A Walk Down Memory Lane

I’ve been thinking a lot about memories. Making new ones; remembering old ones. How a long-ago moment can stick vividly to the memory of one person who experienced it, yet completely slip from the mind of another. How two people can experience the same event, but remember it so differently. Reality is perception is reality. Much about a person — the language he or she speaks, past experiences, personality traits — can influence the way they perceive the world and thus, the way they experience and remember a moment and the stories they eventually tell.

My niece turned 2 last weekend, and her birthday party was — according to three phone calls with three different members of my family — hot as hell, not so hot and pretty mild considering it was summer in Florida. They’re all right. The temperature was the temperature. The humidity was the humidity. They just have different perspectives, different personalities, different amounts of emotional investment in positively viewing the day, which also means they will have different memories of that day.

I read an interesting story from The NY Times Magazine recently about the way language affects how we see the world and thus, our memories. Some languages do not have words for specific colors; they refer only to dark colors and light colors, so speakers of those languages literally see the world differently, and likely would make terrible eyewitnesses. (“I remember the car was dark.”) The language we speak also affects the way we speak about and perceive time, space, how we came to know information and the information we share when telling a story. The more languages a person speaks, the more flexible his or her view of the world.

I spent last week in Pittsburgh making new memories and reconnecting with family members I haven’t seen in years. As we told stories, it was striking how differently we all remember the past. I had vivid memories of events my aunt didn’t recall me or my sister being a part of at all, yet they’re some of my very favorite childhood memories. Those moments were important to me, while to her adult mind, I was just one of a blur of kids running through her moments, and her mind didn’t see reason to implant us individually into those memories. She was in her element; we were out of ours.

I visited my 98-year-old grandmother, who is struggling to hold on to her memories. She’s living in an assisted living facility where each day is relatively similar to the one that came before it, so it’s unlikely she’s making many new memories that stick. I wondered how tied one is to the other. Does it help a nearly 100-year-old mind to continue filling it with more stuff, or is it better to simply have conversations, tell stories and strengthen the memories that exist?

I’ve been thinking about all of this in terms of the work I do, especially when I’m writing a feature about a person, trying to get to the “truth,” of who he or she is as a human. As a journalist, I rely on the stories and memories of other people to help me create a fuller picture of a person or a moment in time. But those stories, those memories, are all subject to the person who is telling the story — me included. That’s good to remember.

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