held firm that Granny's bossiness had made life hell for her daughter-in-law. How can it be that two halves of a family see the past so differently?

Another story concerned the ex-girlfriend of another son who had invited  him to her parents' house for Christmas dinner;  the parents then promptly asked him to pay for his share of the meal, to his utter amazement. This solecism became a major talking point at the time in his own family, even the girl-friend was mortified and joined in the ridicule of her parents, yet years later, the son now happily married to another woman, had completely forgotten the incident, whereas others in the family remembered it well.

Regretting the fact that a young student had recently dropped out of college, for no particular reason, except that he had got bored, another member of the family tactlessly reminded everybody that the boy's dad had done similarly during his own student years, making the unfortunate remark that, "it obviously runs in the family".  Nobody else remembered it like she did and quickly corrected her, saying that the boy's father had simply dropped a subject, not dropped out altogether. Still, she was sure she had got it right.

Journeys down memory lane can be full of potholes tripping up the unwary traveller. There were many such potholes, I landed in one or two myself. And I had been so certain of my facts, fondly held on to for years and years. I'm still not altogether sure that my memories aren't the only true ones.

Hardest to bear are the hurts which arise out of misunderstandings which have never been cleared up and which get aired, in a moment of horribly destructive, so-called 'truth-telling'; these can rip the pleasantest family gatherings to shreds. We know that our memory can play tricks on us, there are too many family histories which are fiercely disputed by the various members and rifts might never be healed.

Perhaps we shouldn't be too certain that our own version of the past is the only valid one and simply accept that any situation is subject to a variety of interpretations. After all, somebody very wise said "it's all a matter of perception".


  1. You're so right, Friko, and I thought my family was the only one whose members saw the past differently. I had one memory which I was SO sure was correct but, not long ago, someone proved (via Google) it couldn't have been the way I remembered it. Not all mistaken memories can be checked on Google, however, and some of them still carry hurt in the telling.
    -- K

    Kay, Alberta, Canada
    An Unfittie's Guide to Adventurous Travel

  2. smiles. each persons facts add a layer to the story...perhaps it is our different perspectives...getting together with family is always fun..hehe

  3. I am also constantly amazed at the difference in memories. My sister and I remember certain incidents but they are completely different to each of us. However, they do remain in the same universe, as opposed to memories I share with other family members. You are not alone in Memory Lane being completely different depending on the observer.

  4. Hi Friko~ The image is perfect for your thesis. Memory has a way of melting and bending into different shapes. Nice that the extended family get-together made it through several days without any major tempests! I am already planing to be quiet on Easter...
    It is amazing how people with a common history recall the past very differently. It seems to go in generations and birth order... Just reminded myself again to be quiet on Easter! Happy Easter, Friko!

  5. Well in a way it is good to have some memory. At home we are dealing with a person who is losing his memory and so it is hard to argue whether his recall is different, when he has no recall. But that is something different of course. I do not have a large family on my mother side, a cousin in France, on my father side I have a large Armenian family – but I do not know them, so it makes it easy – no one anywhere to argue about something or other….

  6. Forgetfulness is how the soul heals. But of course there's a down side to that. Yes, if we could all be more tolerant, more flexible....

  7. Friko, you have done it again, getting us to think about notions that you have put afloat in your post.

    I love reading your posts, and then have the additional pleasure in reading the comments that precede my eventually posting my own comment.

    Memories are composed of facts, reflection, time, recomposition, and sometime even withstand testing by other folks with differing memories of similar or possibly idenditical events.

    I think we might build some of our mememories to protect ourselves from other versions of past times. Sometimes though, some of us hold one to memories of past times, and find that those memories don't do our futures any favors.

    Sometimes, when I remember a dream I realize that I might be trying to revisit a memory. Some of the dream's scenes might still ring true, but sometimes the dreams seem to be trying to find a happier ending.

    Oh Friko. Here again is an opportunity for you and me to have a long chat when we eventually meet, as I hope we will.


  8. We've all experienced that, I suppose. My siblings and I have spoken of several family stories, wishing our parents were still around to tell us who is right in our memories. chances are Mom and Dad would remember those stories in yet another way!!

  9. National Geographic, as I recall, or maybe it was on Nova, something like that...did a piece on memory. It seems that everyone's memory is bad and that we all pretty much remember everything differently. We even make things up to fill in the blanks and call it memory. It's as if we all live in different realities that intersect.

  10. Well, your story of the young man who had forgotten the terrible behavior of his hosts reminds me of a quote:

    A retentive memory may be a good thing, but the ability to forget is the true token of greatness.

    (Attributed to Elbert Hubbard, publisher & philosopher, who died on the Lusitania)

  11. rashomon.

    i'm now old enough to remember the past better than yesterday. a different past, of course, from what my family/Other Half remembers. perhaps even different from the way i remembered it last year :)

  12. There is no such thing as truth - that slippery rosary we cherish. Families also put up force fields that keep truth further away. And memories ... dubious dreams.

  13. ja, "it's all a matter of perception" und ich denke, dass dies nicht nur für die Vergangenheit gilt, sondern auch für das direkte Erleben. Jeder sieht das Leben auf eine ganz subjektive Weise und interpretiert die Geschehnisse immer auf sich bezogen. Und deshalb bin ich davon überzeugt, dass die Menschen, die ausgeglichen und gleichmütig (also still in sich selbst) sind, die Wahrheit noch am ehesten erkennen. Es ist ja nicht nur das Gesehene und das Gehörte, was aufgenommen wird, sondern auch die Gedanken, die man sich darüber macht. Ich selbst frage mich oft, ob ich gewisse Dinge wohl richtig sehe und deute... So ein interessantes Post, regt zum Nachdenken an...!
    Dir einen ganz schönen Tag, liebe Friko!

  14. We all remember the events that are most relevant to us but each from our own perspective. As you intimate, it can be quite a shock to have one's memories 'rearranged' by others.
    Received memories are interesting! Our oldest daughter 'remembers' things that we know she definitely did not see or hear.

  15. I'm always so disappointed when people remember things differently from the way I remember them or don't remember them at all. I think I would like to create my own history without interference from others.

  16. I think Frances has something there when she says that our dreams interfere with memories.

  17. Ah, Friko, these are the very things we are dealing with ourselves in my family of origin. My mother wishes to sit around and tell stories but they are fraught with bitter barbs.

  18. We see through a glass darkly or more to the point it is as if we are looking through a pin hole. We only see what we saw and we only remember what we heard. There are lifetimes of other images and sounds that we missed. Kind of sad that we can never really get it right!

  19. Quite true. We don't see things as they really are, we see them as we are ( think it was Anais Nin).
    A most interesting post with apt descriptions, thank you, Friko.

  20. How true this is. I've been known to ask 'Who ARE you?' when the other rememberer is so Wrong. Laughing. Excellent post!

  21. Evidently, I am the world's worst at getting shared memories "right." Fortunately, even the differences are still benign, at least at this point. Memories, after all, are still being made!

    Thanks for a great "get-me-to-thinking" post!

  22. There's a rift between me and a sibling because of this very problem. I've obviously ticked him off at some time or another (I can't remember what it might have been), and he isn't speaking to me at all. What a shame. I miss him.

  23. I've often been stunned in comparing notes with family and friends how one of us may have a clear and distinct recollection of a past event that is at total odds with another's equally clear memory of the same thing. What filters might it be that we each have, through which we run events, that result in lodging them in our memories so differently?

  24. Hello. I am dropping in from Jeff's blog. How astute your observations, "that any situation is subject to a variety of interpretations" and we shouldn't be so rigid in thinking that our version is the only correct one. (unless it's being documented on You Tube :-)

    Just like Raining Acorns, I am always amazed by how differently my siblings remember things. It's almost like we were going through a parallel universe. I think our past experiences unfairly colors our present dealings with people sometimes.

  25. Hi Friko, what a subject. A couple of years ago, while writing (for myself) about my growing up years, I had an amazing realization. We were four in our house. My parents, my sister who was 11 years older than I and myself. What was my realization? Each one of us in that house had different memories of same events and occassions, different feelings of how our life was.
    All of us have different perceptions of the same event or circumstance. Pretty much four different realities in one family. After all, reality is such an internal phenomenon.

  26. Like a group standing round a statue in an art gallery , we're all looking at a different side of any experience . What each of us is seeing will have different highlights and shadows .
    And family legends are a minefield apart .

  27. We experience this all the time too, with 8 siblings, spouses, grandchildren. My being the youngest means that I had a very different experience than my oldest brother. Mom and Dad changed, and our life was really quite different.

    I am so stunned by the mother who wanted to charge the boyfriend for Christmas dinner that I can't quite get my head around it! Wow! And he forgot it!

  28. I loved this post, Friko. One of my favorite lines is the last line from F. Scott Fitzgerald's "The Great Gatsby:" "And so we beat on, boats against the current, borne ceaselessly back into the past." It's disturbing enough that the past is always with us, but is even more disconcerting to realize that every version of "the past" is different. We do, indeed, "see through a glass darkly."

  29. Friko, you are so right about the way a number of people remember incidents in different ways. These days I am trying to be more laid-back about insisting "that's the way it was" - instead, it becomes "that's the way I remember it." Even better, is listening to the other and avoiding a big argument.

  30. Lady, you really were bang on with this posting.
    And it is not just family gatherings but those
    clusterings of friends after absent decades
    that are evidence that as the memories are
    churned up and the stories spun over wine
    and pizza, there are many many other versions
    that emerge. A few years ago I attempted
    to serialize my past on my blog; a little like
    you have done for us with your remembrances
    of the world of your girlhood; and my sister
    and brother, both younger took umbrage to
    my vivid recall, submitting their own versions
    of past events.

    We are but frail creatures who struggle with
    each lifetime to hone our perceptions and
    to catalog the past, and learn from it.
    I remember the first time this became
    evident to me was after the shipwreck
    of the Andrea Doria all those decades ago.
    I was doing a school report on it and as
    I went to several wire services to collect
    my data I noticed that the facts varied
    immensely depending on the sources.
    It is remarkable that justice is ever served
    for eye witnesses disagree on events.
    It is like viewing a film, each of us filters
    that work of art through our perceptual
    sensorium and our past lessons, and often
    come up with differing opinions as to what
    the film meant, or what we saw.

  31. It seems truth is bent to better express the unique reaction felt by each participant!


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