The Faulty State of Memory

We tell ourselves stories in order to live… We interpret what we see, select the most workable of the multiple choices. We live entirely…by impression of a narrative line upon disparate images, by the ‘ideas’ with which we have learned to freeze the shifting phantasmagoria–which is our actual experience.

Joan Didion

For the past two weeks, I’ve been kicking around the idea of memories and how they play a role in one’s life, particularly when you have a shared space in another’s life. Presumably, the leading of shared existence should mean that Person A’s remembrance of an event corroborates Person B’s memory of the same event. But that isn’t always the case. What set me on this path of rumination was a phone conversation with my father. He loves to tell stories, share memories, recall happenings.

One call I remember had him reminiscing about how he and my mother, his first wife, met. They met in the capital city of their birth when both were in college. The most workable, as Didion says, of my father’s memory of this encounter had it that my mother had designed a way to be just near the outside of one of his classes, and when she’d see him, she’d greet him with a smile. My father shared that his best friend was the one who called it to his attention that my mother was making eyes at him.

Not too long after that conversation, I visited with my mother, who is now remarried and has been with my (step)father since I was a girl of 15. At some point the topic came up about how she and my dad met. (“The narrative line” that I’ve come up with is that my uncle, one of my mother’s younger brothers, must have asked when last I’d spoken to my father, a question my uncle asks me a lot since the two were friends. So as I answered my uncle, sunk deep in his preferred arm chair in my parents’ living room, I remembered the conversation with my dad.) My mother’s recollection was that they’d met at a debut ball on campus. She was dating someone at the time, and they had gotten into an argument at some point before the evening of the dance. A male friend of hers had an extra ticket so she accepted his offer to be his date that night. According to my mom, my dad asked her to dance and continued asking her to dance the entire night. The boy with whom she’d had a relationship became a thing of the past.

When I told her that my father had an altogether different image, she shook her head and said, in a typical fashion of her home country (meaning not to be offensive), “Don’t let him lie to you!” She offered that they didn’t share a class, for one, and that she would have had no reason to be anywhere near his classes.

I spoke to my dad on Thanksgiving, and we talked again about the past and memories. It’s a preferred topic of his, certainly. I told him that my mother simply had a different recollection. He corroborated the debut ball occurrence and the dancing that they did all night, but he remains certain that she used to wait outside his math class just to smile and say “Hi.”


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