Tuesday, February 15, 2011

The Persistence of Memory

I've decided to take a break from my Bitchfest Movie series of postings to touch on a subject that's been gnawing at my brain - my better-than-average memory. Alright, I will abandon the false modesty. I have an excellent memory, not for facts and figures so much as for things that I have witnessed during the course of my life. For instance, I know that a year ago today, I had a nasty cold and had to miss my friend L's dance performance. Granted, that memory wasn't so tough to recall, because she was dancing at a show that happens the day after Valentine's Day. But I also remember that I wrote a Facebook status update in which I cursed the virus and wished her well (when she stumbled across that later, she thought it was nice). I was happy that I could see her next recital on March 26th, the day my friends' twin babies were born, and I remember thinking how lucky I was to receive that phone call only moments after her performance. That was also the day that I finished reading "Great Expectations". It was a sunny, crisp, early Spring afternoon. Dan and I ate Vietnamese food before the recital.

You cannot imagine how much time I spend mentally wandering through these associated recollections*. The most obscure minutiae trigger all sorts of flashbacks. Here's an example: yesterday, I used the word "elan" in a puzzle. Every time I think of that word, I think about a very clever and charming former housemate whose figure skating team name contained the word "elan" (mind you, I knew this woman years after she had left the team). When I think of "elan", it brings up all sorts of sentiments - how my feelings toward her vacillated between frustration (like when she would try to flirt with my boyfriend in front of me) and sympathy (we experienced a common tragedy, which made us oddly close for a few months). "Elan" reminds me of all the stories she told about her old job at a cafe that I never visited, and the kind of cigarettes she smoked. I could go on, but that isn't my point. My point is that, based on these memories, I could write a little bio about a woman I have seen just once in the past decade. Obviously, I don't know her whole story, but I still know so many details.

I used to be proud of this trait. It can be an entertaining parlor trick and sometimes it's delightful to surprise an old friend with a funny "Remember when?" that they had completely forgotten. But mostly, I consider this ability a curse. As with the word "elan", it brings up at least as many unpleasant memories as happy ones. And even when recalling memories of pleasant moments spent with loved ones, I know there's an excellent chance that I'm the only one who remembers. That loneliness might be the worst thing about having this good memory.

*My blood-related family can probably understand. I think this ability is definitely a genetic inheritance.


  1. Great post, Tara. Yes, as a family member I can definitely relate! I think a lot of it too is having the mind of a storyteller. Any stimuli can trigger a cascade of thoughts & memories. Some pleasant, some not so much!

    Here is a great quote from Ingrid Bergman:

    "Happiness is good health and a bad memory."

  2. I love that quote! And, I completely agree about the storytelling mind. So many of the memories I associate with the woman mentioned in my post are based on stories she told me (she was a great storyteller), stuff that didn't even happen in my presence.

    I thought of a new business plan - I'll set up a virtual "booth" with a paypal account. Any of my acquaintances can pay a dollar for a personal story about them. This is slightly better than my last plan, in which people pay me twenty bucks to dig through their pantries and make them appetizers.

  3. There was a House episode that touched on this recently... a girl had an impeccable memory, and it was a curse because she couldn't look past all the negative things her sister had done in the past in order to have a relationship with her in the present.