McGrath: Writing from memory sometimes is easy
By David McGrath email@example.com January 31, 2014 6:08PM
Updated: March 3, 2014 4:20PM
A reader asked how I could remember dialogue from 50 years ago, referring to a column from August about a long-ago family vacation on Saddle Lake in Michigan in which I included quotations from two friends. Hers was an excellent question because, obviously, I did not take notes of conversations when I was a kid.
Nor am I a memory savant such as actress Marilu Henner, who is among only a few people in America identified so far for their uncanny ability to recall any moment from their life — remembering, for example, that March 17, 1954, was a Tuesday, that the temperature was 57 degrees and that she stopped for a double scoop of frozen custard on the way home from school.
On the other hand, I can say with confidence that it was 2 below zero on Dec. 31, 1967, the day that two fingers on my left hand became frostbitten while I played hockey on a pond. And I can recite, word for word, what my uncle said on Aug. 20, 1977 — “this is the worst thing that ever happened to me,” referencing his younger brother Don’s heart attack and death days earlier.
Scientists classify such recollections as examples of autobiographical or episodic memory, which they claim is strongest from adolescence and young adulthood, though they’re not sure why. Their findings coincide with the fact that I remember hundreds of incidents from my teens and early twenties, each of which I’m usually able to reconstruct in a narrative essay, replete with sights and sounds. And I assume most people could do the same.
One theory, according to Posit Science, a San Francisco company that designs software for brain and memory training, is that, “many events are new and exciting to people when they are so young and because there’s less chance for other, similar experiences to interfere with how well things are learned or remembered.” Or that young people compose a mental narrative of their lives, and once they’re cognizant of their identity fewer memories are necessary for retention.
Makes sense. Yet I have multiple, full-color fragments not just from adolescence but also from early childhood that seem to possess little significance, including a recurring memory of the gurgle of water from a fountain close to my face in a Chicago park at age 4, with the steady drone of a prop plane overhead. Why would my brain hang on to such a mundane event? Was it the first awakening of self-awareness?
I used to wonder why I recalled a moment from a party long ago, when I went round and round in Aunt Martha’s living room, looking up from the floor at her dress, her eyes and her smiling mouth. The mystery was solved when my mother said I was referencing the Christmas Eve family gathering when I first learned to crawl.
I also remember from early childhood a fascination with mice. We did not go to movie theaters, but there were stories and a legend growing of a Mickey Mouse from cartoons and comic strips. One day, my older brother took me outside to a basement window of our bungalow in Evergreen Park, where he pointed to a mouse cowering on the inside sill.
Was this the Mickey Mouse I heard of, so tiny and soft and trembling? And why did Dad want to kill him? My father had purchased a mousetrap, and while we sat around the kitchen table, he set the trap and poked it with a pencil so it snapped loudly.
He looked at our reaction, and though it was only 1953, I did not question that his experiment had somehow exterminated the mouse by remote control. Next day, I verified that the mouse on the window sill was gone. I was not mournful. I had not quite understood the fuss over a small rodent that my father made disappear with magic.
Wait. Another mind-movie is suddenly rolling in, related to the coal shed in that same house. It’s how it happens with memory, the recalling of one episode leading in to another.
But back to the reader’s question. Because the column was a coming-of-age tale from early adolescence, there was about 90 percent recall of the visual, olfactory and auditory specifics of the incident.
Just don’t ask me what we did the following day, what I had for dinner last night or what I meant to get as I walked into the kitchen just now.
David McGrath, a former resident of Evergreen Park and Oak Forest, is an emeritus professor of English at the College of DuPage.